5 Questions for the September 2011 Jazz Mentor

Stephen Holley is the coordinator of the Commercial Music Program at the Kent Denver School in Englewood, CO. Under his leadership, the program’s DownBeat award-winning ensembles have performed at venues in Memphis, New Orleans, New York, and Miami, among others. He’s also performed professionally with artists including Arturo Sandoval, Tia Fuller, James Williams, and Doug Wamble, among many others.

Please join us in welcoming Stephen as the NAfME jazz mentor for September 2011.

Could you tell readers a little about the Commercial Music Program?

Our program consists of several smaller ensembles (anywhere from 10-18 students) that focus on jazz, soul, Latin, R&B, and reggae. We also offer music history, theory, music business, and production classes. Kent Denver is a small college prep school, so we simply don’t have the student interest or flexibility in our schedule to allow for a concert and/or marching band program, so, we choose to focus on genres of music that our students will be able to continue playing after high school, if they choose to.

The program is based on my experience as a professional musician. In most secondary schools, students have the opportunity to play in several different ensembles, but all too often educators fall short in teaching them how to get a gig and be a professional musician. At Kent Denver, we help them to foster their love of music and their technique, but most everything else is learned “on the bandstand” off-campus.

Our kids play multiple gigs throughout the year — casuals, fundraisers, recruiting, etc. I strive to create a safe, real-world environment for them so they not only develop their musical skills, but also learn how to set up and run a PA system, how to book a gig, pace a three-hour show, as well as how to balance their academic, athletic, and artistic pursuits. In any profession you must have a particular skill set, but in order to thrive, that skill set must be coupled with the ability to take care of business, music possibly more than most other career paths!

How do modern technology and new media play a role in your program?

They play a huge part in terms of dissemination of gig/rehearsal information, arranging charts, music examples, keeping schedules aligned, etc. Our R&B group, the Quincy Ave. Rhythm Band, has Facebook and Twitterpages that our student manager updates. I have playlists on Grooveshark for the bands, and record the students either in our studio or with a handheld recorder. Parents and students alike have access to our Google gig calendar and DropBox for access to charts/auditions materials, etc. I’m also finding new ways to use my iPad—for storing all my charts, recording the band for instant feedback, piano apps for music theory, as a remote control for our recording and live consoles, etc. I’m also working on setting up a large-screen TV in our room so I can stream content Wi-Fi from my iPad or laptop. It’s great to talk about a performance, or to listen to a recording of it, but if I can engage more of their senses, all the better! I don’t see it as pandering to their sound-bite world, just acknowledging that today’s kids learn differently. And since I write most of the charts for the bands, I spend way too much time on Finale!

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

Teaching at a private college preparatory school, I’ve come to terms with the fact that the majority of my kids will probably put the horn under the bed on graduation day, never to be seen again! But I can say that all my kids leave with a great appreciation for the music we learned. So, I would say it’s most gratifying to see what they’re listening to when they enter the program, and how their listening tastes have been shaped by their experiences here. Mingus, Celia Cruz, Otis Redding, The Meters, Clifford Brown, Oscar Peterson, Willie Colon – I try to expose my kids to the greats, and they actually seem to dig it…or maybe I’m just oblivious!

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

I would love to be able to say that the majority of the students we teach continue with music, but the fact is most of them probably won’t. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have something valuable to impart to them. In the most basic terms, we should expect them to show up to a rehearsal/performance on time, with all their gear, and ready to play to the best of their ability. If we consistently hold our students to a high standard of professionalism it can only serve them well in whatever profession they choose to pursue, long after we’re a distant memory!

What are you listening to these days?

I wish that I could say that I was hip to the newest, coolest stuff out there, but I’m not. Outside of rehearsals I spend most of my days listening to, transcribing, and arranging charts, as I write the majority of the tunes for the bands. I’m also married, have two young boys, and gig as much as my schedule will allow. When I get a chance to listen to what I want, it might range from ColtraneJohn Legend and the Roots, to Phineas NewbornAlison Krauss, or Jill Scott… just whatever hits me at the time, really.

—Nick Webb, August 31, 2011, ©The National Association for Music Education (www.nafme.org)