November 12, 2015

The Jazz MOOC

Lately it seems I’ve been spending every waking hour MOOCing. Some of you know by now I’m a saxophonist, so you might surmise that MOOCing is a saxophone technique, perhaps a spinoff of “honking.” When I was asked to do a MOOC by the powers-that-be at Hamilton College, I was vaguely familiar with the term, as two Hamilton professors had done MOOCs before me.
MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, and it is an initiative of an organization called edX. Hamilton College and many other institutes of higher learning have embraced this new method of offering courses to (basically) the world. The course is done totally online, and anyone can enroll. There are no hurdles or applications to join in, and there is no cost for taking the course. Our MOOC is called “Jazz: The Music, The Stories, The Players,” and will launch on February 2, 2016. It will run for six consecutive weeks.
MOOCing has been an unexpected challenge for me. My comfort level with computer technology is nonexistent. Fortunately, I have a highly trained creative team from Hamilton’s Library and Instructional Technology Services working with me. Still, the hands-on activities I have used previously in workshops are not available to me in this online format. For decades I have worked with both musicians and non-musicians teaching concepts in jazz, blues and improvised music. The one-on-one and group interaction has always been key to what I do. While we have done some filming with small groups, the human interaction is not the same, and I am being prodded into the 21st century. At the same time, I am grateful for the opportunity to be involved in this new endeavor. I often tease my students when I ask them to do something new: “it builds character” I say. I should have a lot of character by the time this project is over.
Click here for information about our MOOC. I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s aimed at both musicians and casual listeners, and includes material from our jazz archive interviews.

October 21, 2015

Happy Birthday Diz

One of the true jazz pioneers, John Birks Gillespie, was born on this day, October 21, in 1917. John became “Dizzy” along the way, reportedly because of his outsized humor and tendency for onstage antics. Dizzy Gillespie is on any jazz historian’s list of the top 10 most important jazz innovators. Along with Charlie Parker he ushered the new style of jazz coined bebop in the late 40s. Soon after, his incorporation of Cuban rhythms and Cuban musicians into his bands assured his place in jazz history not only as an astounding instrumentalist, but as a composer and stylistic innovator. Dizzy spread jazz to every corner of the world, carrying on the Ambassador of Jazz mantle that Louis Armstrong had owned for many years.
Even people who know little about jazz will recognize Dizzy for two trademark images: his trumpet with the upturned bell, and the cheeks. Over the years, Dizzy’s muscles in his cheeks and neck gave way and he seemed delighted to use this physical trait to help endear fans to him.

Photo by Milt Hinton
We saw Dizzy Gillespie live one time. In the late 80s he performed in an outdoor venue in a Syracuse, NY park. With thousands in attendance, the mayor of Syracuse stepped to the microphone and declared it “Dizzy Gillespie Day” in Syracuse, and Dizzy was handed a ceremonial key to the city. He stepped to the microphone, and in that distinguished but gravely voice declared loudly, “no shit!”

Happy 98th birthday, Dizzy!

October 4, 2015

Phil Woods, 1931-2015

Phil Woods, in 1999
Even though the math is obvious, I have difficulty accepting the fact that the second generation of important jazz artists are now mostly gone. As Phil Woods stated in our interview “I was the last generation to come up and actually learn from the masters direct.”
Phil passed away on September 29 at the age of 83. He was the most respected saxophonist remaining of this second generation of musicians who really lived the jazz life. He proudly carried the bebop torch and drew a distinction between himself and the real innovators, preferring to be considered an accomplished craftsman. During interviews, Phil moved effortlessly from philosopher to curmudgeon, and his opinions carried the same weight as his recordings did.
MR: A couple of weeks ago when we had a brief conversation on the phone, you said you were taking time these days to do some writing and reflecting. What do you reflect and write on these days?
PW: How lucky I am to make a living doing something I love to do; having a wonderful, supportive family; living in a wonderful part of the world where a lot of young people know who Charlie Parker was and John Coltrane. Delaware Water Gap [Pennsylvania], you might not be aware of it, but this venerable institution we’re sitting in right now, The Deer Head Inn, has had jazz for over 50 years. They run at least three nights a week — Friday and Saturday and they usually have a matinee type thing on Sunday, and there’s been some great jazz played here. I remember one night, a jam session here, there must have been ten, fifteen saxophone players. And I said to Rick Chamberlain and Ed Joubert, we should move this outside. This was about 22 years ago. And that led to the stage across the street. We have a celebration of the arts which is held every year. So I was reflecting on all these good things that are going on.
MR: Do you feel jazz is healthier today than it has been in the past?
PW: No, not really healthier. I don’t mean to paint a bleak picture, but jazz seems to have lost its cutting edge, it seems to be in a regressive mode activated somehow. I mean jazz just goes on, and it’s never been so alive and well, we’ve never had so many kids playing music, and this is a positive thing. I don’t mean to negate the import of a kid picking up an instrument because if he’s got an instrument in his mouth he’s probably less liable to buy an assault rifle. I mean I think music is good. Any cutting back of funds for music education is a big mistake, which we’re also getting involved in. But the idea of jazz being alive and well, every campus has a jazz program, every school has a jazz program. But I don’t hear it. I mean I was the last generation to come up and actually learn from the masters direct. My first band was Quincy Jones and Dizzy Gillespie and I got a chance to really one-on-one with the masters. I’m not indicting jazz education, I think it’s a good thing. But a university should reflect the needs of society. And society doesn’t need quite as many tenor players as we’re graduating. I’d like to find a gig for all of those tenor players. Now the jazz gigs, I mean everybody’s still playing “Scrapple from the Apple” and “Stella By Starlight” and the old war horses, which is fine and good. But jazz should be more cutting edge. Jazz should be more now. I don’t hear anybody doing like what Dolphy did or what Ornette did. I love what John Zorn is doing. I don’t know if you call it jazz. But I think the musician of the future is not going to be just a jazz type of person. I think it’s going to be more — a typical set might be a tango, an Astor Piazzolla, a bossa nova, some pygmy music from Africa, a little Charlie Parker, a little pre-Archie Shepp. I mean it’s kind of become so collated and codified that everybody now has the same Real Book the same fake books. This is good but it should be more aggravating, it should stick in the craw. It’s too acceptable. It’s lacking color and it’s lacking a bit of humor. It doesn’t quite have the humor. Where are the Zoot Sims and the Al Cohn, like that. In Copenhagen they said, “Al, have you tried the elephant beer?” And Al came back and said, “I drink to forget, man.” I mean I don’t hear that. I mean God bless the kids, but too many three-piece suits and managers.
You can read more quotes from Phil in JazzTales from Jazz Legends. If you enjoy this blog you will love the book. It’s available now on Amazon.