PRO WORKSHOP SESSION — ADVENTURES WITH JAZZ

FROM DOWNBEAT MAGAZINE

by Harry Skoler

When you share the jazz language with young people, the rewards are always the same: to see in the eyes of students the spark of creativity that comes with the improvisational experience.

The educational program ADVENTURES WITH JAZZ, which travels to schools across New England, has made a jazz missionary out of me. I stumbled into this mission 16 years ago after I volunteered to teach music to a third grade classroom. After a few weeks of volunteering, I came home with an arm full of handmade cards and a feeling that something important had been shared.

After a number of years experimenting with various methods of bringing music to young people, I was convinced that to really do this well, I needed more preparation and attention to detail. I was fortunate enough to find three musicians that shared the same commitment and were willing to do the amount of work needed to make the experience memorable and rewarding. With Roger Kimball on bass, Mark Rerallack on keyboards and drummer Tim Gilmore, the group Adventures With Jazz was born. It took about two years of rehearsals, brainstorming and stamp licking before we felt ready to step into our first kid packed gymnasium. Still, we learned a lot of our presentation as we went. For those musicians and educators who feel they have a calling similar to ours, the following suggestions might be helpful.

In addition to all the preparations needed to perform in the schools (brochures, promotional packages, phone calls, PTO meetings, getting sponsored by state organizations' touring rosters), each bandmember must learn to present his or her material creatively and interact with the rest of the group. The group as a whole must be inspired and feel as though they're on an adventure themselves if they're going to reach anybody in the audience. Indeed, all of the musicianship in the world is useless if an immediate connection is not made with the audience.

Once actually in front of the audience, the message must be made clear that this is a shared adventure. When we play our first piece, as the students come in, I establish eye contact and use expressions (sometimes walking right up to different children while playing) to make my soloing more conversational. This helps break down a sometimes too-formal barrier and allows us to start out with a feeling of spontaneity and fun.

Playing tunes that the audience can relate to (like "Meet The Flintstones") helps the students meet us halfway and allows some give-and-take that fosters the spirit of sharing and invention. Dead space is the kiss of death: there is a balance between preparation and spontaneity that must be mastered. And every song we play must tell a story.

We teach a little history and give examples of improvisational conversations. Each instrumentalist illustrates his role in the ensemble and helps define the elements of melody, harmony and rhythm. We engage the students by getting them to ask questions, sing along and play their instruments with us. By keeping everything simple, we eventually get them to improvise, most of them for the very first time.

In an improvisational clinic, it's important to establish a safe environment for children to take their first steps. Students may feel intimidated and assume that they must be anointed by the great god Jazz to be able to improvise. Others will be shy about playing in front of their peers. Talking about these issues for a few minutes will help allay fears and build confidence.

Above all, the following messages need to be communicated to your students-they can make or break the clinic.

As for the rewards in all this, I think of the anxious student violinist in an Adventures With Jazz clinic who proclaimed it was impossible for him to play music without the printed notes in front of him. By the end of the clinic, he was Stephane Grapelli-ing his way through a second chorus of the blues with an inspired smile on his face-like the one I imagine was on my face 25 years ago when I heard my clarinet teacher, Douglas Soyard, wail through Benny Goodman's "Grand Slam".

Before that, I was a frustrated clarinetist who hated jazz. But that music was singed into my very being, and that evening I told my family I aspired to be a musician. Let's hope that Adventures With Jazz and similar programs inspire at least one youngster today to do the same.