A recap of my teaching week in Guadalajara, Mexico as a faculty member of the 2nd Tonica GDL Jazz Seminar generates some thoughts about jazz education and its purposes. It’s also good to report on some promising young players encountered during my time there this year.
Education has become a big part of the jazz business, and maybe the most reliable part of it. It’s not just the province of the dedicated and specialized “educator” anymore; it’s a normal part of the career of the professional jazz musician. I taught very little in the first part of my career; I was somewhat diffident towards the idea since it didn’t quite fit the classic mold of the “jazz cat” that I was fully invested in, proficient at, and lucky enough to survive. My epiphany came at a later stage when I realized that figuring out how to transmit what little knowledge I had could also help me in filling the many gaps I felt I had in my playing. This is the main motivator in my teaching practice to this day.
The systemization of the resources of jazz and jazz related music has made it possible for talented young players to progress rapidly, as the school and jazz camp has replaced the gig and the street as the forum for generational exchange to a great degree. It’s been gratifying to be able to be of help to, and just plain be around, the accomplished students I’ve mentored at institutions like NYU, where my main teaching practice is at present, the Prinz Claus Conservatory in Gronigen, The Netherlands, The Stanford Jazz Camp, The Brubeck Summer Jazz Colony, and so on.Teaching the music in Mexico has been a somewhat different experience, but just as rewarding and has been personally very meaningful to me.
Students at the Tonica seminars are often proceeding from a much more basic level of knowledge of jazz than students I encounter in other teaching situations. At times, I feel that I’m exposing them to many aspects of the music for the first time. It’s very exciting when I feel I’ve been able to explain something important in a way that connects. Listening to the music and demonstrating with my own playing has been effective in this regard. It’s great to see someone’s face light up when something new to them reaches their hearts and minds.
At the same time, it’s always struck me that the students in Mexico are probably doing more actual professional playing than the majority of the students I work with at home. A lot of them are actually making ends meet playing, on dance gigs, rock bands, brass bands, etc. That’s the way cats of my generation made it through school, but you rarely see this nowadays, at least in NY. The kids are playing, but there’s no money to speak of to be made, mostly. Also, at Tonica, we get players from a wider age group, including many full time pros seeking to expand their knowledge.
Many of the students are repeat attendees from last year’s seminar, and some of my trumpet students date for me back to my first summers down there when the seminar was for brass students only. One of the most gratifying things for me has been to see their continued growth from year to year. These returning students are also being motivated by the increasing level of the new students that came in, not just from the Guadalajara and Jalisco region, but from all over Mexico including the big city (D.F.). The level of my ensembles was much higher than last year, and they were able to play challenging music like Wayne Shorter’s as well as my originals with aplomb.
My trumpet master classes and improvisation classes tried to cover a lot of ground. Fortunately I had some great translators to help me out.A lot of the trumpet classes were devoted to technical basics, tone production and the like. I also brought a lot of music to listen to in class, from Louis Armstrong and Charlie Shavers through Fats, Clifford and Freddie, to today’s players. I even played some classical trumpet favorites of mine from Timofei Dokshitzer, the great Russian soloist. It was great to see the smiles as I turned on the class to some of this trumpet genius for the first time! Improvisation topics, always hands on with the students, ranged from the fundamentals to bebop (Barry Harris style) scale concept material.
Bob Sheppard commented to me about the sense of community the students at Tonica have with each other, and the cooperation they have with each other in working to assimilate the material we present to them. I’ve also seen this and its great to see this sort of camaraderie. Even with the most accomplished students, there’s very little sense of competitiveness and a lot of folks helping each other understand. They really value the information and the opportunity.
The cream of the student crop was selected by the faculty and put together into a special group for the last three days of the seminar. Named the “Ensemble Tonica”, this group will now be kept together to rehearse and perform throughout the year, including an appearance at the Panama Jazz Festival this coming January. They will serve as a standard bearer for the great work Tonica is doing for jazz and music education in Mexico. I was proud to be able to work with and coach these talented young players for their debut performance during the seminar, and look forward to more contact in the months to come. I think you will be hearing about these talented youngsters in the future, and it’s worth introducing them to you now. The saxophonists are Jerry Lopez (alto), who has studied with Miguel Zenon and is already very active on the jazz scene in Mexico City with a CD out, and Diego Franco (tenor), at 17 already a fluent soloist with a great sound and “a vibe” on the changes. Yaury Hernandez (drums), who I already Angeberto Arcegia (chromatic harmonica) was at last year’s seminar; his progress since then has enabled him to more than hold his own in the group on this unusual axe. Ignacio Alcantra (guitar) provides the sole chordal support in this piano-less band, which he does with taste and skill as well as playing fleet and melodic solos. Sabino Paz (bass) really impressed me with his intelligence on the instrument and his ability to lay down a hip line in swing or Latin feels; he’s also a good soloist. Yaury Hernandez (drums) was not a stranger to me. He played my music as part of a student group from the Conservatory of Puerto Rico that did some gigs with me on the island a couple of years ago. He made a quite good impression on me then and he’s just kept improving since.
I foresee a lot of good things ahead for the ensemble along with Tonica GDL, and I hope to keep growing together with them in what I think is some important work.