The tenth edition of The Commission Project’s Swing ‘n Jazz event in Rochester, New York, was a canny three-day blend of fund-raising, concertizing and education. Initiated fifteen years ago by Ned Corman, the project sends musicians into schools across the country. As I wrote last year in explaining Swing ‘n Jazz,
It is a piece of a cultural mosaic that, for its variety and vitality, would be remarkable in many larger cities. TCP’s mission description reads that it shall foster “creativity through music education by bringing students together with professional composers and performers in schools and communities nationwide.” Swing (as in golf) ‘n Jazz is built around a tournament attracting well-heeled contributors who provide the money that keeps the nonprofit TCP running. Some of the musicians swing both on the stand and the links. But, mostly, they work with students and those who educate students, to improve understanding of how to make jazz.
For all of that posting, go here.
Again, trumpeter Marvin Stamm was the music director. He and Corman assembled a playing-teaching staff that included well known national musicians. Clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera, bassists Jay Leonhart and Mike Richmond, drummers Akira Tana and Rich Thompson, guitarist Steve Brown, trombonist Fred Wesley, trumpeter and composer Paul Smoker were among the volunteer faculty. All of the musicians donate their time and talent. They include a galaxy of performers from the Rochester area, many of them seasoned professionals who teach at the Eastman School of Music and other higher education institutions.
A major concert for the public on Saturday night involved nearly all of the two dozen or so musicians. Smaller fund-raising performances on Friday and Sunday evenings, both at country clubs, entertained donors and prospective donors who keep the nonprofit TCP afloat. At one, called Bassists’ Night Out, Leonhart was in charge of eight bassists accompanied by Brown on guitar with Tana and Thompson alternating on drums. Four of the bassists were the veteran music educator Malcom Kirby, Sr., and his three adult children Caroline, Elliott and Malcolm, Jr. Mike Richmond, Jeff Campbell and Aleck Brinkman also played. The evening may have been bottom heavy, but it was light hearted, especially when Leonhart did a couple of his celebrated songs accompanying himself. I’ve heard him do “Nukular” a half-dozen times, and it still affects me deeply. Unfortunately, President Bush was on his way to Prague to speak of things nuclear and couldn’t be in the audience.
Because they were all scheduled at the same time, I could attend only one of the six Saturday workshops held in Rochester schools. It was at the School of Arts, a part of the Rochester public school system. The perfomers and faculty were Stamm, D’Rivera, Brown, Leonhart and Thompson. In the course of the morning, they played three pieces and coalesced into a chamber group of rare balance and musicality. It was an ad hoc gathering of artists who developed immediate sensitivity to one another.
From the first piece, Cole Porter’s “I Love You,” the quintet melded into a blended perfection that bands seldom achieve short of weeks playing together. In “Morning of the Carnival,” Stamm, D’Rivera and Brown had a mutuality of spontaneous thematic development that sometimes happens in jazz at the highest level. D’Rivera, a brilliant clarinetist, reversed a phrase of Stamm’s and Brown echoed one of of D’Rivera’s, all within the parameters of Luis Bonfa’s ravishing melody. When the solos began, D’Rivera increased the intensity, then Brown imparted a blues feeling. Stamm began his improvisation outside the harmonic pattern of the piece and flowed through his solo with melodic inventiveness and lack of apparent effort that could almost lead one to believe that the trumpet is easy to play. Leonhart bowed his solo, vocalising in unision. He and D’Rivera collaborated in a chorus of counterpoint. Then, harkening back to the idea Stamm had planted, they all joined in a chorus of free playing before sliding back into the closing statement of the melody.
“That was fun,” D’Rivera said. This group should definitely record.
Their singleness of mind and purpose extended beyond the music into discussion with the audience. “What do you think about when you’re improvising,” a youngster asked.
“Motivic ideas,” Steve Brown said. “To me, it’s all about conversation with other people.”
That led, over the course of the morning, to a chain of related ideas.
“It’s an amazing physical, mental and emotional process,” Jay Leonhart said.
“You must listen to all kinds of music,” D’Rivera said.
“If all you know is rock, which is loud music, what you would play in reaction in this setting would not be appropriate,” Thompson said.
“If you don’t listen to this music, to jazz, no matter how much technique you have, you can’t play this music,” Stamm said. “It’s like speech. You learn to speak by ear. You accumulate vocabulary. If you listen to the right music, your phrasing will develop.”
“How do you balance theory and natural musicality?” an older member of the audience asked.
“There is no conflict between intuition and technique,” Stamm said.
“But,” D’Rivera said, “You must read music. You think you can get by on your great ears? Play me Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.”
“The audience knows when you’re communicating,” Stamm said. “You can’t be condescending to the audience.” On the importance of subduing peformer’s ego for the benefit of the music, he returned to Brown’s thought about music as attentive conversation. “There’s no one up here who isn’t ready to give it up for the others.”
That is a music lesson that goes beyond music.
By way of “All the Things You Are,” the quintet demonstrated its point about listening and conversing, and the workshop ended, two hours of wisdom through teaching and playing by five musicians who were uncommonly effective in both areas. It was a small, memorable example of what The Commission Project achieves.
School systems under budget pressure eliminate music and arts programs first. That has been the case for a couple of decades. It is damaging the United States and it is an indictment of priorities and values in our society. The Commission Project is doing something about that failing. It deserves substantial help. I have seen the program in action two years running, watched the light go on in young minds. Go to the TCP web site and learn where you can send support. The Commission Project is a national program. It is based in Rochester, but there is no reason that most of its financial support should come from there. Your help will be welcome. The children need it.