5 Questions for the May 2011 Jazz Mentor

(photo courtesy of Alphonso Young, Jr.)
Drummer/percussionist Alphonso M. Young Jr. has been a professional musician for more than 20 years. He’s performed with such artists as Randy Brecker, Buck Hill, Etta Jones, and jazz diva Vanessa Rubin. A music instructor with Virginia’s Loudoun County Schools and a faculty member at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia, he’s rapidly become one of the leading authorities on drum-set performance and pedagogy.

Please join us in welcoming Alphonso as the MENC jazz mentor for May 2011.

What do you find most gratifying about teaching jazz to young musicians?

The joy my students express through their music: expressing emotion or developing specific ideas through music means that the student or performer has achieved a higher level of understanding within the context of the music and his or her instrument. Learning the language of jazz requires a strong commitment to understanding scales, harmony, groove, and the fundamentals of music. To be a part of this learning and discovery process and to experience that excitement through the music they create is priceless! What’s more exciting than watching a kid play from his heart and not his head?

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

I’ve been fortunate in having many great teachers and mentors. My high school band director, Mr. Webb, was a strong influence. A great teacher, his greatest and most inspirational moments came when he picked up his trumpet during jazz band rehearsals and just played! He led by example, and his passion for the instrument was infectious. It was as if he was no longer teaching, but “sharing.” In my own teaching, I feel that it’s important for students to see a “real” musician who loves his art, a “real” teacher who loves sharing his knowledge of this universal language. I play as much as I can for them. Whatever I’m listening to, they usually get a taste of it as well. They love it, I love it, and we’re all learning! It’s important for your students to see the passion and joy you have for what you do. More often than not, this is what inspires students to excel, and inspiration leads to learning beyond the “standard.”

There was also Vince Maggio at the University of Miami. With Vince, I began to realize the importance of having high expectations in the classroom, remaining consistent, and always being true to your art, whether on stage or in the classroom. Vince was not the type to compromise. He was very old-school when it came to respecting the music and its traditions. I remember being terrified of going to rehearsals if I did not have things in check—great training for the years I’ve spent on the road performing for audiences around the world who expect the very best. He had a way of taking talented students and making them better, and he accomplished this by helping students realize there is always more to learn and apply. In my own teaching, when students walk through the door they know it’s time to think and work. In my classroom, we pay very close attention to the details in our musical presentations, placing strong emphasis on interpretation of styles, authenticity of sound, and a practical understanding of the music.

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

Having a professional musician in the classroom brings to light a different learning experience of for my students. It’s not just a subject I teach, but a language that I speak. I tell my students, for me, “Music is life.” They see it through my actions, and the stories I tell. I’m not sure if I’d be able to present my subject with the same enthusiasm if I weren’t an active performing artist.

There are things that I’ve learned on the bandstand that were never discussed in school. Being an active performer has also provided me with opportunities to interact with other professional artists and create a network of resources beyond the classroom for me and my students.

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

Well, I think first and foremost it’s teaching something that few people listen to regularly anymore. It’s really difficult to get students excited about playing a style of music that is often portrayed as old and outdated. Although jazz is indigenous to our culture, it’s no longer treasured as an art form. While the music has been made more accessible with the advances in technology, you have to want to seek it out. Unlike most contemporary styles, jazz is not “in your face.” It gets limited radio airplay, and venues that feature jazz are rapidly disappearing. Budget cuts, lack of facilities, increased class size, and lack of administrative support have jazz educators scrambling to figure out ways to tap into and maintain the interest of young people. Jazz educators have had to become more savvy, programming fusion or pop tunes with jazz harmonies as a means of introducing beginning students to elements of jazz. I remember my first time playing Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters’ “Watermelon Man.” Straight-up funk! Loved it from note one, but never made the connection to jazz until my director began to explain specific elements of the song. Been hooked ever since.

What are you listening to these days?

Lately, my ear has been gravitating towards younger artists like Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Marc Cary, Roy Hargrove, Kenny Garrett, and Sean Jones. My style of playing can be categorized as more traditional, but in an effort to grow with the music, I have to understand the dialect being spoken today. These cats have got me practicing with loops and rethinking things that I‘ve done for years! You know the music is moving forward when the older cats are influencing the younger guys and vice-versa.

—Nick Webb, May 4, 2011, © National Association for Music Education