Tuesday, September 27, 2016

My Early Jazz Education 6: Dave Dysert

I started taking trumpet lessons in the fourth grade. These were group lessons, taught at school. As I recall, I was grouped with two clarinetists; I even think they were my good friends, Jackie Barto and Billy Cover, but I’m not sure of that. Why with two clarinetists? Because the clarinet, like the trumpet, is a B-flat instrument. At some point, after weeks, more likely months, I began to get behind. Don’t know why; didn’t practice, most likely.

And then my parents decided I should take private lessons, likely prompted by the teacher at school. So some guy came to house for my lessons. Don’t remember a thing about him except that he was blind. Nor do I recall how long I took lessons with him, but by the time I was in the sixth grade, I believe, I was taking lessons with Dave Dysert.

His principle instrument was the piano, but he was trained in lots of instruments, as was the norm. He gave lessons out of a studio in his basement, Saturday mornings I believe. But it doesn’t matter much.

The lessons lasted a half hour and followed the same format. At the beginning of the lesson I’d play through the material I’d been practicing for the last week. This was usually a page of exercises of one kind or another and some little tune–to make things interesting. Mr. Dysert would comment as appropriate and then he’d select the material I was to practice the following week and I’d play through it. He’d make helpful comments as I hacked my way through the material.

I was supposed to practice half-an-hour a day. And I did so, but reluctantly, very reluctantly. I forget just how my parents got me to do this, but they did. And I did, sorta.

Then one day when I was 13, I believe, Mr. Dysert couldn’t take it anymore and read me the riot act. I was stunned. I’ve long since forgotten just what he said, but not his anger. I was wasting my time and his, he told me. I had talent, more than most of his students. When I read through the material for the next week’s lesson, I played it better than most students did after they’d been practicing for a week. That surprised me–must’ve been a whole lotta’ hacking going on in the studio is all I can say.

So I started practicing, and enjoying it more. But I also made up my own tunes and figured out how to play tunes that I liked. And Mr. Dysert found out about this activity. Nothing mysterious or secret here, I wasn’t trying to hide this activity from him. It’s just that that was a looonng time ago and I don’t remember just how things happened.

Mr. Dysert tailored his teaching to my interests and capabilities in a way that other teachers had not. When he discovered I was interested in jazz – remember the “Firehouse Five Plus Seven” from the Mickey Mouse Club? – he wrote out exercises in swing interpretation and taught me to play them (I've still got some these stored away somewhere). When I became interested in Mendez, he added those to the lessons. I’d play the trumpet solo part and he’d play the piano accompaniment. He generally sight-read it better than I’d play the solo part I’d been practicing. Then I got a book of Louis Armstrong trumpet transcriptions and we worked on them, Louis Armstrong’s Immortal Trumpet Solos, transcribed by Lee Castle (1947). Same thing, I’d play the solo part, Mr. Dysert would play the piano accompaniment.

Later I also took piano lessons from him and he taught me the basics of keyboard harmony. When, in high school jazz band, I had a solo on Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme”, I was able to work out my own solo, rather than playing the one written into the music, using the harmonic knowledge Mr. Dysert taught me. I called on that knowledge late in my college years when I decided to write horn arrangements for a band I played in. Still later (graduate school), I decided to become at least moderately proficient in improvising in the swing, bebop, and post-bop jazz styles. Again, what Dysert taught me laid the foundations.

I don’t know much about his musical background. Clearly, jazz was his first love. He once told me that that hardest teaching assignment he’d ever had was when he was in military. He had to teach ‘legit’ musicians how to swing. They couldn’t get the hang of it–a well-known problem. I’m pretty sure he was frustrated in his musical life. Whatever pleasure Mr. Dysert got from his school gig and from giving private lessons, it’s clear it didn’t give him an outlet for his own creativity.

But Dave Dysert is one of the most important teachers, in ANYTHING, I ever had and has had a lasting influence on me. I do not know what would have happened if I hadn't starting taking lessons with him. I might have dropped music entirely during my secondary schooling, or I might have become stopped at a lower level of proficiency. Or, I might have dropped trumpet and taken up the guitar and become a rock and roll star. Who knows? It's clear, however, that without a teacher who could teach ME, not some pre-arranged lesson plan, things would have been very different.

In general, I am not sympathetic to a pedagogical regime that emphasizes reading notes from a score and utterly neglects ear training – learning to pick out melodies you hear, learning to make up your own melodies. There's nothing wrong with reading music, but it should not be the foundation of any pedagogical regime, no matter what the musical tradition is. It is a secondary musical skill, one that is critical in certain circumstances, but still secondary.

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