Jazz Composition Taught `Street' Style. In weekly sessions, seasoned pros encourage budding composers and musicians to break loose in learning to craft new pieces. MUSIC EDUCATION: FREE WORKSHOPS IN NEW YORK
NEW YORK — IN Duke Ellington's day, jazz composers learned their craft from one another, and from their heroes - in the streets, so to speak. But now that the heyday of the big bands is long past, how are young, creative jazz composers learning their craft? Although there are plenty of jazz schools and courses around, there's only one that focuses specifically on skills for the creative jazz composer, and brings ``the street'' right into the classroom. It's called, appropriately, the Jazz Composers' Workshop, and it's the brainchild of Burt Korall, director, special assignments, of Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) music licensing headquarters here.
With the support of BMI's president, Frances Preston, Mr. Korall started the workshop last September. Unlike many other jazz courses, all the students are professional, working composers and musicians, and the teachers - Bob Brookmeyer and Manny Albam - come straight from the street. And - it's free of charge.
Mr. Brookmeyer, a noted valve trombonist and composer who has worked with Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry, and others, and is currently on the staff of the Manhattan School of Music, said in a written statement about the jazz workshop:
``When I arrived in New York in 1952, the streets were literally teeming with heroes. All of our jazz giants set examples and encouraged one and all to aspire to top-level performance and composition. Now, almost all the heroes are gone; there is no street or community as it then existed....''
So Brookmeyer has joined forces with Mr. Albam, a fellow composer who has written for singer Carmen McRae as well as several big bands, including those of Count Basie and Buddy Rich, and has been codirector of the Arrangers Workshop at the Eastman School of Music for 25 years. Their goal is to bring the street ``school'' into the classroom. They're trying to avoid perpetuating the system of students being ``taught by teachers, who were taught by teachers, who were taught by teachers,'' as Brookmeyer puts it.
In this workshop/street atmosphere, he said in a telephone interview, the students are expected to ``experiment and to find new solutions for old problems. We want to make them composers instead of songwriters - composers more in the classical sense, where small things are made into larger things and wind up being a work.''
In the workshop sessions, held weekly, students are taught ways to break out of the old methods of jazz composition. Instead of taking a song and embellishing it, they're asked to work with just two or three single tones, or tone modules. Brookmeyer described how these modules are used to create a composition.
``They concentrate on a small area, which gets developed into a larger area by degrees, which then gets developed again into a larger area. So it's really a building process. Instead of having them take on a half-finished house and be the interior decorator, we're trying to make them house builders.''
Brookmeyer believes that many composers are prisoners of what they have learned in the past - prisoners of the old song forms.
``If you hear music, your past dictates what you hear, and if you go through life saying, `I write what I hear,' your past is going to tell you what to write, so you don't progress.''
``A lot of these people are already good writers,'' Albam said after class one evening. ``We just want them to push on ahead, get themselves closer to the 21st century.''
Brookmeyer has a reputation for being a musical visionary, an avant-gardist, while Albam, although he admires and encourages experimentation, is more tradition-based.
``We're not at opposite ends of the spectrum, but we don't zero in on the same things, which I think is good,'' Albam says. ``It allows people to see that there's no formula. He has one way, I have another way ... you do it your own way.''
The students - mostly young, white males, although both Albam and Brookmeyer are trying to encourage more women and minorities to apply - have varying reactions to the workshop, but all seem to be grateful for the camaraderie and rich exchange of ideas, both with the instructors and among themselves - and for the incentive to write.
Gary Morgan, a former saxophonist who switched to bass, joined the workshop because he hadn't written in a long time and wanted to begin again. Mr. Morgan describes himself as having ``a flair for melodic composition - grinding out tunes,'' and being a ``great believer in instinct.'' He's had some struggles with Brookmeyer's concepts, but he says, ``Just because I don't want to use an intellectual concept as a central focus of my piece, doesn't mean that there is not room for intellect. Music must embrace intellect as well as spirit. But what's hard for me is to integrate melodic statements into something greater, or something more dramatic, or something that has more architecture, or more emotion, or other values.''
That's where Brookmeyer's tone modules come in, says Morgan. ``I think I'm somewhat of an anti-intellectual, when it really gets down to the nitty-gritty of making music, so therefore I tend to avoid that kind of stimulus. But if I sit here in class and hear somebody else talk about it, something does trickle through.''
Wayne Andre, a well-known, respected, and very busy trombonist around town, enjoys the relaxed atmosphere of the workshop, but he wishes he were being pushed a bit more.
``It's nowhere near as structured as anything I've done in the past,'' he says. ``[But] it's making me write. There's a certain amount expected of me if I come to the class.'' Mr. Andre describes his life as revolving around his family, and around the business of music, which, he says, is ``totally divorced from this workshop.''
Pianist Frank Amsallem, who came from France to the United States on a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston and moved to New York three years ago, agrees with Andre that the workshop is excellent, but perhaps a bit soft on students.
``Musicians are very lazy. They don't get up in the morning, and they don't do their assignment. The only way to make them do it is to push them. We could do more.'' But he says the workshop is ``very good, very valuable, because we are here to talk about music, not about commercial situations. Creative jazz composing - it's our only worry.''
What about pushing the students more? The general feeling is that these are professionals, and their busy schedules simply won't allow for too much pushing. On one assignment, only about half of the students actually completed their written scores. But the teachers are tolerant.
``If [the students] have other work to do, they can only spend so much time on each thing,'' Albam says. ``The idea is that it's a workshop and you bring in whatever you can. I don't like to lose that concept, and occasionally I think some of the people are drawn into thinking that this is a classroom, which it really shouldn't be.''
The class goal is rehearsal of the best works at a private session, with Mel Lewis's band at the Village Vanguard jazz club. After that the compositions would be showcased at a New York theater, open to a limited audience from the music industry.
Present plans are to continue the workshop for another year, and possibly longer.
``For September, we have 40 places to fill,'' says Korall, the workshop founder. Students will be recruited from top music schools, as well as by word of mouth.
``What it's really becoming is a family of composers,'' he says. ``It's a family without a hierarchy. Although Manny and Bob are guides and leaders, they are benevolent leaders. They realize that being a musician is difficult, and creating is a difficult process.''