Some thoughts on jazz adjudication

Some thoughts on jazz adjudication…

by Todd Stoll

I attend a lot of jazz festivals…especially those for high school jazz bands, the Essentially Ellington program alone has 23 this year, and while I don’t attend all of them, I do get to many, as well as a few others. I am always equal parts inspired, and maybe confused at what passes for acceptable, even outstanding, jazz performance in our schools. One of my favorite things is to go to a festival that doesn’t have any of those award-winning-super bands; you know the ones I’m talking about-bands with correct instrumentation, the latest pro horns, kids that have multiple private teachers (one for classical AND jazz), directors with companies named after them…what I’m talking about is just average, regular kids, and their directors wrestling with this music we love. It’s remarkable, and inspiring and sometimes downright emotional-“I’m not crying-you’re crying…”. There is nothing better, in my opinion, than a group of young people struggling with a great work of art.

Generally speaking, these are bands in the 4-6 points in every category range, not your 8’s or 9’s, and their directors tend to be younger, or very inexperienced, with little inclination, time, or on rare occasion, interest, in jazz.

Most festivals do not have music lists or requirements. I guess that is because jazz couldn’t (and maybe still can’t) make up its mind about what we believe is important-heck-we can’t agree on what jazz IS, let alone what to PLAY. I think this is a bad thing.  Every other genre of nearly everything has some standard of quality-perhaps we should too. Our Essentially Ellington regional festivals have a very minimum requirement-1 selection from our total published library of 150 tunes-which ranges from an Ellington chart from 1927 to a tune written by Benny Golson in 2004, with a wide swath through both the Ellington songbook as well as a dozen or more amazing composers and arrangers. All from grade 2 to nearly impossible…ok, grade 6. Check it out here: http://academy.jazz.org/ee/complete-library-list/

Each band has to play ONE. Not two, or contrasting selections or whatever, but ONE. It seems to be working, and in many ways, is the common ground for a growing community of directors with whom I interact. (but I digress…)  Of course, there are moments-a band playing a ballad at mm.140, a band opening up an Ellington tune for 9 solos, a double time gospel feel complete with tambourine in a solo feature, a Mingus like group improvisation in the middle of a Basie tune and of course, lots and lots of solos. So. Many. Solos.

None of this is “bad” per se; perhaps ignorant, misguided, unaware, and at its most extreme, educational malpractice, BUT, it ain’t “bad”.  It’s just a work in progress. The job, as adjudicators, the way I see it, is to evaluate and help directors and students along on that journey of progress-towards a better understanding and a more personal relationship with our music.

I have quoted my good friend educator/trumpeter/band leader Pharez Whitted a few times in these columns, and he is an endless supply of positivity and wisdom-check him out if you are ever in Chicago, he’s on the scene. At a recent adjudicator/director meeting-where there had been some heated comments regarding numerical scoring-he said the following, “if we all approach this from a standpoint of love, we’ll all be alright.”          Huh? Love, yeah, that! As adjudicators and judges, that may be the missing ingredient. My follow up was a bit more pedestrian, in reference to the dreaded “numbers”, “none of us got into this for the numbers.” And that refers to all the numbers-in our marching band, our paycheck, and our adjudications. The numbers do not define our work-on any human level. Now, can they be a signpost in our journey? Of course. Can they give us a reference in our relationship to others? Sure. But as an indicator of the value of our work, the work of our students, the love we put in (and perhaps receive). Not at all.

I was sitting and listening to a band, they were supremely talented, stacked in every section and had at least 2-3 kids who could really play-like conservatory quality–Grammy band-future of the music types-but, nearly every aesthetic choice they made offended me. Literally, decisions that were so wacky, so out of the bounds of my reality, that I was thinking-I really should email this cat and ask them what in the world they were thinking?  At the conclusion of the performance, one of the other adjudicators walked up to me and said, “wow, great band, huh? They really have a lot going on…” I was taken aback, because I was only hearing the things I considered “wrong” (and I still feel that way) but from a position of love-man-they did a lot right! It’s really the frame of reference we should try to reflect-the jazz “love frame”, or better yet we should call it the “love jazz” frame of reference. Ultimately, that’s the goal-yes? More people loving jazz.

I am not advocating for all butterflies and daisies and rainbows in our comments and clinics-not in any way. We need to hold everyone who teaches this music to a high standard-and that standard is high-it doesn’t take a ton of time to become familiar with the repertoire and major figures, just some commitment-every day to learning a bit more-and recordings are a non-negotiable-that’s the DNA strand. And many times, I start my clinics with, “everything I say to you today I say with love…remember that…” But, when we are recording, writing, or clinic-ing, perhaps remembering that phrase “love jazz” will push us all in a more positive direction.