Back to School

A sincere thanks to Joan Anderman for a lovely profile in the Boston Globe: “A jazz pianist’s spot at the corner of history and what’s new,” prompted by my new position teaching piano in the jazz department at New England Conservatory.

Billy Hart is also on faculty at NEC: on Friday at 1 PM we will give a joint masterclass with Ben Street, free and open to the public. The next afternoon we play a short set at the BeanTown Jazz Fest @ the Berklee Stage at 1:45 PM, also free. (Mark Turner is with Tom Harrell in Chicago, otherwise he’d be there too.) Sunday the full Billy Hart quartet plays two sets for Duke Performances in Durham.

In Joan’s article I’m quoted accurately as saying, “Jazz in the classroom is some kind of malarkey.”

For more context, a Q and A I recently did with James Hale may be illuminating. Some of these comments were compressed and used in Hale’s excellent piece in the October DownBeat, “Stars on Campus.” A PDF of the full article, which includes discussion with Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steve Lehman, and Miguel Zenon, will be included in the next Floyd Camembert Reports.

1. What influenced your decision to take the teaching position at NEC?

It’s a great school with an impressive faculty. When I visited and gave a masterclass, I was impressed with the level of the student pianists. They were so good! Yet I also feel like I have information to share that might help.

2. Do you see this current trend toward leading recording/performing artists taking full-time teaching positions as a reality of current recording/performing economic environment, a reflection of how many current recording/performing artists also have advanced post-secondary degrees… some combination of both?

Sure, all of the above, although in my case I don’t have a college degree, I’m a dropout. However I have always had a kind of scholarly slant. Teaching is very much an outgrowth of my work writing and interviewing on my blog Do the Math.

3. How is the teaching position going to affect the way you approach your own career as an artist? Are their sacrifices that must be made to manage an academic career in addition to composing/recording/touring?

It’s not a heavy workload: I’m supposed to be there seven days a semester, although I plan to be very energetic and dedicated when I’m there. I guess ask me this question after I’ve tried it for a year!

4. What do you hope you can bring to students that academics who haven’t focused on recording/performing can’t?

Well, there is something practical I might have to offer about building a career. Students always want to know, “How can I make it?” and I guess I have a few answers.

5. Do you see your role as bringing a view into the “real world” of being a musician into the classroom as well as the academic “basics” of music theory?

Actually, I think my strongest suit is analysis of historical jazz. This of course is also what I offer on Do the Math. Do we really understand Bud Powell or McCoy Tyner yet? I’m constantly working on how and why the greatest jazz musicians did what they did, and I am eager to learn if students are receptive to my theories.

I don’t plan to teach how I make music myself. This is also like Brahms or Bartók, both of whom flatly refused to teach their own music.

In general I don’t like the cults of jazz education. Lennie Tristano was first: More recently Steve Coleman, Kenny Werner, Dave Liebman, Richie Beirach, Barry Harris, Wynton Marsalis and others have systems — or at least specific ways of disseminating information — that they teach as “the way.” I love all the music those musicians make, but don’t approve when their personal methodology takes over a classroom.

When I was in a masterclass with Liebman in high school, he told me flatly, “You play too much like Thelonious Monk. Here’s some Phrygian chords like Richie Beirach would play, this is hipper.” He was wrong to do this, he should have encouraged my idiosyncrasy and worked on drawing out my own individuality from a Monkish perspective. I wasn’t auditioning for a gig with Liebman, I was auditioning for a gig playing the kind of music I wanted to make.

6. I’m sure you’ve heard the criticism from some corners that jazz has suffered since the rise of jazz education programs in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some people have decried the loss of great “learn on the bandstand” teachers like Art Blakey and Betty Carter, and the growing emphasis on classroom-learned technique over the traditional oral learning. I’m interested in hearing your response to that, but also to whether you think that the move of musicians like yourself, Myra Melford, Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa and so many others into academia in recent years will have an impact on the next generation of jazz artists.

This is a valid criticism. Jazz was better when it was closer to being a super-advanced folk music than anything academia could offer. However, we are where we are, and those of us who really love jazz need to deal with what we have.

I’m hoping my role will be to help young musicians to acquire basics, frankly more like if they still had a chance to audition for Blakey or Carter. That’s the kind of impact I want to have: Get to work, youngblood, and compare yourself to who you adore, whether it is Stan Getz or Julius Hemphill. Need some help figuring it out? Let’s talk about it, I might have some ideas on how to study.

Shaping personal aesthetics isn’t my role. Who you are is between you and your gods.

Another big interview that just landed is the really nice long-form discussion with A. Noah Harrison, “Music with a Capital ‘M’: An Interview With Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus.”

Speaking of going to school, I decided it was time to try to make a record with Ron Carter. The Purity of the Turf is just out on Criss Cross. The blurb:

The Purity of the Turf is kind of a “bucket list” moment for Ethan Iverson, who has always wanted to make a record with famous bassist Ron Carter. Iverson chose drummer Nasheet Waits to fill out the trio because Waits represents the avant-garde as well as swing. Criss Cross records offer a level playing field, with everyone recording in the same studio in a single day: Thus the sporting title, The Purity of the Turf. The repertoire is mostly originals and jazz classics. A surprise highlight is the solo piano tribute to the late Paul Bley, ‘So Hard it Hurts’ by Annette Peacock.