5 Questions for the February 2012 Jazz Mentor

Saxophonist/composer/arranger Mike Titlebaum is Director of Jazz Studies at Ithaca College(IC). He is the creator of the Ithaca College Jazz Composition Contest and the Ithaca All-Star Jazz Invitational for aspiring high school jazz musicians. Before teaching at IC, Titlebaum lived in the New York City region, playing gigs in many of New York’s world famous musical venues, including the Blue Note, Smalls, Augies, Fez/Time Café and the infamous CBGB’s as well as the pit orchestra of the Broadway musical Cats. He has also has published numerous compositions and arrangements through Lorenz (Heritage Jazz Works), Advance Music, and GIA Publications.

Please join us in welcoming Mike as the NAfME jazz mentor for February 2012.

Could you tell readers a little bit about your program and the ensembles you direct?

First of all, I feel incredibly fortunate to be at Ithaca College. The school has a long history of training world-class performers and music educators, and I am lucky to be a part of it. The faculty and administration are very supportive, and I have the autonomy to run the jazz program the way I believe best.

I direct the Ithaca College Jazz Ensemble, the premier big band at our school. We have three big bands and nine faculty-coached combos. We have a prerequisite sequence in Jazz Theory and Aural Training, which students must take before taking Jazz Standards (improvisation) or Jazz Arranging. I teach most of the jazz offerings here, including arranging, improvisation, history, theory and pedagogy.

We do have a significant number of jazz studies majors who are quite fine musicians and excellent students. They play in the big bands, and in multiple combos, as well as lots of gigs on campus and around the community.

I believe the collaborative, community-oriented atmosphere at Ithaca is truly unique amongst collegiate music programs. I often assist my colleagues in the music education department with their jazz needs, and strongly encourage music ed students to get involved with jazz. So, the jazz offerings at IC are also available to any IC student regardless of major, and students from many degree programs play in the jazz groups, including jazz studies, music education, performance, composition, as well as nonmusic majors. One of the most remarkable things about the school is how all the students feel they’re part of the same musical community, even though they may be in different degree programs.

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

Ahhhh, so many people have influenced me. First of all, my dad was a remarkable teacher. His field was electrical engineering, and I used to watch him teach at the University of Rochester as a kid. I loved how funny he was, and how engaged the students were. He did his Ph.D. at Cornell, so I’m very proud to be in the same town where he started his academic career.

Dr. Dennis Miller, my high school band director at Brighton High School in Rochester was an amazing teacher. He programmed really interesting music, including atonal pieces, and brought composers such as Sam Adler in to work with us. He treated the band more like grown-ups and peers, so we felt like we had to act like adults to warrant that treatment. Don Coley and Jim Orgar were also fantastic teachers I worked with in the district. I also worked with several graduate saxophone students at Eastman while I was growing up, such as Brian Scanlon, Jamal Rossi, and Miles Osland. Besides their wonderful musical skills, they all also taught with enthusiasm and an abundance of positive energy.

In college at Eastman, I had many wonderful professors. Ramon Ricker is a wonderful saxophone teacher and mentor in music business and careers. I got so much out of my sight-singing classes with Elizabeth Marvin that I requested to be her graduate assistant a few years later. Bill Dobbins conveyed to me how serious the study of music is.

In terms of performers, the playing and teaching of Lee Konitz have influenced me. I love his melodic improvisations, but he also has some wonderful exercises for learning improvisation that I regularly work on myself, and assign my students. I was also influenced by the inspiring players I went to school with—Gary Versace, John Hollenbeck, Chris Jentsch, and Cory Combs, to name just a few.

What should jazz educators hope their students take away from the time spent under their tutelage? Any particular skill set?

This is something I believe teachers need to decide for themselves, but I will answer for me. First of all, I want my students to experience me as a musician who teaches. I play, I compose, I arrange, I collaborate, I program jazz ensemble concerts, I direct, and I teach. For me, these activities are interrelated. I feel that my teaching would be far less effective if I didn’t write my own charts for the jazz ensemble, or if I didn’t perform in town with the faculty jazz group. When I’m working with junior high or high school kids, I always keep my horn in my hands, and play for them constantly. I want those kids to experience me as a musician who’s simply trying to teach them what I’ve learned about being a musician.

I also want my students to understand the importance of rhythm/groove and melody. It’s funny. As a writer, I love to tweak every bit of inner harmony and voice leading in my charts. But I also understand that while musicians like me love beautiful harmony, human beings in the audience only respond to harmony when it’s supporting a good melody, and when the rhythm makes them want to dance. So, I try to always make music feel good as well as sound good—if that makes any sense.

What is your proudest moment as a jazz educator?

The usual proud moments—concerts with big-name guest artists, for example—are always memorable. But one of my proudest moments as a teacher actually happened while sitting at a bar in New York City. I was playing a gig with a drummer who was enrolled in a jazz program at one of the NYC schools, and he was really struggling with an upcoming theory test. He was quite unhappy about his prospects of passing. I sat with him and tried to explain the topic, and he just didn’t get it. So, I paused for a moment and tried to come at the problem from another angle. He still was lost. But after working the problem several more times, in several different ways, I finally saw the “light go on.” His eyes lit up, and a smile came to his face for the first time that night. Seeing that look, which told me that I had actually made a difference, was a moment I will always remember.

What are you listening to these days?

Right now I’ve got Louis Armstrong and King Oliver cycling in the car. I spent a lot of my teen years listening to alto players — Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Lee Konitz and Ornette Coleman. I listened to trumpet players, too, but I realized that I have some real gaps in my knowledge of Louis Armstong, which I’ve been rectifying for a few years now. I suppose if I were to be brutally honest, as a kid I assumed that listening to Louis Armstrong was a chore. His music didn’t seem relevant to me at the time. But I have found a real passion for singing and playing Louis Armstrong solos, and really enjoy “getting inside” the recordings. The more I learn, the more wonderful it becomes.

Every year, I select 10 songs that the IC jazz department will focus on. It’s been enjoyable for me to research recordings of these songs that I don’t know. So, I’ve been really enjoying listening to Dizzy Gillespie’s live recording of “Chega De Saudade,” and Phil Woods’ recording of “Cheek To Cheek.” (Louis and Ella’s recording of “Cheek To Cheek” is a classic, though).

I’ve also pulled out several Clare Fischer CDs since he just passed away a few days ago. I love Clare’s writing. I also don’t go too many weeks in a row without listening to Kenny Wheeler’s “Sweet Time Suite” from his “Music For Large and Small Ensembles.”

I could go on and on …

—Nick Webb, February 3, 2012, ©National Association for Music Education (www.nafme.org)