Jazz Workshops in the 21st Century, the New Mentorship Process

Every time I see a teaching artist talk about music I learn something new. Every time I look at a contemporary book or blog post explaining creative music work I find something I’ve never seen before. Not that I always agree. Yes, agreement about practicing scales and chords and patterns and rhythms is easy. But it’s in the fundamental conception of the creative process and how to address it that things get interesting. That’s where new jazz workshops around the globe are taking the lead in passing on this tradition in a way that used to be covered by working mentorships and touring.

The conversation in these workshops is often about lineage and tradition, about learning vocabulary and repertoire, how to practice, what to practice. And talk usually returns to the most elusive and perennial theme in jazz and creative music: ‘finding your voice.’ You could say the central question here is:

How do I teach you to be you?

Young musicians are coming up better educated and more informed, with more opportunities for exposure to music than ever before. More professional artists are involved in workshopping, and you could say meeting artists in that context is slowly replacing the old mentorship model of touring, recording, and graduating to being a bandleader. Like not or not, the industry no longer provides those kinds of jobs in music. Musicians are learning another way.

I recently ran into Dave Liebman on an airplane and he confirmed this. He’s one of the most engaged artist educators out there. Without hesitation he said that the young musicians he encounters are coming up exposed to all kinds of music and modes of playing. And they have the materials to practice. There are more jazz programs at the high school and university level than there ever were, and the programs I’ve seen have evolved into a cross between a conservatory approach, a creative seminar, and some serious training about getting gigs and doing them well enough to make a career path.

A lot this is provided by independent, non curricular workshops around the globe. I have been fortunate to be involved with the workshop at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Alberta, Canada for the past 10 years. It’s a three week workshop that takes place in May/June at an arts campus situated in the Canadian Rockies. I stepped into the directorship in the shoes of previous directors Kenny Werner, Hugh Fraser, Steve Coleman, Dave Holland, Oscar Peterson, and Phil Nimmons.

What’s so special about the jazz workshops and why are they so important to musicians in a time of entrenchment in the industry?

First of all, and maybe most important, the thought of getting up every day and looking forward to a full day of music. The idea that you are in an environment where everyone else is doing that, too. The music facilities are waiting for you with minimum preparation or fuss. Food will be prepared and served for you close to the approximate moments you will need it. When the weather cooperates it puts the whole experience over the top.

This describes many of the workshops I have been involved in for the past decade or so. At Banff it’s the snow covered peaks. In Sienna the old part of the town and the Duomo at dusk. In Merano the thermal baths and the river. At Stanford the hills. But it’s most of all the music, and the free time to just be involved in music. All day long: practicing, rehearsing, studying, playing, listening, thinking, not thinking.

It’s a gift. And more and more these days, people and organizations are involved in creating and sustaining these workshops. In some ways, it replaces the old apprentice and mentorship system of jazz in clubs and on the circuit. Where else can musicians share knowledge in such an unfettered atmosphere? Where else can they hang out with practitioners and absorb through osmosis? And where else can audiences be exposed to such fresh interactions and discoveries?

Aside from just guidance, young musicians need to be heard, listened to, and encouraged in their own pursuits. After ten years directing the program at Banff I have started to feel like the best thing I can do is listen and learn from the students, stepping in when my own experience has something of value to add. The level of the students improves every year–they come in better informed all the time, a result of the availability of recordings and teaching methods, more music and jazz in the schools, and the encouragement of interactions with professional musicians.

It feels different than it did even 10 years ago. I think workshopping has a lot to do with that. Localism in music is getting both more focused and more inclusive. That is, musicians bring a part of where they are from and express it proudly. At the same time, the local music they grow up with is more and more exposed to current practice worldwide. The Banff Workshop is particularly international in scope, and one of the wonders is seeing Koreans, Australians, North and South Americans, Europeans, Israelis, and more discovering and learning from each others’ tendencies.

In workshops, there tends to be an urgency. Urgency to play, network, perform, and learn. Maybe it’s because there is limited time and everyone will go their separate ways. Sometimes I wonder if it is because there is no degree coming at the end. It’s like, Man if I don’t work on music here, then what the heck am I doing? And teaching artists in this environment let the younger musicians know that they may never find an environment of inquiry like this again in their professional lives.

Maybe the most profound effect is the exposure to a multiplicity of ideas. Diversity in the creative arts is like a spark in a dry tinder pile. Jazz and creative music workshops I’ve been to tend to welcome different viewpoints and because of this the participants are forced to confront their own feelings about a broad spectrum of music. One of my favorite moments in the workshop last year was when Brandon Ross was describing Henry Threadgill’s compositional system and how it influenced his work. Every single student was rapt, following this fairly radical re-imagining of melody and harmony. Within five minutes everyone was shouting and arguing, personally involved in the meaning of the system and its implications. Bright moments!

Teachers and students have to be partners in the enterprise, something that’s more difficult in a curricular atmosphere. Interestingly, St. John’s College, with two campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, uses system that makes teachers teach subjects they have to learn as they go. From The Times:

As much of academia fractures into ever more specific disciplines, this tiny college still expects — in fact, requires — its professors to teach almost every subject, leveraging ignorance as much as expertise… as St. John’s president, Chris Nelson (class of 1970), put it with a smile only slightly sadistic: “Every member of the faculty who comes here gets thrown in the deep end. I think the faculty members, if they were cubbyholed into a specialization, they’d think that they know more than they do. That usually is an impediment to learning. Learning is born of ignorance.”

There are no majors; every student takes the same 16 yearlong courses, which generally feature about 15 students discussing Sophocles or Homer, and the professor acting more as catalyst than connoisseur.

To me that sounds a lot like the workshop approach. Inquisitive, open-minded, participatory.

Teaching, especially in jazz, has to be interactive. The communication only works if the relationship goes both ways. Jazz Workshops I have seen encourage that interaction, where both parties are exploring and learning. In a sense, I feel like that is why workshops have become somewhat of a replication of the mentorship process.

In jazz, you are supposed to be you. How am I going to teach you how to be you if you don’t tell me? And who am I to tell you who you are?

The prevalence of these workshops is a good thing for the music, for the community, and for the long range growth of our increasingly international culture.