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.


  1. Pithy article, man. I liked that you called New York the jazz hub of the world, as opposed to the hub of the jazz world.

  2. Thanks, bro. I'm sort of hesitant to talk about a jazz world, so I avoid using that term.