Brass Class

Wynton Marsalis. Terence Blanchard. Dave Douglas. Jon Faddis. Ralph Alessi. What do these people have in common? Well, they’re all jazz trumpeters, of course. But beyond that, each currently plays a significant role in the realm of jazz education, and in the development of the music’s young talent. Lately I have come to wonder whether those two things—the choice of instrument and the pedagogical inclination—bear some mysterious correlation. What is it about the trumpet that cultivates the cultivators?

It’s no secret that the trumpet has been an emblem of leadership since time immemorial.

The archangel Gabriel, who enjoyed some notoriety long before Cole Porter toasted him in song, is known partly as a trumpeter. Throughout the ancient world, horns provided a call to arms, or some other ceremonial injunction. The instrument was definitely well established as a take-charge device by the time jazz arrived, giving us titans like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.

Leadership does not make a teacher, but in this case, one thing followed the other. By all accounts Armstrong was an educator, in however unofficial a fashion, and Gillespie helped foster bebop by patiently teaching chord substitutions to his peers. Not every trumpeter in their wake shared such generous enthusiasms, but certain precedents were set. Marsalis has based his instructional persona partly on the model of Armstrong, while Faddis, a disciple of Gillespie, has long made education a major focus of his career.

What’s new about the new breed of trumpeter-educators is the way they have courted or developed institutions to support their efforts. On one level this jibes with trends in jazz, and in jazz education. Faddis serves as a faculty member and artist-in-residence at the State University of New York at Purchase. Other examples abound: Ron Miles at Denver’s Metropolitan State College; Charles Tolliver, Jimmy Owens and numerous others at the New School; Laurie Frink at NYU and the Manhattan School of Music. Those, just for starters, are the conventional arrangements.

With Jazz at Lincoln Center—which sponsors the Essentially Ellington band competition and high school jazz curriculum, among other things—Marsalis has probably the most robust jazz education and awareness apparatus on the planet. About a year ago, he told me that the effort had originally been inspired by his solitary efforts as a clinician, early in his solo career. “I went to over a thousand schools by myself,” he said. “Now we have an education department; we touch 500,000 students. I would never do that in my entire life of working. An individual can do great work, alone. An institution can do so much more than an individual can do.” Of course Marsalis has not stopped teaching on an individual basis. Attend one of his quintet rehearsals and you might be reminded of an elite instructional clinic for exceptional up-and-comers.

The same would be true if you dropped in on Blanchard, either practicing with his superb young band or working with a class at the Thelonious Monk Institute for Jazz Performance, where he is artistic director. During a recent tour of the institute’s new facilities at Loyola University New Orleans, Blanchard offered an interesting counterpoint to Marsalis, without saying so explicitly: “We understand what an institution has to offer, as a facility, just in terms of tradition, if you will. But we also really think that the mentorship thing is probably the most important part, especially in terms of what we do. We’re not trying to make people functional. We’re trying to help people become comfortable with being an individual. And that takes some other criteria that you have to deal with. That’s why we keep the program small.”

An ethos of individuality also underpins the School for Improvisation, a longtime initiative of Alessi’s that has recently flourished. The school, known as SIM, occupies a nondescript building on an industrial Brooklyn street. But every time I have visited, it has literally been packed with eager young musicians. To some extent they’re obviously impressed by the caliber of the faculty, a roster of prominent jazz progressives ranging from cellist Erik Friedlander to drummer Billy Hart. But there’s also a determined spirit of collectivity to the organization, whose mission statement asserts, “Students (through their own experiences together) can learn a great deal for and from themselves and needn’t always wait passively for instructors to provide them with answers.”

Most of the ambitious young musicians I know who got something out of SIM have also made the trip to Canada for the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Since 2003, this summer program has reflected the broadminded philosophy and penetrating temperament of Douglas, who serves as artistic director. “Participants benefit from daily master classes, small ensemble rehearsals, and common sessions with some of the world’s most inspiring jazz musicians,” reads a description on the Banff Centre Web site. In other words, it’s an artist-driven, communal endeavor, with the same combined focus on performance and edification that guides Douglas’ Festival of New Trumpet Music, which he founded a year before he took the post at Banff.

It’s important to note that there are many serious jazz pedagogues, both in and out of the educational orthodoxy, who don’t play instruments with valves. Still, at this particular moment in our music’s development, there’s no question that trumpeters are doing a lot of the work. I still haven’t figured out why, but there must be something to the fact that each of the examples above endured the rigors of both classical and jazz training in his own early trajectory. Every one of them has established ways of combining strict technical protocols with a kind of expressive freedom. The whole thing may be pure coincidence, or an indication of something deeper and less quantifiable, something about the mythic calling of the instrument. Gabriel is touted as a messenger, after all.

Originally published in October 2007

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