THE ALL-STATE HUSTLE
by Todd Stoll
DISCLAIMER: I am not against new music. I am in favor of new music, and believe jazz has contemporary relevance in modern society. I am not against new music.
But, it’s state conference season, so let’s take some time to discuss our all state jazz bands. After you read the following scenario (the names are changed to protect the innocent), I’ll offer some thoughts for us to ponder.
Lisa Williams is a senior in high school, has played the trumpet for seven years, and has taken lesson for six of those years, hoping to major in music in college. She LOVES jazz. She listens to it quite a bit and had a few lessons with a “famous” jazz trumpeter when he was in town on tour. While not a “star,” she as great promise and is the best improviser in her area. In her Junior year, she’s selected for her all-state jazz band — a not-insignificant thing, given that her high school doesn’t send many kids to all-state. She looks forward to all-state weekend where she’ll be playing with so many other talented students, a few of whom she knows from jazz camp at Orange Sherbet State University.
Two months before the state conference, the all-state conductor Dr. Todd Picklesymer (or Dr. P, as he likes to be called), a well-regarded professor, jazz conductor, clinician, composer, and saxophonist, sends the music ahead. He asks that the students have notes and rhythms down by the first day of rehearsal. Lisa is excited to begin rehearsing the following program:
Pickles Revenge by Todd Picklesymer
Bass Pickles by Todd Picklesymer
Eat Mo’ Pickles by Todd Picklesymer
Pickle Parkway Express by Todd Picklesymer
Satin Pickles by Todd Picklesymer
Pickles in the Moonlight by Todd Picklesymer
Big Dipper by Thad Jones
Since she’s unfamiliar with most of the pieces, she searches YouTube, starting with Eat Mo’ Pickles. She finds a video of the college band where Dr. P teaches and checks it out. The rest of Dr. P’s pieces have a few returns, including other all-state bands Dr. P has directed and partial recordings supplied by the publisher with commentary about the difficulty level and ranges for brass. When she searches Big Dipper, she’s shocked to find thousands of returns including several live concert videos of the Thad Jones Mel Lewis Orchestra and hundreds upon hundreds of high school and college videos. While slightly puzzling, Lisa doesn’t give this a second thought and practices diligently.
All-state weekend is thrilling. She sees many of her friends and makes some new ones. The band is the best she’s ever played in, but she notices a couple of things. The all state band, orchestra, and choir all played in much larger rooms in front of large audiences while the jazz band was scheduled early on Saturday morning in front of an audience of about 150 people. (this for another column…) The other programs were varied by composers and had names she recognized, including Bach, Tchaikovsky, Sousa, and John Williams. She doesn’t know much about Dr. P, and while the music was fun, she wonders if he might be as “famous” as John Williams…or Bach?
All kidding aside, and with apologies to my friends the Picklesymer family, what are we doing? Come on jazz, seriously, what are we doing? We’ve fought for years to be taken seriously, to have an art form that speaks for all American voices — black, white, male, female, gay, straight, rich, poor, the disenfranchised. It is literally a music that has come from the soil, sweat, and blood of our greatest artists. Yet it seems we have decided, as a community, that these triumphs, many against staggering odds, are not deserving of wider recognition. That the all-state platform is nothing more than a live infomercial for a composer or publishing company. These are strong words, and I realize that there are many additional factors impacting the situation. Jazz is a much younger art form — it has many more living composers and arrangers, and the nature of jazz is much more “present” than perhaps the other genres. I am also aware that many times the all-state organizers will ask a conductor/composer to “bring your music,” or “play what you like,” and “we’ll get your charts from XXX publisher.” And, many of my good friends, great composers and arrangers, are truly worthy of these opportunities as their art is part of the American vernacular that makes up the jazz canon.
That said, I would like to propose another way, a balanced approach.
What if we integrated our greatest composers into our all-state jazz programs? Instead of six or seven originals and a couple of classics, what if we all performed programs that had an equal number of Basie, Dizzy, Ellington, Strayhorn, Benny Carter, Frank Foster, or Thad Jones tunes with one’s own or newer publications? Introduce our very best and most important literature to not only the students, but the directors, future directors, parents, and families in attendance. Introduce this entire community to a concept that’s deeper than notes — the rich history, the culture, our own mythology that accompanies each of these masterworks and the artists that often times risked everything to create them. Our music tells our story, a triumphant American story that clarifies who we are and the persistent optimism of who we have yet to become.
How great would it be if a young person learns about a soloist like Lester Young? Or finds inspiration in Melba Liston? Or brandishes a plunger like Cootie Williams and growls like Bubber Miley? Or swoops and bends a clarinet like Benny Goodman. Or learns about the tragedy and triumph of Chick Webb and the amazing compositions of Mary Lou Williams.
These are the riches of our music. And our ultimate triumph is letting them be heard.
Todd Stoll has spent nearly thirty years as an educator, performer and leading advocate for jazz. He currently serves as Vice President of Education for Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City where he oversees programs that reach more than 200,000 people each year. His leadership at JALC has revived the institutions commitment to the underserved while embracing 21st century technology as a means for greater access to the music. Since his tenure began in 2011, the education department at JALC produced nearly 20,000 individual events both in its home at Fredrick P Rose Hall, throughout the US, and abroad.