5 Questions for the March 2011 Jazz Mentor

Dave Robinson is an active jazz performer, historian, and educator. Equally at home on the trumpet, cornet, and valve trombone, he has played and toured with the top traditional and swing bands from the Washington, D.C. area. He also directs the internationally-acclaimed Capital Focus Jazz Band youth learning program and helped to launch the Traditional Jazz Youth Band Festival in Sacramento, where he serves annually as clinician, lecturer, and adjudicator.

Please join us in welcoming Dave as the MENC jazz mentor for March 2011.
As director of the Capital Focus Jazz Band for more than 20 years, you’ve mentored a lot of talented young musicians, many who’ve gone onto careers in jazz themselves. What do you find most gratifying about teaching jazz?

The Capital Focus Jazz Band is unusual in that it specializes in traditional or “trad” jazz—New Orleans jazz and its outgrowths. For me, the gratification each season comes at the point when the band no longer needs me. They know the music and how to pace their show, and it all just unfolds onstage as I watch from the audience. When I get e-mail from long-ago CFJB alumni out of the blue saying they’re gigging in New York or wherever, that they miss the band, and could I please send them some of our lead sheets and charts because they want to start their own trad jazz band—that’s the best!

You’re the founder of the Traditional Jazz Educators Network. Could you tell readers a little bit about the organization?

TJEN is an organization I founded in 1997 to bring together jazz educators nationwide who are teaching young people how to play the New Orleans-derived styles of jazz. We encourage each other, share best practices, publish materials, and maintain a library of resources for the free use of educators. Membership is free. Our web site (http://prjc.org/tjen) includes a roster of youth traditional jazz bands in the U.S., a roster of trad jazz educators, a guide to the various styles of traditional jazz, and a comprehensive listing of trad jazz teaching resources available on the market.

You were also part of the team that developed the Traditional Jazz Curriculum Kit. What was the thinking behind it, and what kinds of teaching resources does it offer?

The Traditional Jazz Curriculum Kit* is TJEN’s flagship project. It provides music educators with a full kit of materials to enable them to teach trad jazz appreciation and performance techniques to high school and college musicians. The prototype supports the National Standards for Music Education, and has been piloted by selected educators across the U.S., with outstanding results. The kit contains lesson plans; music arrangements; transcriptions and lead sheets; a sampler CD; an instructional double-DVD; a resources guide; a jazz style guide; and a poster. Right now we’re searching for a large-budget 501(c)3 organization (or perhaps a university) under which we can apply to various foundations for the substantial funds needed to publish the kit and give it away to 10,000 music educators across the country. Yes, I said give it away. That way we know it’ll get out there and get used.

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

While jazz education has made tremendous strides over the years, it’s a constant struggle just to get music instruction into our schools and keep it there. I teach outside of the academic environment, but I know university jazz department heads who’re truly struggling in this economy. Jazz education perseveres through the sheer tenacity and hard work of those who teach it. My own program just lost its corporate assistance due to shifting priorities, but we’ll press on and find new alternatives. Regarding the actual rigor of teaching jazz to young people, I think the number one challenge that too often hasn’t been met is involving students creatively in the whole spectrum of the genre—presenting it all as living, breathing music relevant to today. Great music shouldn’t have an expiration date.

What are you listening to these days?

My basement contains over 16,000 jazz records, CDs, tapes and videos (plus hundreds of jazz books), so my listening pile is sky-high at any given time! I listen to everything from ragtime to avant-garde, but most recently I’ve listened to the Frisco “Jass” Band (1917), Louis Armstrong (1937), Jon-Erik Kellso (2000), my brother Scott Robinson with Jules Thayer (2007), and the Mike Vax Kenton Alumni Big Band (2009).

*Developed with funding from the National Park Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, a private donor, the Raynier Foundation and Institute, the American Federation of Jazz Societies, the National Park Service, and the Statesmen of Jazz, with input from the Smithsonian Institution and other experts in the field.

—Nick Webb, March 3, 2011, © National Association for Music Education