Saturday, October 29, 2011


I got lost today, trying to find my way to the Don “Moose” Jamison Heritage School of Music- a Saturday youth jazz program. I traveled first to Xavier University, exploring their campus, relatively devoid of students on a Saturday. I found my way to their music building, which was mostly deserted and prepped to be a haunted house that evening, so it was particularly spooky. I was listening intently for the sounds of instruments, and eventually heard a piano lesson taking place- stopping briefly to talk to the director of Xavier's Junior School of Music (which I'll visit next week) before I realized I was at the wrong location. I then drove to Dillard University- once again listening closely for the sounds of children making music as I walked into their fine arts building. This time I found what I was looking for- I heard brass and winds coming from one room, and snare drum coming from another. I sat in on the drummer class briefly as they discussed notation and drum-set technique. I then moved to the piano class, where students were learning jazz scales and modes and the difference between comping and soloing. The entire class of 11 would comp and pass solos around the room- these kids seemed to be between the ages of 11 and13- very impressive. Eventually, all the instruments congregated in a large lecture hall to review and learn theory and notation together, chanting note names and clapping rhythms. This transitioned into a giant group jam of the tunes they had been working on in their 'sectionals' earlier- a sense of community and accomplishment was palpable. 

This model of youth jazz education feels very appropriate to the culture of New Orleans. Some of the city's great jazz musicians on the current scene have passed through the Heritage School, among them Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Sammie “Big Sam” Williams and Shamarr Allen.  Personally, the idea of jazz as a vehicle for this work is exciting because of the inherent presence of improvisation. If the ability to read, write, and speak a language implies literacy, then improvisation is the ability to speak. There is a larger question here, which hopefully we'll explore further- Can the rigor and discipline which has made El Sistema so successful both socially and musically in Venezuela live side-by-side with the creativity and freedom of improvisation and composition? 

Questions of the day:
How many people do you need to share experience with to foster a sense of community? 
Can rigor and discipline live side-by-side with creativity and freedom? Can they nurture each other?
Will sistema work with genres other than classical music? With ensembles other than orchestra?

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