When did you first connect with jazz, and what caused you to pursue it as a career?
I fell in love with the saxophone as a third grader, hearing some high school students play it. In high school, I was a skateboarder first, and then I sort of wrapped my teenage identity around being a jazz musician, which was an equally subversive thing at the time. I met musicians from other towns and started getting interested in books, art, and culture in ways that had never occurred to me before.
Jazz opened up the world to me, first in high school, then at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. I saw what the “jazz life” and an artist’s life could be. I was hired by an established band, got a passport for the first time, and toured opera houses in Italy during my last semester. Soon after that it was Russia, around the U.S., and eventually Ethiopia.
After 9/11, I took a breath for the first time, and what I was doing did not feel very important. This led to my seeing the importance of teaching, and viewing performance and recording as a way to share music and create a viable experience.
Jazz is sometimes seen as inaccessible. What are your thoughts on this?
Enjoying jazz on any level is OK — you don’t have to “get” it or feel like you’re missing something. Perhaps like watching a football game and not understanding the rules: it can still be entertaining! But it likely gets more enjoyable when you understand what a touchdown is.
Just before the pandemic, you were awarded the Babbott Chair, Packer’s endowed chair for a teacher in the humanities. How does that feel?
It is a deep honor to be in the company of other Babbott Chair holders. The Babbott is an opportunity to take stock of how my jazz-musician life and my woodwind-teacher life relate. Ultimately, they’re two sides of the same coin. Both teaching and performing involve sharing music with people and creating an authentic and reflective experience. When I perform, I speak to my audiences to provide context and attempt to demystify [the music] in the way I might in front of a classroom.
Can you share a little about your Babbott presentation, taking place later this year?
Student musicians from Middle School Jazz Band, Lab Band, and Jazz Combo, plus some professionals, will demonstrate aspects of the enormous genre called “jazz,” and what it means to improvise in music. By giving a bit of context, I hope that students will be able to listen to the music from a place of curiosity and empathy.
Another theme is acknowledging the African-American origins of jazz, and addressing, as a white man, what it means to be an ally in the jazz community. As a teacher and a performer, this starts with recognizing the masters of the music — making it clear that Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker, for example, should be viewed on the same artistic level as Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven. It also means learning the history of jazz from primary sources: recordings, interviews, and writings of the actual musicians who were there. Collaborating with musicians of all ages and social, economical, ethnic, and musical backgrounds is key: jazz is a musical conversation, and this results in more interesting and nuanced music.
What is something you’ve learned from your students?
Teaching is an incredibly creative act. Finding ways to share music with my students has pushed me creatively every bit as much as composing or improvising music. Teaching requires lots of improvisation!
When Fifth Graders improvise, they might laugh or get excited, but they are fearless! This is a wonderful reminder to me, as an adult, to be less self-conscious, to throw some notes on a page and see what happens.