“Jazz Is the Aspirational Sound of Our Democracy”
An Interview with All-National Honor Jazz Ensemble
Conductor Todd Stoll and 2019 Guest Soloist Camille Thurman
Todd Stoll is once again the All-National Honor Jazz Ensemble conductor for the 2022 ensemble, which will perform in National Harbor, Maryland, November 3-6, 2022. We thank him for his work with this ensemble over many years.
The 2019 All-National Honor Ensemble (ANHE) Jazz Ensemble will perform alongside five other All-National Honor Ensembles in Orlando, Florida. Todd Stoll of Jazz at Lincoln Center will again lead the Jazz Ensemble. Camille Thurman will be a guest soloist. Learn more about Todd Stoll here. Below, Stoll and Thurman share thoughts on effective practice, the power of music education, and what excites them about the upcoming ANHE Jazz Ensemble.
When did you first fall in love with music?
Todd Stoll: As a child, maybe 10 to 11 years old, my father (a good amateur trombonist) took me to many, many concerts: jazz, symphony, my church—music was all around me. When I started trumpet at age 10, I was hooked!
“Most jazz bands don’t have conductors; we are more like traffic cops!”
Camille Thurman: I first fell in love with music at the age of 4. I didn’t know I had perfect pitch, but I knew different sounds produced different colors, feelings, and moods. I would match the sounds to colors and times of the day (since I didn’t understand keys).
I loved how music could tell a story. My earliest memory of falling in love with music was watching “The Little Mermaid.” My favorite character was the villain Ursula because every time she entered the scene, she had the best music. The sudden change in color, mood, and instrumentation of the music for one person was powerful to me.
What inspired you to become a conductor? Describe the process in getting to where you are today.
TS: That was more of a process of elimination. As someone who led a band, some of the music was complex enough that we needed someone to give cues . . . it was my responsibility. Most jazz bands don’t have conductors; we are more like traffic cops!
I taught public school for nearly 25 years, led a professional big band, contracted for shows and orchestras, and studied music constantly AFTER college. I sought out and spent time in serious study with some of the greatest minds in jazz, including Wynton Marsalis. Being serious about something allows one to focus and learn outside of an institution and regardless of financial motive.
And what inspired you to become a performer? What did that process look like?
CT: Sarah Vaughan, Vi Redd, and Dexter Gordon inspired me to be a performer. I wanted to be as great as they are at their craft (voice and saxophone), have full comfortable command on my instrument, and the ability to connect with people. Sarah had the voice of an angel but was very musical with her approach to singing. Dexter Gordon had wit, humor, and charm, but also a huge sound! I wanted to metaphorically be as big as him; he was my hero. Vi Redd was a saxophonist and vocalist who performed with the Count Basie Orchestra. Her command and confidence on both instruments blew me away. She was strong and confident.
“It’s important for a person to spend the beginning of their career learning as much as they can. This is the time to really cultivate your craft, develop a strong foundation and discipline, and embrace the joy of learning.”
The process for me becoming a performer was and still is a journey. I had to spend a lot of time listening to records, studying videos, practicing/mastering multiple instruments, transcribing solos, and also going out to see great musicians perform. I also had to spend a lot of time playing with as many people as I could; playing with different ensembles, different musical scenarios and genres. It’s important for a person to spend the beginning of their career learning as much as they can. This is the time to really cultivate your craft, develop a strong foundation and discipline, and embrace the joy of learning for the love of learning and growing. It’s important to also surround yourself with people better than you and to find great mentors.
What are some of the greatest accomplishments, and challenges, you face as a conductor of or soloist with a large ensemble?
TS: Coordination of concept: It is difficult with acoustic, swinging jazz for young people to really have a concept of the music—unless they are listening and immersing themselves in it. In a limited amount of rehearsal time, it’s crucial for everyone to have objectives that are group-focused and consistent.
CT: Greatest accomplishments: Singing and playing with Roy Haynes at the Blue Note for his 90th birthday. I grew up listening to Roy Haynes performing with Sarah Vaughn. To play, sing, and have him tell me I reminded him of Sarah was a dream come true!
Another accomplishment was joining Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for the 2018-2019 season. I would have never dreamed or known that I would one day occupy the tenor saxophone chair and work with great musicians I grew up admiring since I was a child.
“The best thing you can do for yourself is to believe in yourself, trust your skill, thoroughly know your instrument, and most importantly have fun.”
One of the biggest challenges being soloist with an ensemble is staying true to your sound and identity. Sometimes it can be intimidating to solo amongst musicians in an ensemble, especially if you are the new person. You might be tempted to go astray from your style or approach just for the sake of “fitting in.” As a musician, you spend countless hours practicing and studying, preparing for the day you earn an opportunity to stand tall and express yourself on your instrument amongst an audience of people (or, in this case, your peers). The best thing you can do for yourself is to believe in yourself, trust your skill, thoroughly know your instrument, and most importantly have fun. Music is a communal exchange with people, not a competition. Never take for granted the opportunity to play and have fun.
What factors do you consider when programming music for a concert or honor ensemble? What are some of your favorite pieces of repertoire?
TS: The music must be “worthy” of the students. It is important to program the very best and highest level of literature one can consider. It is also good to stretch an ensemble, program something just beyond their perceived abilities, and watch them take ownership of said piece.
Within jazz, nothing is as great as Ellington: He’s our Mozart, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky rolled into one. I also love the second-generation Basie writers like Frank Foster and Thad Jones. Carlos Henriquez from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is another favorite.
CT: I always think about the audience that I am serving: What is the demographic (age)? Are the listeners jazz lovers, or are they new to jazz? How can I create a balanced set that is tasteful, enjoyable and just right (not too long or too short)?
I also think about variety. I want to present a set that is reflective of the styles I like but also use it as an opportunity to introduce the audience to music they might not have checked out or play composers or compositions I feel need to be heard. It’s always good to have a variety of feels, grooves, tempos, and colors.
Some of my favorite compositions to play, or listen to, are by composers Wayne Shorter, Buster Williams, Oliver Nelson, Tadd Dameron, Joe Henderson, Horace Silver, Thad Jones, and John Coltrane.
What excites you the most about the ANHE program? What do you hope your young musicians who attend will take away from their experience?
TS: The opportunity for the kids to all hear each other across the ensembles. It’s always inspiring for kids to realize that they have serious colleagues across genres.
CT: I’m excited to have the opportunity of meeting and working with the ANHE program! What excites me the most is working with students and passing down to them the joy, passion, and love I have for the music. It has always been a goal for me to pay it forward by sharing the same love, passion, and excitement my teachers gave to me for this music with the next generation. I hope to inspire the students and get them excited about learning and playing.
What advice would you share with young aspiring musicians?
TS: Be organized about your practice time, write your practice schedule down . . . Work on things that you can’t play, as well as fundamentals every day. As far as jazz is concerned, go to the source, go to the recordings and learn vocabulary from the masters, from recordings . . . Scales and patterns are good only as technical tools; one needs to get as close to the language as possible. Find an artist you love, and get inside their music, transcribe, transcribe, transcribe. Then try as often as possible to play with live musicians . . . not JUST play-alongs.
One of the things we have noticed is that the static nature of a play-along can reduce a young musician’s ability to interact with the rhythm section—which is where jazz gets its vitality, energy, and spontaneity! Get your friends together to play as often as possible, seek out older folks to play with, and then get out there! Play for audiences, feel how they react to what you do . . . learn to play FOR someone while still developing your artistic voice.
“Music . . . puts one in touch with something bigger than oneself; it is a spiritual guide to who you are, and who you were, and who you may become.”
When auditioning for an ensemble, be aware of the “what”? You want to prepare selections to an extremely high technical level, but also play with expression. However, do some research; between the conductor, the repertoire, the institution, there is always more information available to give you context.
CT: Practice, practice, practice. Play as much as you can with as many people as you can. While you are young, take advantage of your time and really study; explore and learn your instrument. Today’s generation has the advantage of accessing many resources simply at the click of a button. My generation had to go to the library and borrow records, go out and see shows or wait to see our favorite musicians passing through town at a certain time of the year. Today, a student can access anything they want to hear or see instantly.
When auditioning for an ensemble, preparation is key. Be familiar with the repertoire before the audition and master it. The goal is to have command and flexibility of the music so much so, that you can easily put yourself in the music and freely express yourself when you play. Reach out and get to know people in the band or the section. Music is not just about notes on a page. It’s also about communication and having a relationship with the people you play with. You can always learn something from others.
Why do you think music education is so important for all students?
TS: Music is the art of the invisible. It puts one in touch with something bigger than oneself; it is a spiritual guide to who you are, and who you were, and who you may become. Jazz is the aspirational sound of our democracy and speaks across generations and time.
CT: Music education is critical to our society. Through music we teach the next generation to appreciate, love, and embrace the beauty and complexities of society via human expression. It teaches us consciousness, humility, empathy, love, joy, and all of the elements that make us who we are as individuals and as a society. If we can teach children at a young age how to express themselves through art (music), embrace differences and appreciate each other through artistic expression, I believe we can create a more peaceful and connected community.
The deadline to apply for the NAfME All-National Honor Ensembles is May 27. Learn more and apply today.
The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.
Original interview published April 2, 2019. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)