5 Questions for the November Jazz Mentor

Sebastian Bonaiuto began his career as a music educator at Westwood High School in Massachusetts where, in addition to his conducting responsibilities, he designed and implemented a four-year music theory curriculum. He was appointed Director of Bands at Boston College in 1989, where his ensembles have achieved national distinction and acclaim. Boston College’s jazz ensemble, BC bOp!, has appeared at the University of Nevada at Reno Jazz Festival and The Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival, among others, achieved “Superior” ratings at every event, consistently placing among the top ten college instrumental and vocal ensembles in national competition.

Please join us in welcoming Sebastian as the MENC jazz mentor for November 2009.

You were brought in to develop the bands program at Boston College. Was there any particular approach or methodology you employed in building your program?

When I started at Boston College we had only a Marching Band and a Pep Band. My goal was to develop a full-featured Bands program that included concert wind bands and jazz ensembles. The first step was to create a Concert Band and a Jazz Ensemble. I worked closely with the students to recruit and populate these ensembles, scheduling rehearsals, and taking inventory of instruments and music to ensure we had the necessary resources on hand. Initially, our resources were minimal and the music library in disarray, so I set about to create an infrastructure to support our musical goals—systems to manage our finances, facility, instruments and libraries. I started media libraries for student listening, and developed a timetable for purchasing new instruments and equipment to replace an aging and poor quality inventory.

Policies and procedures were also implemented to ensure that we were well organized and efficient, to standardize expectations, and guide our goals for the future. The Bands program at Boston College now includes two wind bands, two jazz ensembles and two athletic ensembles, serving some 250 students (without overlap) yearly.

Are there any educators or performers who have significantly influenced your approach to teaching or the direction of your ensembles?

My first role models were my middle and high school music teachers. As a high school student, I had the privilege to play in two Connecticut All-State Festivals, one with Fredrick Fennell conducting, the other with Donald Hunsberger as conductor. As a trumpet student, Roger Voisin, Armando Ghitalla, Maurice Andre, Adolph Herseth and many other classical trumpeters served as models for my playing.

I began listening to jazz in middle school. A Down Beat magazine article featuring the career and music of John Coltrane published shortly after his death was a major inspiration, and I bought every album of his I could afford. My big band listening experiences began with Doc Severinson’s Tonight Show Band. Then I discovered the Count Basie Band. That band remains the model for a lot of my jazz teaching, especially with regard to feel, timing, phrasing and rhythm section playing. As a high school student, I attended jazz camps at the Quinnipiac College where I got to work with, among others, Kai Winding and Clark Terry. Terry’s advice on learning improvisation remains the model I encourage all of my students to follow: “Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.”

The jazz trumpeters I find most compelling are Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan. Brown’s sound is among the warmest and richest in all of jazz. Morgan is my favorite for his melodic ideas and amazing command of time and rhythm. He can swing, he can drive, and he left us way too early. Although their virtuosity can be intimidating and challenging to imitate, I urge all of my students to listen to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis and their contemporaries (the Blue Note Records bunch) as well as many others continue to inspire my work and my music.

You direct BC bOp!, Boston College’s jazz ensemble. Could you tell us a little bit about them, and what it’s like to work with them?

BC bOp! is a big band with a vocal section. I thought it would be great to get back to having vocalists with a big band. In contemporary jazz education, the practice seems very often to be to separate vocal jazz from big bands. I like the variety that it provides for our performances. The vocal section has its own dedicated vocal director, JoJo David, a wonderful and inspiring colleague.

The ensemble is an auditioned group and everyone has to earn their spot every year. Since Boston College does not have a music school, our members come from every school and major in the University. These are students for whom music making is a personal passion and not a career preparation pursuit. They receive no grades or credit but they do this for the sheer love and joy of making music.

What is your proudest moment as a jazz educator?

There have been many. Here are two that stand out. We’ve attended the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival for a number of years. One year, our pianist won the Solo Jazz Piano competition. He got to play on the main stage at one of the major festival performances. A couple of years later, one of our vocalists won the Solo Jazz Vocal competition. Neither of these students intends to pursue music as a career. The pianist, in fact, is now in medical school!

What are you listening to these days?

The Best Blue Note Album In The World, a collection from the famed label’s archives. Horace Silver, John Coltrane, Lou Donaldson, Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Smith, Lee Morgan and Herbie Hancock are all on this album, as well as so many great sidemen. If you transcribed the solos from these tunes, you would have the best repertoire of blues lines ever played! There’s an entire life of jazz learning in this one album – great, great stuff!

—Nick Webb, November 4, 2009, © National Association for Music Education