Wednesday, July 27, 2022

High school jazz [It wasn’t done]

While cruising the web yesterday I came across this video of an incredible high school jazz band. It’s not at all clear to me that there were any high school bands playing at this level back in the early and mid-1960s.

This video is from the Essentially Ellington festival and competition in 2018. Essentially Ellington was started in 1995 by Jazz at Lincoln Center and directed initially at New York City schools but quickly expanded nationally and to Canada.

Anyhow, I decided to send a link to Tyler Cowen, who has wide-ranging interests and is particularly interested in the cultivation of talent. Here’s a slightly revised version of that letter:


It is entirely plausible to me that when I was in high school in the early-mid 1960s that there was no high school in the nation that could mount a jazz band like this. Back in those days they were called “stage bands,” or “dance bands,” presumably to avoid the word “jazz.” Nor would any band have had as many young women in it, much less the trumpet star (the Dizzy Gillespie role on Dizzy’s best-known tune). Maybe there was a band here and there, though I’d be surprised. In any case, there are a greater number of good high school bands now than there were then.

What’s happened between then and now? Lots. On the one hand, jazz is not as popular as it was then, and jazz was on the downslope in the 1960s. But it was easy to find jazz LPs in the record bins at the local discount department store, and not just ‘jazz lite’, but the real hard core stuff.

However, there’s more jazz in the colleges now than there was then, and I suspect that, in turn, the level of jazz sophistication among secondary school music teachers and band leaders is higher. To be sure, I’m led to believe that music and the arts in primary and secondary school have suffered in the last few decades. If so, what’s left seems to be more sophisticated about jazz. Moreover, there are more jazz-band competitions at the high school level now than there were then. As far as I know there weren’t any then. This is a yearly competition sponsored by Jazz at Lincoln Center. I don’t know what other competitions there are. But even if this is the only one, there wasn’t anything like this back in the 60s.

On net, then, jazz is less popular in the culture now than it was then, but a high level of jazz instruction exists for a relatively small stratum of schools that didn’t exist then. It is quite possible that today’s average is better than 1965’s average. [And I won’t go in to the good high school jazz bands from Japan that post videos to YouTube.]

Now, about that young woman. I couldn’t play like that at her age. I had the technical skill and the fire, but not the experience with improvisation. By the time I’d reached my late 20s, however, I’d accumulated the experience – partially from playing in a jazz-rock band after graduating from college, and partially as a result of an improvisation workshop I audited in graduate school (taught by Frank Foster, who used to play with Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Elvin Jones, and who knows who else). Now, since I eventually reached that level, why’d it take me so long?

My primary music teacher during my high school years was a man named Dave Dysert. He was primarily a pianist and arranger, and primarily interested in jazz. He taught in one of the local high schools and had the kind of all-around musical training given to music-ed folks. When he found out that I was interested in jazz, we worked on it. I had a book of Louis Armstrong solo transcriptions and those were part of my lessons. He wrote out special exercises in swing interpretation. He urged me to take piano lessons (I was primarily a trumpet player) so I could pick up the basics of harmony. I did that for two years. If I was going to improvise, I’d need that kind of knowledge.

But do you know what we never did? Never once in a lesson did I improvise while he accompanied me on the piano. Why not? I’d been making up my own tunes since I was 10 years old. I’m sure I’d have taken to it like a duck to water, as the saying goes. I don’t really know why he didn’t do that. But my best guess is simple: It wasn’t done. It never occurred to me to ask him for that. Why not? I suppose because it wasn’t done. I was the student and he was the teacher.

It wasn’t done. How much talent has been thwarted, if not outright wasted, for such a stupid reason.

Somehow between then and now, a bunch of educators figured out: Hey! We can do this. And it’s changed secondary school music for at least some kids.



I note in passing that I graduate from high school in June of 1965. Four years and two months later Bethel, New York, was home to the legendary Woodstock Music and Art Fair. I wasn’t there, but I certainly knew about it. And though I had turned on and tuned in, I never really dropped out. Could it be that the counter-culture that gave birth to Woodstock was, at least in part, a reaction against It-wasn’t-done?

The kids finally figured that, Hey, we can do this. But they had to drop out to do it, or at least look in another direction. And the music they chose was rock and roll, not jazz. Jazz had already had its age of rebellion, back in the 1920s and 1930s.

Now we have hip hop. And while there is such a thing as hip hop culture, well, it’s not like jazz was early in the century and rock and roll at mid-century. It’s a different and not necessarily better world. Though the kids do play better jazz.

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BTW, that trumpet player is Summer Camargo. Here's her solo with a transcription superimposed.

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