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Blue Collar's Guest Blog: Dave Powell!!
By Mick Polich - 01/01/2010 - 11:35 AM EST

The Lost Art of Improvisation in Schools

Mickster, I'm so glad to get a chance to meet once again on a topic close to both of our hearts.

I have to preface this interview by saying that this topic is one that has frustrated me for several years and it "reared its ugly head" once again last week.  I was engaged in a road-trip conversation with my soulmate concerning a recent local jazz contest I attended at the high school level.  Our road-trip topic was jazz, the art of improvisation, and an apparent decline in the push to drive students to make their own way as soloists.

So, my friend -- let's get down to it!  I'll call this interview "The Lost Art of Improvisation in Schools."

(Mick) Sounds good, buddy – fire away!

DP:  I (and most of the friends close to me) had the wonderful opportunity to grow up in the Midwest during an important time in jazz education.  You may recall the influence that the clinicians of the day had on young musicians.  Stan Kenton was perhaps the most influential of them all, carrying the torch for the youth/jazz movement, traveling hamlet to hamlet, sharing his band (for little money, typically) in effort to foster the art of jazz through the Younger Generation.  What are your memories of these days?

(Mick)  I was lucky to have Roy Jenkins as my band director at Saydel High in Des Moines. Very old – school, tough, but definitely had the mindset of the arts belonging to the community, and everyone could, and should enjoy the process. Great quote from him – “Without the arts, we would all be barbarians.” I didn’t join band until I was a senior, but had been listening to different forms of jazz thru my dad’s records, and my own burgeoning collection of music. I think seeing Weather Report at the Des MoinesCivicCenter in the early 1980’s was the high point for me – those guys had all the elements that I wanted encompassed in a jazz band.   

DP: For me, personally, seeing Stan Kenton, Pete Erskine, Richard Torres, Dick Shearer and crew was a life changing event.  At the heart of this Wall of Brass was the epiphany of my life at the time -- seeing some good soloists improvise.

(Mick) When you see someone who can really play and improvise – you know, technical brilliance is good, but someone who puts their heart into every note, too – it’s truly a great thing.

DP: Perhaps more important was the fact that I had one of the great Midwestern jazz teachers, Denis Best, in my high school for my formative years. Denis had more energy than any music teacher I'd ever been around, and he stressed, stressed, stressed improvisation.  It didn't come easy for everyone, but certainly benefitted those who did grasp it.  Denis made the 'average' players believe they could swing, could improvise.  6:30AM "Early Bird" jazz practice would fire up with some Bb blues -- and Denis would point at each of us and command us to try to solo; "You Powelly," "You Maria," "You Gary," "Go Matt," "Go Brent," "c'mon Janice -- try it -- just try it" and each would play varying quality of solos.  But -- they tried!

(Mick) Good ol’ Denny – he retired from the Rieman Music sales force this past year. I got to play with him in his country band that he had with his wife back in the early 1980’s. That’s really great – I take that philosophy also with my students that anyone has the line in them to improvise. Heck, it’s worked for Jamey Aebersold and his instruction materials!

DP: So, this brings us to the heart of the matter.  What happened?  Why do the top high schools having some of the top technical players and All-Staters have so few good soloists? 

(Mick) It always amazes me, as we’ve moved around the country with my wife’s job, that I get to see and hear young musicians, and most of them are just amazing – can read anything you throw in front of them, great technique, but very little in understanding music theory and trying to think on their own for calling up solos. Even with the advent of the internet, and everybody and their pig putting up transcriptions of songs and solos, it’s amazing very few playing an instrument think on their own when it comes to composition and soloing. I know there are young players out there that can solo, but I see mostly the opposite thru my lesson ranks.

DP: I served as band booster president of one of the largest high schools in the Midwest, a perennial winner of major contests with more All-Staters than any other institution around.  Given this, almost all solos were simple, written solos. Great players, great tone, all skillful -- written solos?

(Mick) Yeah, which I think that’s good to a degree – perhaps to serve as an example on HOW to solo.  But I’ve played with people that freeze up if they had to create a solo from scratch, you know?

DP:  How does one foster a culture of improvisation in our schools?

(Mick)  Where we are in north Texas serves as a breeding ground to some great musicians – this starts in middle school, high school, then, college. The University of North Texas is a renown music and arts school – I remember reading about them in Down beat 35 years ago. Their One O’ Clock Jazz Band is one of the best in the business – here, in the Great Plains, not New York, not L.A., but in the middle of the country! So, I think it’s a collective effort – community based, start ‘em young, maybe 5th or 6th grade. But foster good music reading skills, then temper it with encouraging them to improvise.

D.P:  I had a guitarist approach me after a show a few weeks ago and he presented a very fair and visibly frustrated question to me.  "Dave, when you solo, do you know the notes you play before you play them, actually how they 'sound,' or are you just playing positions on the fingerboard?" 

I explained to the gentleman that I 'scat' when I play, that is, I'm a horn player playing a sax solo and hear the notes before I play them.  I told him to take that approach, to learn the notes all across the fingerboard, and develop melodies in his head.  I took most of this from the years in and after high school.  Is this an approach you use, or ?. Have young guitarists began to rely too much on pentatonic patterns, blues scales rather than 'finding their voice?'

(Mick) I think it’s beyond pentatonic, or any patterns, frankly – when you can dial up a reasonably good transcription of a solo to a song thru a website, or have accurate transcriptions of songs in books, you’re going to go with that approach. Every since the “Rock School” and “School of Rock” phenomenon of the early 2000’s, kids as young as 8 years old are learning ‘classic rock’ solos, and freakin’ amazingly, at that! I subbed at a local school like that last year for 2 weeks – amazing players, but the concept of actually making their solos up was completely foreign to them. I brought in my home made improv CD’s  - backing tracks so they could solo over them – and it was like another light bulb went off over their heads!

DP:  I've noticed a tendency for many of the schools to settle for less complex, or I'd say less quality charts than we played.  For example, in one school year alone, we performed Hank Levy's "Indra" (9/4), "Fringe Benefit" (5/4) and a tune from the Don Ellis, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson library,

We were playing real manuscript charts, pro arrangements whether they are odd-meter, straight ahead, etc. (versus 'canned jazz methods for high schools') offers a tremendous thrill to the player. 

Kenton worked so closely with his writers (Levy, Hanna, Curnow, etc.), that his music became accessible to the point where a top notch high school or collegiate band with good soloists could do very good justice to the arrangement - close to the original.  Problems such as polytonality, tuning, and phrasing could be overcome by lots of hard work and really 'thinking like the pros thought.'  Riding those tunes so hard made us much better players -- thirty years later.

(Mick) It could be a ‘dumbing down’ effect in some areas, or it could be that modern writers don’t approach the idiom like yesteryear to a certain degree. I’m sure it’s not like that everywhere – I know it’s not like that here. Booker T. Washington over in Dallas has a great arts program, and is noted for having a fine jazz program that probably wouldn’t shy away from charts like that.

DP:  On another topic, I believe you knew a few of my good friends from that amazing Indianola, Iowa high school musical crop harvested in the mid-1970s; Brent Sandy, Paul McKee, Matt Cornish, just to name a few.  The influence great teaching and study habits had on us remains huge today.  I wouldn't have had the 30+ year career in music that I have had.

Do you believe music in the schools has the perception of being too extra-curricular?

(Mick) Depends on the school, the community, and the program – I’ve certainly seen some schools who value the arts over sports, or put more emphasis on the arts. But, as much as I love football, it’s still the same old stuff, because the majority of schools do place like, the football program over a school band program. Music you can journey thru the rest of your life – unfortunately, an NFL career, even a college sports career, can be fleeting.

D.P. : Back in the day, there were the Jazz Orchestra In Residence programs, (e.g. Kenton camps at DruryCollege, University of Redlands, Towson State, etc.) and others.  I attended those camps and they had a huge impact in my life and close friends of mine all across the country.  We had great instructors in all aspects of the camps, including teaching theory and improvisation. Do such camps exist today?

(Mick) Oh sure, they are all over, usually during the summer, and sometimes the adult camps are year ‘round. National Guitar Workshop has camps all over, all year, teaching improve, theory, etc. Not just in rock, but jazz also. And quite a few jazz camps at colleges – Downbeat magazine usually publishes a summer camp schedule come spring.

I would say that the proliferation of music camps has been great over the past decade.

D.P: What would you tell the young, budding musician who is trapped in the plastic bubble of mediocrity in his school and who wants to venture out and learn more about playing good jazz, developing as a soloist?

(Mick) The availability of resources has never been greater, even with the economy the way it is. There are many, many good books on improvisation from many publishers – Jamey Aebersold is still at the forefront of this for jazz, but Advance Music makes some great books on improv and theory. Plus, just getting a good teacher at a local level is key. But the individual has to do the grunt work on their own – the resources are out there, it’s just a matter of locating what you need.

D.P:  Let's wrap this up, Mick.  What are your last words to music teachers who, in this age of big ticket football programs, fine arts budget cuts and workaholic parenting, have to find that balance between simply going through the teaching motions versus developing their young musicians?

(Mick) Love what you do, and it will show up in the outcome to students. Even in my heavy bar band/music store gigging days, I always treated my teaching gig with equal respect. People are giving you money to properly teach them, or their child, a good path to go on for music. Now that my own son takes piano lessons, the reflection of that meaning has never been clearer.

D.P: It's been a pleasure. Thanks for taking the time and hopefully this article will influence just one student the way we were influenced.

 (Mick) Dave, always a pure pleasure – thanks for taking the time to address this topic, and help out with the blog!

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