Had the honor Monday to play for a Veterans Day ceremony through my connection with the Swingin' Harmony band. It was a little on the chilly side, but a beautiful November morning. Though I have spent a good portion of my playing time over the last 25 years or so playing to veterans groups, that was always in the guise of a 1940s big band, this was the first "concert band" setting I had played since my college days. It was fun to play some patriotic military-style marches, if a bit of a refresher. It has been and will always be a pleasure to recognize our veterans who have given so much of themselves for us.
This column was originally posted as part of my features column, "Six Sense."
I spent last Saturday, as I have most weekends the last three autumns, watching a cavalcade of bands competition.
It got me thinking about the role music played in my life, as well as the kid’s, and how lucky we both have been to have it.
For some, music is just something they did back in school. For me, it was, and is, a part of my life. From that moment in third grade when I first picked up a trumpet, and before that, to be honest, music has been a companion, an escape, a challenge and an opportunity.
I play to this day. Some of my closest friends through the years are people I met in bands. Music has helped me meet people all over the world and experience things I never could have imagined.
When the kid pursued music, I had the opportunity to relive all of that through her. I watched her grow, make memories of her own, pick up new instruments, put herself out there, challenged herself, learned leadership and excelled.
She’s a joy to watch, she truly has a talent that I did not — what was work for me comes much easier for her. I have no doubt, like me, whatever she chooses to do, music will always be a part of her life.
There are a lot of people who go into making that happen, starting with supportive parents, but much of it falls on the teachers she has had along the way. Her school district is blessed with talented and caring music teachers, and is well supported. The result is the music program is something the students want to be a part of.
Obviously, schools face a lot of challenges these days. Scheduling trends have taken a toll. Cheerleader and sports programs vie for students’ time. Sometimes, it is just a matter of the quality of the teacher. Looking at some of the competitions we go to, some schools are lucky to field 20 students, and it often isn’t a matter of the size of the district.
I’m always surprised, for example, when I go back to the high school I attended — it used to have a band of over 100 people. Granted, we didn’t have football when I was a student, but many of us also took part in other activities. Today, that band is a fraction of the size it used to be. At the district honor band concert I attended last year, my high school wasn’t represented. In my day, we could send five to ten students. True, it has been nearly 30 years, but the difference is shocking.
It’s the same at the college level. When Shippensburg University put on an exhibition at one of the competitions earlier this year, the band it fielded was 170-strong, all volunteering for the love of it. Shippensburg does not have a music major. The flip side? In my time, my college band probably had about 50 — not huge, but substantial. When I was at homecoming this year, I counted 13. Thirteen.
I cannot understate the importance music has played in my life, both in my youth and to this day. The same goes for the kid. Many find it easy to dismiss music from the curriculum, or from our futures, because “you can’t make a living doing that.” That’s wrong minded.
There are many applications for music as a profession that are not limited to teaching or performing, but as important, school is as much about the experience as it is about what is in the books. All those things I mentioned music has given to me it gives to all who take it seriously, and we are better people for it.
My plea for parents and educators — support your music programs. If you have a good one, be thankful and reward those teachers. If your music department is wanting, give it the resources it needs to succeed. The return on that investment lasts a lifetime.
Just getting around to posting this, but what a beautiful night for jazz at The Amp at Sam Michaels Park. Like the porridge in The Three Bears, it wasn’t too hot, it wasn’t too cool, and we didn’t get rained out. Add an enthusiastic crowd, it couldn’t be more perfect. The Amp is an almost brand new venue, and what a job they did. I’m certain you could fit a community band or orchestra in that space.
Jordan revamped the set list for this one with a lot of big band favorites, adding a little variety for us. The show wrapped up the Jordan English Jazz Orchestra summer schedule, and quite possibly, my own. As we head into fall, the band will be working on possibilities for Christmas, and I hope to be exploring opportunities for my own work, as well. Watch this space for what’s to come.
It was a hot night in Martinsburg for Fridays at Five (we are in the midst of one of the worst heat waves in years), but it was nice to get together with the Jordan English Jazz Orchestra after a summer season that has been notable for its rainouts. Always a good time to get together with these folks — it is a great reading band and Jordan finds great arrangements. Maynard, Buddy Rich, Roy Hargrove, Bill Potts, Doc Severinson and The Count, just to name a few. We’ll be back in action Aug. 1 at The Amp at Sam Michaels Park, so if you live in the 4state, check it out. You won’t be disappointed...
It’s been quite some time since I could fairly say Branford Marsalis stirred up controversy, but he set a number of people in the jazz world a-tizzy a couple of weeks ago when he sat down for an interview with the Sidney Morning Herald
"[I'm often asked] the question, 'Jazz is so unpopular, why do you think that is?' And the answer is simple: the musicians suck."
It was the stuff headlines are made of, and our friends from Down Under did not disappoint.
The quote was nothing out of line for Branford, who has certainly walked his own path. While brother Wynton has developed into an ambassador of the music, Branford has always done his own thing.
But whatever the musician’s goals were in saying it, it was the kind of ham-handed statement that does more harm than good to the genre, and is a real disservice to those out there working hard at trying to make a living.
The shame of it all, is the root of Branford’s argument isn’t far off base. The same article sums up Branford’s criticisms quite well:
Today's jazz musicians are too mathematical and wonkish, he says. Jazz clubs are half empty, only frequented by other musicians who appreciate each other's showmanship. Listeners need music degrees to understand what they're playing. The music has become rigid. Improvisation is mostly over-rehearsed regurgitation.
These are all arguments I can get behind. A lot of what is promoted these days falls snugly into that category. The mainstream recording industry has done little to promote some of the creative, innovative stuff that is out there while muddying its traditional jazz labels with more “pop” oriented music.
Jazz artists that do get promoted lean toward the heavily schooled — highly trained in all the mechanics, but lacking in the practical application of the craft previous generations found on the bandstand. This has allowed them to play to each other in the clubs, displaying all the gymnastics, but nothing in the way of interpretation. Or a tune you could snap your finger to.
In the old days, artists who turned their backs on the audience and played for themselves often found themselves out on their ears. Fellow players would call them out for their self indulgence. Now, as that generation passes on, and audiences drifted away, they are free to be as mathematical, wonky and inaccessible as they wish.
In short, far too much jazz education these days takes place in a classroom and far, far too little on the bandstand.
But while Branford’s initial assessment may have been satisfying for someone disheartened by the direction of the genre, it has the unfortunate effect of not advancing the conversation.
A simple statement like that undoes so much of that ambassadorial work musicians have done to draw people to the music. I’m thinking of people like brother Wynton and his Jazz at Lincoln Center stuff, or Christian McBride through his radio programs. Bridging different worlds of jazz, from different times and walks of life. Showcasing many, many talented people.
I don’t blame Branford for being discouraged about the direction many have gone, but little is served painting with such a broad brush. The answer isn’t to walk away, it is to change the conversation.
I think in particular of a anecdote McBride told on his show about a young player he adjudicated, and I hope I’m not mucking the story up too much. The youngster played a technically amazing solo on the chord structure of a popular ballad. When he was finished, McBride gave him his due in regard to the technicality of the playing, but then asked him if he had ever heard the original? Was he familiar with the lyrics? That player left with something to think about.
There’s hope. Not everyone can be saved, but the answer isn’t to cut bait. Kids in school get plenty of exposure to the music. We need to encourage them to keep playing. That jazz is something learned by doing, not in theory classes. Let’s back off this “America’s classical music” hooey — treating the music like some mix between science and dogma in order to justify someone’s tenure — and get back to what it was all about. Expressing emotion. Having a good time.
I guarantee you, if you make the music fun — if spending money at the club meant hearing enjoyable music, and not some sort of hipsters only clique — jazz would be popular again. Let’s not ostracize an artist as a sellout because they happen to pull off something that sells.
The days when “good music was popular and popular music was good” are in the rear view. Jazz may never be “pop” again, but then, rock may not either. Few would say rock is dead. Nor need jazz be.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month. My suggestion for a good many in the community is think about appreciating the audience, as well. Instead of playing to impress some academic somewhere, play to impress the people. Evangelize.
Without the people, the music fades away,
Chris has been involved with big band, jazz and dance bands for over 30 years in central and southeastern Pennsylvania, the Washington DC metro region and the four-state area of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. A multi-instrumentalist, Chris has also performed in symphonic bands, brass quintets, orchestras and pit orchestras. He has served as a featured vocalist with the Swing Fever Dance Band and Brooks Tegler Big Band. Chris served as president of the Swing Fever Dance Band in 2002 and was a founding member of the Sound Advice Big Band. Chris is open to all opportunities and genres of music, and is happy playing any book in a section.
Instruments: Trombone, trumpet, vocals, valve trombone, superbone, flugelhorn, mellophone and euphonium.
Interests/Experience: Big Band, Dance Band, Lab Band, Small Group Jazz, Swing, Trad/Hot Jazz, Western Swing, Great American Songbook, Barbershop, Harmony Groups, Rock, R&B, Soul, Funk, Country, Eclectic, Symphonic Bands, Orchestras, Pit Orchestra
Selected venues and events:
Recordings: Swing Fever Dance Band: Something to Swing About: 20 Years of Swing Fever