Where Jazz Education and Performance Meet

Perspectives from Mike Lee

Date Posted: May 25, 2017

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Interview conducted by John R. Hylkema

You have some Cleveland roots! How has this experience influenced you as a musician?

Cleveland has been very influential on my music and my teaching. Trying to learn and hear this art form in the Mid-West is a very different experience than learning and playing in New York City. New York is a 24 hour jazz festival. You can wander around the village any night of the week and hear multiple jazz venues until the wee hours of the morning. But Cleveland has a sense of being real – we have to look out for each other and we know the struggle to be heard, to be noticed, to be taken seriously. I know what it's like to be drawn to this music with very limited access. Even back in the day there were just a few full time jazz musicians that I knew in Cleveland and very few jazz venues. My own kids and students have grown up being neighbors with some of the greatest musicians in the world. They have constant access to household names in the music. It's a very different experience.

What is Jazz House Kids and how does it impact future jazz students?

Jazz House Kids is a non-profit organization founded by vocalist Melissa Walker. Our Artistic Director is Ms. Walker's husband, Christian McBride. Jazz House Kids does outreach programs in public and charter schools and presents master classes. In 2009, Melissa wanted to extend JHK's programming to include an “in-house” after-school offering directly to students. She tapped me to direct her first jazz improvisation/ensemble class that Fall. As the interest in the class grew we expanded our offerings to 3 different classes the following Spring. I directed the first Jazz House Kids Summer Workshop the following summer and by the Fall of 2010 we had 10 different classes and ensembles including the Jazz House Kids Big Band, several levels of improvisation, performing ensembles, and even an adult ensemble. I continued coordinating the in-house offerings and directing the Summer Workshop for three years. In 2012, I stepped down from my Coordinator/Director roles and continued as one of the primary teaching artists for the classes and ensembles. Currently I teach the Advanced Improvisation class, one of the Ambassador (advanced) combos, and one of our three big bands.

Jazz House Kids Big Band has made multiple appearances at the Essentially Ellington Competition, The Charles Mingus Competition, and received multiple other awards. Our students have won multiple individual awards, participated in many elite national bands including The Grammy Band, Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, and Jazz Bands of America. Graduates of our program are currently at the finest jazz schools in the country including Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, New School, William Paterson, Rutgers, Oberlin and others.

How have you seen jazz education evolve over the years, and is there anything you’d like to see change?

Jazz Education has grown exponentially in the 30 years since I was a college-aged student. My own experience of being desperate for information about jazz improvisation and theory stands in stark contrast to the experience of today's students who can sit down and do a Google search and come up with more information in one sitting than I could collect in a year of research in the late 70's.

What remains constant is the need for supple minded teachers that are willing to help students find their own path to the information in a way that will help them be successful in learning to communicate earnest emotion and joy through the language of improvisation. No two students learn exactly the same way and a good teacher has to be able to relate from his or her own experience while also being attuned to the different learning styles of the student.

I think that there is far too much criticism of jazz education and it's methods. Earnest people can teach valuable lessons to young musicians in a variety of circumstances, from the classroom, to the lesson room to the band stand. So I wouldn't say that I'd like to see things “change” as much as I'd like to see several aspects of jazz education emphasized:

  1. Performing experience of teachers: I don't think one needs to starve to be a great musician, but I think it's important that one is willing to put their art ahead of material comfort. I think the experience of musicians who spent multiple years relying on jazz performance as their only real focus is an invaluable attribute for a teacher. The urgency of art, the desperation to play it, the ability to change entire cultures, the passion that we have for this music that we put ahead of a comfortable life should not be removed from the teaching of notes and theory.

  2. Attendance of live performances: In my town of Montclair, I meet so many parents whose many consumption of the arts is through their kids performances. Obviously it's essential to your kids that you attend their performances, but just getting your child trained in performing an art form without supporting the economy of that art form, by attending shows, paying covers and patronizing the venues that present the arts, is a bit of a mixed message. By the same token, the students need to get out and hear the music in context. They need to hear how people are moved by direct contact with the music in a live setting.

  3. Learning specific language: I teach my students to play licks. I know this is controversial in some circles. The word “licks” in referring to standard jazz melodic phrases is routinely discounted. Instead many jazz methods are based on learning scales that “go with” a chord or a progression and students are encouraged to aimlessly run up and down these scales even when doing so produces questionable results. I've noticed a tendency of many young musicians who learned this way to sound exactly the same. Interestingly enough, students who have learned specific jazz language as the foundation for their study tend to be more inventive and original.

  4. Understanding jazz as African American Music, intertwined with Black History and America's struggle to embrace equality and freedom. I have heard many musicians balk at the notion that jazz music is Black American Music. Much of the reaction is based on a fear by white musicians that they will be excluded or they are being told that because they are white they can't play it. These fears are not well founded. That's not the point. The point is that the music was created in an extremely difficult time in American history by the victims of oppression. The music is an expression of the struggle to gain freedom as men, women, and as artists. The only way a white musician can see themselves as excluded from this music is if they don't see the struggle for equality as their own struggle. If you look upon the struggle for equality as “their” struggle in which we (white folks) have no role, then you might find it exclusive. But to me this is the ongoing American struggle which we must all join.

How do you balance life as an educator and performer?

As I have explained earlier, I think performing is essential to teaching. So it is imperative to find a way to keep active in performance and to resist the temptation to fall exclusively into teaching as a way of life. The consistency, routine, and financial rewards of teaching can be seductive and make performing seem like a waste of time when many road gigs are, at best, a break even proposition when I might have to interrupt a teaching schedule that includes classes for Jazz House Kids, Montclair State University and private students. But road gigs and late night gigs in New York are essential experiences if I am to teach music as a current, vibrant, relevant art form. Also the teaching informs the performing as I learn this music at a deeper level every time I teach a tune, transcription or a concept to a student. So, I don't know how well I balance all the activities I'm engaged in, but, I know that they are essential to each other so I keep going, often way out of balance!

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