5 Questions for the April 2010 Jazz Mentor

Ralph Converse teaches Jazz Studies at Western New Mexico University. Prior to coming to WNMU, he was Professor of Music Theory, Woodwinds and Jazz Studies at Yuba College in his native California. He has studied composition with Lejaren Hiller, Lalo Schifrin and Gordon Chadwick. The former Assistant Principal Clarinetist for the Chicago Civic Symphony Orchestra, he was also a professional jazz musician, appearing and recording with such jazz luminaries as Joe Williams, Mel Tormè, Sarah Vaughn and Anita O’Day, among many others.

Please join us in welcoming Ralph as the MENC jazz mentor for April 2010.

What do you find most gratifying about teaching Jazz studies?

I think it is simply hearing the music come alive in ways the composer/arranger might have intended.

Are there any educators or performers who have significantly influenced your approach to teaching Jazz?

Those who have had the most influence would be (historically) Stan Kenton because of his dedication to jazz education and the effort he made to bring jazz to college campuses. One of his principle arrangers, Bill Holman, also significantly impacted my approach to what a jazz big band sound should be. More recently, I would have to say that Gordon Goodwin (Big Phat Band in L.A.) is the best example of someone who has carried on the tradition of big band jazz but has done it in a way that connects with the younger players through his unique and fresh approach to writing for the big band.

What should Jazz educators hope their students take away from the time spent under their tutelage?

I believe the most important thing for any teacher to do is to help them understand the unique nature of jazz and to help them to develop a “feel” for the music. It is this latter instinct that comes only from years of practice and listening, but it is what gives jazz its very special place in the pantheon of American music.

What are the toughest challenges facing Jazz educators today, in your opinion?

Probably the same issues that face any teacher in music and the arts. I believe that a commitment to music and the arts by a variety of constituencies is absolutely crucial. It isn’t enough to “want” a successful music program. Everyone must be committed to doing whatever it takes to make the successful program a reality. When that commitment exists, the necessary funding and other means of support will follow. Without the proper commitment, nothing will happen.

Who are you listening to these days?

Wow. That’s a tough question. It would take me less time to tell you who I am not listening to, I suppose. My preference list is topped by contemporary big bands but when I find groups of any size that simply swing, it’s hard notto listen! I am encouraged by many of the recordings of the top college groups that are out, so I try to find those wherever I can.

—Nick Webb, April 1, 2010, ©  National Association for Music Education