Dear Contestants of Kamerton’s We are Playing Jazz Festival,
Dear Contestants of Kamerton’s We are Playing Jazz Festival,
Have you ever noticed?
The birds sing first.
I mean, they have a lot to do, right? Gather food, fix up their nest. Even so, they make time to sing. That’s how they always START. Makes me think of this…
Once there was a town where everyone sang first. There was a song for everything. Waking up, going to sleep, eating, dressing, walking, driving, riding, studying, playing, visiting, arguing, figuring stuff out—a song for everything. That’s how it was. Sing first.
When young people reached 4th or 5th grade, they were offered an instrument to go with the songs. They played saxophones, trumpets, trombones, violins, basses, pianos, guitars and drums. They played all the time. For games, graduations, assemblies, parades, fairs, parties and ceremonies. And when the children were grown, some didn’t play as much but they listened—oh how they listened! Listened so hard their teeth hurt. And the ones who kept playing, played so well they played like no one ever played before—inventing, bending notes, scooping, soaring, swinging and playing the blues. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman were some of their names.
Oh, and did I mention, the people danced? Like no one had danced before—jumping, leaping, catching, syncopating, letting go and holding on. The music brought people together. Black, White, Latino, Asian. It healed us…
This place was here in New York City, in the United States.
It is hard to understand when, how, or why we stopped singing—when, how or why we stopped giving instruments to our children. People will give many reasons and none of them make any sense.
Dewey Redman said, “Music makes us smarter, happy and healthier.” Why stop?
Louis Armstrong said, “What we play is life.” Why stop?
Willie Dixon said, “The blues is the roots. Everything else is the fruits.”
We’d have to be CRAZY not to play? Don’t you think?
So don’t be crazy—keep playing. Don’t be crazy—keep singing. Don’t be crazy—keep dancing.
And if anybody ever tells you to stop, you tell him what Dewey, Louie or Willie said. Or simply ask—have you ever noticed?
The birds sing first.
Jazz at Lincoln Center (4/30/16)
I am so happy to share this video of the title song of Message From Saturn from the Euro Asian premiere in Yeketerinburg, Russia in November of ’16. The joy generated in this intergenerational and cross cultural collaboration melted the ice. Here’s to more blues in 2017!
When your baby left you, you need the blues. When you can’t get satisfied, you need the blues. When the one you love takes up with someone else, you need the blues. And when you feel you’ve been mistreated, you have got to have the blues.
The blues is bad. Playing the blues is good. It relieves suffering and pain. Maybe for just a while, but then again, that’s life, right? Each moment gives away to the next maintaining an ongoing state of impermanence. And yet, plugging into the blues by playing it and listening to it with friends, connects you with something eternal and real.
The blues is a real as real can be. Created in the rural Southern United States by formerly enslaved African Americans enduring ongoing acts of arbitrary and calculated violence, emotional abuse and material deprivation by a system of preference based on white supremacy; the blues addresses fear. The blues is true. No sugar coating.
If you are lonely you sing “yes I’m lonely—“ owning it—admitting weakness and vulnerability and through this process revealing your own truth. The blues fosters a way of being that accepts reality—the bitter and the sweet—but is not overly attached to it. As long as there is a way to play the blues, there is hope and a pathway to fellowship, community and ultimately—love.
Today, the feeling of the blues is all around us. Conflicts around power, money and the way we treat each other shake our societies to their core. And there in the background is blues music, humbly forming the foundation for popular music all over the globe. The blues made jazz, rock and roll, R & B, and hip-hop. The blues combines east and west, rich and poor, black and white to make a musical form that offers an intoxicating mix of freely expressive singing, steady polyrhythm spiced with syncopation and personal story telling. The blues invites you to holler, cry, scream and moan as needed. The blues invites the audience to respond and co-sign its themes in real time thereby creating a call and response circle of repair.
The blues is older than all of us and will still be here when we are gone. We can find the recordings of its great pioneers with the touch of a button, the click of a mouse. Have you heard B.B. King’s “Three O’ Clock in the Morning,” lately? How about Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues,” or Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen”? Each are masterpieces of human expression.
For musicians, these recordings contain the keys to language of the soul. Getting to know the work of Memphis Minnie, Leroy Carr, Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins, Dinah Washington and Joe Williams opens doors. It has taken me literally around the world. Listen to “Midnight Moan” from Howlin’ Wolf. Your molecules will be rearranged.
Musicians–Let’s play more blues to repair, to heal, to transform.
Listeners-let’s be honest and be together with the blues. More blues for a more better world.
Thanks to the United States Department of State and The Jazz Drama Program, this was our third tour to Guatemala. What a privilege it was to visit this beautiful country and play for the amazing Guatemalan People!
Joined by longtime friends and associates, LaFrae Sci, drums/compositions, Lakecia Benjamin, alto saxophone and Elias Bailey, bass, the band came ready to SWING, play the BLUES, and be CREATIVE through PERFORMING and TEACHING.
In seven days, we gave seven workshops and five concerts. Our programs were organized by U.S. Embassy staff Dawn Suni, Public Diplomacy Officer and Basilia Lopez, Outreach Coordinator. Rolando Lopez, Technical Director. What a fantastic team!
Our first day we reunited with our friends pianist/teacher, Victor Arriaza and saxophonist/vocalist/teacher Rosse Aguilar Barrascout. Rosse founded and runs a music school in Guatemala City called Innato School of Music and we were happy to give three workshops to their students in jazz improvisation, highlighting lessons from jazz and blues masters Mary Lou Williams and Bessie Smith. It was an excellent way to celebrate Women’s History Month!
Arriving early the next day at the National Conservatory and Municipal Music School of Guatemala to give a workshop, we found that some of the students had awoken at 2 or 3 in the morning to travel there. As early as it was, Lakecia suggested we start with a burner from our book that features her, Alto Power. We gave it all we had!
Notice the paintings around the auditorium and the diverse ages of the students!
In the evening, we returned to Instituto Guatemala Americano(IGA) in Guatemala City to perform at the Guatemala Jazz Festival. Rosse Aguilar joined us to sing and play the blues and we premiered my new song “Climate Change” and LaFrae’s composition, “Colibri,” based on a Guatemalan folk tradition. We also featured a Mary Lou Williams piece “Ode to Saint Cecile,” the patroness of musicians.
The next day we traveled by van to Huehuetenango and arrived at Escual Tipo Federacion in the mid afternoon to give a professional development workshop to primary school teachers. The following day we did a similar workshop for student teachers. The workshops modeled an experiential learning approach to promote student engagement and success. By facilitating creative opportunities for students, teachers spark intrinsic motivation, ownership and agency. In the workshop, each teacher and student teacher received a kazoo and had the opportunity to collaborate in a small group to create an improvisation based on a Guatemalan folk tune. LaFrae also led a line dance on “Do the Hucklebuck.” An excellent discussion followed on how lessons absorbed experientially often endure much longer then more teacher directed approaches.
The climax of our Huehuetanango visit was our concert at the Municipal Theatre. The local orchestra opened the concert with two songs. LaFrae and Lakecia joining on the second. Dawn then explained how our concert was to support women’s empowerment in honor of Women’s History Month. Then I started a call and response bluesy improvisation with the audience of over 500 teenagers dividing the audience into two distinct musical parts. Then, ALL THE LIGHTS AND POWER WENT OUT. That meant no microphones, no keyboard or bass amp. Immediately LaFrae took one of her drums into the audience and began a two-part women’s empowerment chant, “Mujeres…mujeres. Mujeres….mujeres.” Lakecia soon followed enlisting the support of the horn section from the local orchestra. Meanwhile, Dawn conferenced with our local producers and found that all the power in the town was out and not likely to come back any time soon. They tried to rig up something but to no avail. LaFrae and Lakecia led the rest of the concert, about 45-minutes more, with improvised chants and call and responses. The young people left elated, still in the dark, other then lights from people mobile phones. It was a truly extraordinary display of women’s empowerment. Amazing!
With the sun setting we got to get some air and visit a local historical site of Mayan ruins. What a tremendous International Women’s Day!
The next day we gave a workshop at Conservatorio Regional, a modest building with beautiful light, a visionary director and eager students. Elias was moved by the opportunity to show some of the cellists how to hold the bow. I was surrounded by a heap of piano players and some of them are playing jazz. It was a wonderful exchange.
Then, it was on to Quetzaltenango and a beautiful city called Xela. In the morning we gave a performance workshop for the students at Instituto Guatemala Americano in honor of Woman’s Day. We talked about The Jazz Drama Program musical, Nora’s Ark, as a story of women’s empowerment and there is interest in doing The Jazz Drama Program musical next year!
The following day we gave a concert at the Municipal Theatre as part of the Guatemala Jazz Festival. It was a beautiful old hall and the people loved swinging music. After Lakecia tore things up on “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” by Charles Mingus, we gave them an encore of “On the Sunnyside of the Street.” This town loves jazz that SWINGS.
The final day we returned to Guatemala City to play for a gathering at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence. Ambassador Todd Robinson is the epitome of class, warm heart, deep into the arts, and someone who truly brings people together with his intelligence and innate sense of what makes people tick. It was an honor to perform for the second year in a row at his house. We had a thrill bringing Rosse Aguilar back up to play with us and Victor Arriaza sat in as well. A fantastic climax of a wonderful week on the road for cultural diplomacy through JAZZ on behalf of The U.S. Department of State and The Jazz Drama Program.
We did it! On July 1 and 2, we broke ground on the first ever Jazz Drama Program Summer Jazz Arts Institute. With my great colleagues LaFrae Sci, Tom Dempsey, Shireen Dickson, and Jeanie LoVetri we launched what we hope will be a vital charging station for imaginative education through jazz for years to come. Thanks to Lehman Stages at my alma mater, Lehman College, City University of New York in the Bronx, we had two days to go deep into different modalities of teaching and learning in jazz. We asked questions about what do teachers and students need to have a great experience exploring jazz? What fundamental skills and aesthetic values do they need to access? How can we deliver them in an engaging, enriching and revitalizing manner?
After I gave a brief introduction to the Institute, master singing voice specialist Jeannette LoVetri gave a stunning two-introductory overview of Somatic Voicework ™, the LoVetri Method. This method of training singers prepares you to sing jazz and blues by developing your awareness of the different registers of the voice-head and chest and how to mix them with ease to get the particular sounds and vocal flavors that you want. It may seem obvious that singing the blues is different then singing Italian opera, but for too long, there has been little formal training available to those of us who want to sing American styles of music, most of which flow out of the blues. Jeanie’s method is based in up to the minute information from leading doctors and medical researchers in the field of voice science and it was a tremendous treat to hear directly from Jeanie how we can begin to develop a healthy foundation for learning and teaching singing jazz and blues. For more information on Jeanie’s teaching method, visit Somatic Voicework
Next, Jazz Drama Program Dance Director, Shireen Dickson, gave us a hands on workshop in Making Jazz-Based Dances. The dance workshop scaffolded specific universal jazz qualities onto pedestrian (everyday) movement to demonstrate how easily movement phrases can be developed to tell stories. While the class’s primary objective was to demonstrate how a jazz platform can offer an immediate point of entry for all bodies, and how this technique is used when working with JDP youth, the session also modeled very clear hallmarks of JDP’s dance education rubric: body percussion, musical phrasing, rhythmic pedestrian movement, improvisation, collaboration, and sharing.
Day One concluded with teaching artist, drummer and composer LaFrae Sci leading participants into the well of African American song and rhythm from which jazz music and culture flows. This session combined vocal, rhythmic and body movement to explore spirituals and the blues as a foundation of jazz learning across disciplines: vocal, instrumental, solo, dance and theatrical work. The session was presented as a critical complement to more traditional, foundational jazz instrumental and vocal learning and guided participants to embody blues vocal expression as well as the shuffle rhythm as the foundation of swing and the key to accessing the healing properties of jazz.
Day Two began with a review of Somatic Voicework ™, the LoVetri Method, led by teaching artist, singer and songwriter, Cindy Hospedales, who is also a Level III certified Somatic Voicework teacher. Cindy presented the method as student-centered and ideally suited to meet students where they are at. She showed how isolating registers can help determine vocal issues that need to be addressed and demonstrated specific vowel sounds to use to access head, chest and mix registers and specific strategies for blending and extending range. Cindy emphasized the point that when teaching students to sing, teachers must know how to recognize certain problems that inexperienced singers typically face and have concrete information that provide solutions, especially when it comes to expressive singing in contemporary music, formally known as Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM).
After the vocal session, teaching artist, guitarist, author and Professor at LaGuardia Community College, Tom Dempsey, led us into a cross-modality exploration of Improvisation. The workshop began with a wide ranging discussion branching off from intriguing quotes on improvisation such as the one below by Ralph Ellison.
“There is a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment (as distinct from the uninspired commercial performance) springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest, each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity: as individual, as member of the collectivity and as link in the chain of tradition. Thus, because jazz finds its very life in an endless improvisation upon traditional materials, the jazzman must lose his identity even as he finds it.” Ralph Ellison
Upon listening to Miles Davis Quintet’s live performance (1964) of “My Funny Valentine” with Miles Davis – trumpet, George Coleman – tenor saxophone, Herbie Hancock – piano, Ron Carter – bass, Tony Williams – drums, participants identified key components of jazz improvisation taking place and contributors in the group. There was discussion on the elements of sound (timbre, dynamics, rhythm, articulation, etc) and how the essential aspect of listening fueled meaningful interaction between group members that contributed to the overall masterpiece of the recording. Some key words shared by participants: Playfulness, Feeling, No eraser, Courage Collaboration, Supporting, Vulnerability, Control, Critical thinking, Yes and…, Generosity, Dexterity, Shared language.
The final workshop of the day was led by teaching artist, musician, actor, Program Director at Tribeca Performing Arts Center, Mario Giacalone. The theater workshop complemented yet challenged how participants viewed vocal and physical improvisation from an abstract rhythmic place. With a previous foundation laid in Tom’s Improvisation session, participants, with the clear instructions to “not think just do” and “give yourself permission,” who had never experienced this type of workshop were able to push against comfort boundaries, and see immediate relevance to their own non-theatrical artistic/teaching practices.
We concluded the Institute with a discussion that reviewed Jazz Drama Program practices that we experienced in the Institute.
*** THIS is what differentiates JDP from other European art forms. It separates from emphasis on technical ability and focuses more on freedom/expressing.
We are working on a more detailed paper outlining the activities of The Jazz Drama Program’s Summer Jazz Arts Institute 2015 at Lehman College. Please let me know if you are interested in receiving a copy when its done by leaving a comment below. Also, we are gathering names of teachers and teaching artists who might like to join us next summer at the Institute. We plan to have it around the same time-end of June/early July. You can contact us by visiting The Jazz Drama Program, where you will find the latest information on the organization’s activities and methods.
The last day of the tour was my favorite because we visited and gave a workshop at La Alianza, a shelter for girls who are victims of trafficking and sexual violence. The place is run exceptionally well by a staff of extremely devoted and expert women who give these girls the support and shelter they need. There is a a music program at the shelter run by Steban, who is doing a great job motivating everyone to SING! We had no problem teaching everyone “Freight Train” and before long LaFrae had about half the 45 girls on their feet doing a line dance while Evan, Paul and I played the blues. Other girls, many who had babies on their lap, took to the kazoo and joined in instrumentally. The whole place vibrated with MUSIC. We must go back.
In the afternoon, we played for 500 high school kids on the outskirts of the city at Santa Catarina Pinula. LaFrae and I had played their in 2011 with the blues band and recognized the head of the music school, Estuardo Lopez, who gave us a warm “hola.” The students in the audience brought the energy up to the level of a rock concert and we stayed for an hour afterwards signing Cd’s, t-shirts, notebooks, whatever their was to sign. I know there will be lots more swinging after we have moved on through. And, I certainly hope to be back one day….for Hasta Luego Guatemala!!! Muchas gracias!!!
Back to Guatemala City now for a reception at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson. We could not ask for a more welcoming host. Ambassador Robinson hails from Newark, NJ, a jazz town once and forever. He truly believes in the power of jazz to uplift and unite everyone. He is also an idealist who inspires us with his affirmation that we all can contribute to a world of greater equity and justice. I’m proud to know him and will continue to do all I can to live up to his example of representing the best of what the United States is all about…