Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On Jazz Education

Queen Victoria

If you follow this link, you'll find an article I wrote for the McGill Daily on jazz education at McGill University, in the Schulich School of Music.  I had a lot of trouble writing the article because there was so much to say and so much to know and I wanted to make a good, succinct point.  You decide if I've been too vague.  As I was writing, I felt like I might be making too much of an obvious issue.  It's hard to be a musician, and most don't make money only from performing.  There was also the idea that jazz programs might stultify or narrow the range of styles you'll find in jazz.  I don't think that's true, so I didn't really broach the topic.  (Peter Watrous wrote about it almost eleven years ago for JazzTimes, and I don't even know if he was correct then.)

To my knowledge, though, there's not much writing on jazz or jazz programs in Canada.  So if anything, you might learn a little more about McGill's program.  I talked to many wonderful musicians--students and teachers in the McGill jazz program--as I was researching for the article, and they taught me more than I would have learned had I just read up on the subject (which I also did).

Above, you'll see a statue of Queen Victoria.  That statue sits regally in front of McGill's music building.  (Yes, Canada, a part of the Commonwealth, remains a constitutional monarchy.)  I often go through that building to get to the music library, where I have been borrowing jazz CDs for the last four years.  There's quite a collection and I can usually find what I'm looking for.  I also sometimes practice piano in that building.  On the top floor, you'll find a long hallway.  Walk down that hallway and, if you're lucky, you'll find an open door.  Go through that door and you'll find a grand piano. 

I'm not a student in the music school, so I'm not actually supposed to practice there.  You need to swipe a valid ID card to get to the top of the building.  So I have a trick.  I knock on the door, someone usually opens it, and I say sorry, I've forgotten my ID.  It works.  Try it sometime if you ever come through Montreal and are looking for a piano to practice on.

Then there comes the practicing.  For me, it's not really practicing:  it's just messing around, noodling on some blues scales, seeing if I remember the chord changes to "All The Things You Are".  (I usually do!)  I plan to go back sometime to learn "Bye Bye Blackbird," which I have been whistling for about the last month.  (Is it just me, or are the lyrics to that song pretty abstract and hard to understand?)

Even if I don't play well, it's so nice to sit down at an acoustic piano and play a chord and hear the sound radiate out into silence.  I'm not trying to be romantic--I think it's good for you.  So is seeing live music.  As I prepared to write the article, I gained a deeper respect for jazz in Montreal.  I also realized that I knew less about it than I thought. 

I asked Josh Rager, a pianist teaching at McGill, to name some of his favorite local musicians.  Though I recognized most of the names he mentioned--Remi Bolduc, Jeff Johnston, Steve Amirault, Frank Lozano--I felt embarrassed that I had never seen any of them play.  (I had also never seen Josh play, and I bet the musicians he mentioned would put him on their favorites lists.) 

Two weeks ago, after my conversation with Josh, I saw the pianist Steve Amirault and wrote about how much I enjoyed it.  OK.  So now I'm aware.  There's plenty of talent to go around.  This is something I knew, but didn't feel.  A part of my jury-rigged jazz education.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jon Irabagon at Upstairs

Jon Irabagon
Well, it's been a little while.  But I hope not too long.  If you follow this link, you'll find a review I wrote of the Jon Irabagon Quartet.  Mr. Irabagon came through Montreal last Friday and Saturday to perform at Upstairs Jazz Club with some fine Montreal jazz musicians.  I caught the first set and enjoyed it thoroughly.

As I mention in the review, a lot of student jazz musicians showed up, and it felt good to see so many excited listeners in the club.  Sometimes I like to watch people in the audience as they watch the music.  Try it out sometime, but do it surreptitiously, unless you feel comfortable staring blatantly at someone.  How people respond to live music reveals a lot about what music and performance can do.

I tend to tap out rhythm with my fingers as I'm listening--not too loudly, but I am a drummer, so it helps me figure out the music a little better.  I also bob my head.  It's hard not to when there's a walking bass.  You just feel so damn cool.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Steve Amirault: Solo Piano at Upstairs

Last night I went to Upstairs Jazz Club here in Montreal to see Steve Amirault, a local pianist.  He was playing solo piano and singing some show tunes and some of his own songs.

There weren't many people in the club, but the few there did not seem too interested in listening to him.  I was able to ignore their talking, to listen to the playing.  Mr. Amirault sang, among other songs, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," "The Masquerade is Over," "Alfie".  In "It Could Happen to You," he botched the lyrics:  "Hide your heart from sight / Lock your dreams up tight" instead of "lock your dreams at night."  But there was something endearing about his rendition. 

His voice was dry and leathery, and sort of shallow, and I didn't want anything more than that.  Part of appreciating this meant understanding the vice of overcompensation.  You could tell he was working out little vamps and melodic motifs right there on stage as he navigated a turnaround or concluded a song.  The contrast between his slightly vulnerable singing and his confident piano playing made you focus on how he compensated for both.

I've seen a lot of jazz in Montreal over the last few months, but last night, in an uncrowded jazz club, as I sat at the bar sipping beer, listening to solo piano, I felt refreshed.  I do love a crowd, an engaged audience, but last night felt so casual: no reservations, no delays, no anticipation.  It made me think I should see more music on the weekdays. 

Often I have regretted not having enough friends to enjoy jazz with.  I'm over that.  Jazz has its followers.  I found last night enlivening, not just pleasant.  I don't think I would have been able to say that a few years ago. 

Part of what keeps me going is the belief that my tastes and values are not final.  That even as I get older and my capacity for surprise diminishes, I will still find new ways to feel enlivened. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Labor of Jazz

I'm in the process of researching for and writing an article on jazz in Montreal for my school newspaper, the McGill Daily.  I think I'm going to relate jazz education at McGill to professional jazz in Montreal.  The article is due in a week or so, but I figured I'd tease out my ideas here before a final draft. 

Over winter break, I was asked to write an article on jazz in Montreal for my school newspaper, the McGill Daily.  I gladly agreed, but without a clear idea of what I would write about.  It's true that I've seen a lot of jazz here in Montreal over the last four years, especially last semester.  I had some ideas about jazz in Montreal, but I wondered: is there a Montreal jazz, just like there might be a New York jazz, or a Chicago jazz?  After some consideration, I scrapped that question.  It was too big, beyond my ken.

The article is due in a week or so, and to prepare, I have been conducting some interviews to better grasp the subject of jazz in Montreal.  I interviewed two working jazz musicians in Montreal--Marie-Fatima Rudolf and Josh Rager (who also has a jazz blog).  I didn't know before I asked to talk with them, but both graduated from the Schulich School of Music at McGill.  In addition to playing gigs in the city, they also teach--Marie-Fatima at the McGill Conservatory and Josh at Schulich.

That they teach reminded me of a passage I read on pianist George Colligan's blog.  George teaches in the jazz department at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and here's what he wrote a few weeks ago:

"I have to admit that I personally have issues with my own involvement in Jazz Education at the university level. My ethical dilemma deals with these kinds of issues: how can I teach students in a pre-professional environment, knowing that their chances for a career in music seem to be dwindling? Especially when part of my reason for teaching full time is because the freelance jazz musician's plight of living gig-to-precarious-gig does not present any stability for a family?"

The interviews led me to wonder what jazz education means as it relates to the jazz workforce--if the two are even separable.  I don't think it was ever easy to become a jazz musician, but it might be getting harder now.  I know most musicians--in jazz or not--have the same problems.  In an interview with Gordon Foote, the dean of McGill Music, he told me that there are several classical musicians who work full-time in Montreal, but who still have to supplement their incomes through teaching at McGill.  (Classical music and jazz have a lot in common in this regard.)

But jazz used to be a vernacular language, and although the first degree-granting jazz program in the United States was initiated in 1947 at the University of North Texas, most jazz musicians were not learning their craft, honing their style, in school.  I don't think jazz education could institutionalize or ossify jazz, but it does change the way musicians pass on what they've learned.

In a way, though, the huge shift towards jazz education in the last 30 or so years makes a lot of sense.  Jazz is an academic affair, after all.  In the next paragraph of George Colligan's blog entry, he writes:

"Part of how I deal with the dilemma is honesty. I constantly tell my students that if you really want to be a musician, you have to work hard, but you need to really, really want to be a musician above anything else. And that is because you are essentially making a choice between finding something you love doing and being rewarded by creative achievements, or finding a job that will pay you well although you might hate your life for 40 hours a week."

When I was in my senior year of high school, I was thinking seriously about going to art school--for illustration or graphic design--because I had talent, and I thought it would be a shame to leave it undeveloped.  I went to interview with a recruiter from the Maryland Institute College of Art, to show my portfolio.  She was impressed with my work, but I told her I didn't feel strongly about going to art school.  I didn't say why.  And she told me that even if I didn't go to art school, I would still be--could still be--an artist. 

I found that thought reassuring, but I still think there's a big difference between the artist she was saying I could be, and the artist I might have become had I gone to art school--perhaps the difference between a dilettante and a professional.  (There's something about dilettantes that makes me squeamish.)

Instead of going to art school, I went to McGill, where I study political science and Arabic--partly out of practicality, and partly out of interest.  For those who study jazz at McGill, they're learning to develop their styles, their compositional skills, but they might not be learning how to get a job.  I've been wondering when you can actually be called a jazz musician.  Is it when you get paid for your first gig?  Is it if you play jazz well?  Because ultimately, I think, "jazz musician" is a job title.

I'm for looking at artists as workers--musician, writer, painter, sculptor: occupation.  It helps to de-romanticize them, but leaves enough mystery.  Everyone has to eat.  Josh Rager, the pianist I interviewed, told me that your dreams change as you get older.  You might be content--thrilled--with 1200 dollars a month from gigs when you're 25.  But when you're 32, and you have a wife and a baby, that 1200 dollars a month isn't going to be enough.  So what do you do?  There are many possibilities.  But you probably don't want to abandon what you love.  So you teach.