19 November 2008

A Tuba in the Jazz Band?

One of my tuba students recently came to me for advice on how to convince his high school band director to let him play in the jazz band. Among other things, I offered to write a letter for him, which I've now turned into an "open letter" to all K-12 band directors who favor strict adherence to the "standard" big band instrumentation of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm. My naively optimistic hope is that this document could be used by any student who wants to play a "non-standard" instrument in their school's jazz band, but whose band teacher won't allow it. I've posted the letter on my website as a PDF file:

A Tuba in the Jazz Band?

I'll refrain from rehashing the whole letter point by point in hopes that you, the reader, will click on the link and read it in its entirety. There are, however, a couple of additional thoughts I've had since I finished it.

First, I mention in the letter that this situation never arises at schools with small/weak music programs. That's because in those cases, there aren't enough (or good enough) students available to cover the parts in the first place, and hence, regardless of their feelings about jazz band instrumentation, the teacher is typically in no position to turn down interested students on any instrument. I suspect this accounts for the fact that the majority of my K-12 tuba students were already playing in jazz band when they came to me for lessons (a point which I was sure to emphasize in the letter). This makes it all the more frustrating that one who attends a school with a larger program would be the one to find himself potentially trespassed from jazz band because of his instrument, yet if you think about it, it makes perfect sense, since there apparently are more trumpet, trombone and saxophone players at his school than there are spots available, making the admission of other instrumentalists quite the slippery slope for his band teacher.

In hindsight, I realize now that as someone who came up through bare bones jazz programs rather than sprawling, competitive ones, I benefitted greatly from this very dynamic, even if it didn't seem like it much of the time. My high school band teacher, who was overworked generally (aren't they all?) and particularly inexperienced in the jazz realm, went looking for help and stumbled on Jim Torok and Kerry Ashmore, two traditional jazz musicians who had been working with school jazz bands on a volunteer basis for many years. She turned the reins over to them, and suddenly not only were we afforded the opportunity to work with two highly experienced professional musicians, but two highly experienced professional musicians who, I was soon to learn, often hire their best students. They ultimately gave me my first paying gigs while I was still in high school, not to mention instilling a love and understanding of early jazz that I may not have otherwise developed. To this day, I still play with both of them several times a year.

I lucked out again in college at the University of Minnesota, where Jazz Studies Director Dean Sorenson spearheaded a collaboration with the dance department that entailed commissioning many new works from local composers. When he offered to include tuba in the instrumentation, I jumped at the opportunity to be a full-time member of a big band for the first time, as well as write a piece of my own for the project. While at The U, I was also lucky enough to have drummer Phil Hey as a jazz combo instructor. Phil, who is ubiquitous on the local scene and is the first call drummer for many big names passing through from out of town, has been a valuable teacher, mentor, and friend over the years, but, oddly enough, one of a type which I may not have had if I had gone to a big name jazz school where TA's run all of the combos, as was the case at the University of Northern Colorado, where I spent a year as an exchange student. This is not to diminish the generosity of Dana Landry, the Director of Jazz Studies at UNC, who graciously agreed to do 1-on-1 lessons with me during my second semester, and also had me play a couple of tunes with the Lab Band I. (Did you get that last part, high school band directors?) Nonetheless, since all of the combos and most of the big bands were directed by TA's, this was my only direct contact with jazz faculty members while I was there.

Certainly, there were ups and downs to all of my academic jazz experiences, and I definitely did not feel lucky to be part of small programs at the time. Nonetheless, it has been difficult watching a student of my own be offered less (nothing, actually) by a program that has more to give, and it has also made me more grateful for what I did get to be a part of as a student.

Secondly, I mention in the letter that, in hindsight, the academic world in general seemed less receptive to me as a tuba player playing jazz than the "real world" of living, breathing musicians has been since I left school. I'll refrain from naming names here, although it should be obvious that the one's I've mentioned in a positive light above certainly aren't who I'm talking about. With this idea still fresh in my mind from writing the letter, I just happened to stumble on a recent New York Times article about the guitarist Mary Halvorson, from which this excerpt particularly jumped out at me:

In high school she enrolled in summer programs at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, learning to shrug off chauvinistic appraisals of her talent.“Nobody would take me seriously,” she said. “They would take one look at me and say, ‘O.K., folk singer.’ That was really hard for me, and I was angry a lot of the time. I did all these summer programs, and I never encountered another female playing jazz guitar. Ever.” The experience taught her to be comfortable as the only woman on a bandstand, she said, adding that the issue rarely comes up anymore.

Let me preface my reaction to that very last passage by saying that I have no illusions that anything I've experienced as a tuba player in a saxophone player's world compares to the pervasiveness or hurtfulness of sexism or racism. Nonetheless, both of our stories point toward an indictment of musical academia as unduly resistant to diversity, the road less travelled, "the world as it might be" as opposed to "the world as it is," or whatever else you want to call it. Maybe we knew that already, but if nothing else, this is more fuel for the fire.

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I'll close this post the way I began my "open letter," which is to say that the very notion of "standard" and "non-standard" instruments is more representative of where the music publishing industry has thrown in their lot than it is of the whole of jazz history and the attitudes of its practitioners. It's never been about what you play, but how you play. Though I am a tuba player, this is about much more than just the tuba. It's too bad that so many schools have hitched their wagons to a jazz band instrumentation that automatically excludes more than half of the wind band, virtually all of the string orchestra, and everyone in the choir. In the face of this, creative band directors have always found the flexibility necessary to involve all of their interested students in jazz, regardless of the instruments they play. As much as we appreciate these extra efforts, they really ought to be par for the course, and we ought not accept anything less.

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