5 Questions for the January 2011 Mentor

David Kay teaches music at University School, a private boys’ school in the eastern suburbs of Cleveland. He directs two jazz ensembles, a combo, and a guitar ensemble and teaches theory. He is also part of the jazz faculty during the summer at Interlochen where he leads the middle school jazz ensemble and teaches middles school and high school improvisation courses.

He’s had the privilege of playing with jazz greats Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross, Clark Terry, Gary Burton, Nancy Wilson, Anthony Braxton and John McNeil, one of the great underrated player/composers in jazz.

Please join us in welcoming David as the MENC jazz mentor for January 2011.

If you could design the ideal jazz education curriculum, what kinds of coursework would it contain?

Although admittedly unwieldy and inelegant, a title such as “Nonclassical performance practice” or “Nonclassical pedagogy” would reflect the essence of the desired material. This encompasses a lot of music styles, but a common thread is that none of them is performed with classical performance practice at its core with regard to, for starters, pitch, time, and timbre.

One of the overall goals throughout is learning what to listen for: individual parts and important relationships; soloist-chording instrument (piano-bass-vibes); chording instrument/drums; drums/bass, leading to hearing the rhythm section as a whole and then the entire group.

Students, both instrumental and vocal, begin by learning how to make nonclassical music sound authentic, resembling the approach of the most respected players of a particular style by learning to vocalize composed melodies, or “heads,” and simpler improvised solos from recordings. Parameters include tone, articulation, rhythm, groove, pitch, timbre, dramatic/expressive devices (scoops, fall-offs, shakes, alternate fingering techniques, etc.). Then they apply this awareness to written music in nonclassical styles, including translating the numerous (often conflicting and confusing) ways of notating articulation in non-classical music.

Other areas of emphasis (making this class very challenging to design):

• improvisation
• rhythm section skills
• history overview (nonclassical genres)
• music selection
• arrangement adaptation (to fit abilities, instrumentation and to introduce greater small-group
feel to the arrangements so it does not sound like a concert band with a rhythm section)
• rehearsal techniques/group physical set-up
• resources useful to the music educator teaching nonclassical music (music, equipment, internet, etc.)

What are the toughest challenges facing jazz educators today?

The lack of jazz pedagogy material in the music education major’s required courses, which is puzzling considering that jazz groups are increasingly part of school music teachers’ responsibilities.

You’re both a professional working musician and an educator. How do your experiences playing gigs affect your teaching and vice versa?

At the risk of the following being misunderstood, I can observe the shortcomings in the musicians I play with based on what I know to be the highest model of playing, referencing the great players and ensembles in various styles, and think “how would I help this player if I were his or her teacher?” I’m also able to see what I might do to shore up my own playing, which always can stand improvement.

Teachers face a great challenge in trying to help students understand nonclassical styles in a way that enables them to play them authentically, especially if they don’t have any training in them themselves. The notion that the high level player is not always the best teacher can be validated here. I call it the “Sparky Anderson Syndrome.” The recently deceased Hall of Fame baseball manager was a marginal player at the Major League level but certainly knew how to teach others, based on his managerial record.

There is a lot of learning and study involved to master any music style, and nonclassical styles are no different than European art music. It also hits home how challenging it is to play jazz at a highly creative and personalized level, trying to get beyond just a competent command of vocabulary, a demanding task in itself.

What is your proudest moment as a jazz educator?

Whenever I see a student experience a moment of heightened awareness, get excited about it, and then begin to incorporate it into their playing.

Who are you listening to these days?

Lee Konitz/Gil Evans duet recordings, Heroes, Anti-Heroes
Kurt Rosenwinkel [really dig him!] Deep SongHeartcoreLive at the Village Vanguard 
UMO big band from Helsinki, Electric Miles
Miles Davis, Complete Live on The Corner Sessions and his 60s quintet
anything by Wayne Shorter with his quartet of the last decade
Peter Erskine (got to play with him at Interlochen this past summer)
Bill Evans (w/ Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian)
Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Take 6, Bobby McFerrin, Sing-Off

There is simply too much wonderful music to include it all — a delightful dilemma!

—Nick Webb, January 5, 2011, © National Association for Music Education