10/20/11

The New School: Back to the Future

An ideal balance of tradition, innovation and internationalism

I
n 1986, Larry Goldings was in the middle of a music theory lecture as a young student in the first-ever entering class at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, when saxophonist Arnie Lawrence, the program’s late founder, sauntered in unexpectedly.

“‘Sorry to interrupt, but the rest of the day will be Art Blakey Day,’ he said. And in walks Art Blakey,” Goldings remembers. There were only 36 people in the class that day, the entire student body at the time, and for three hours, the legendary drummer regaled them with stories of life on the road with the Jazz Messengers. Goldings even got to jam with him. Twenty-five years and dozens of albums later, Goldings has solidified a reputation as one of the most sought-after organists on the scene today. For him, the untested jazz program offered indispensable life lessons in addition to theoretical training.

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Jane Ira Bloom and students, courtesy of the New School
By Nadav Hekselman
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Martin Mueller
By Conway Liao

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“At the New School, the real learning happens away from the blackboard, in a way. Education didn’t happen with theory books and modes and scales,” says Goldings, who has since periodically returned to the undergraduate-only program as a teacher. After crossing paths with such jazz greats as Walter Davis Jr., Jon Hendricks, Roland Hanna, Jim Hall and Jimmy Heath, some of whom he later went on tour with, Goldings realized how much of an impact these brief encounters can have on a student. Jaki Byard even used to drive him around the city in his car. “Arnie encouraged everybody to learn songs by ear and learn harmony by ear, to learn it by osmosis, through being around people of greatness who were just one generation away from the beginnings of jazz.”

As the program hurtles into its 25th-anniversary year, this liberal atmosphere continues. And starting this fall, the school is commemorating its commitment to innovation with a series of concerts, workshops, film screenings and seminars. Among the scheduled programs will be a duo performance by Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman, a tribute to Brazilian vocalist Caetano Veloso by trombonist and New School faculty member Chris Stover, an evening with pianist Hal Galper, and “Harlem Speaks,” an interview series co-produced by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem that will feature many of the living legends of jazz.

Bow regarded as one of the world’s vanguard jazz studies programs, the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music emerged out of a larger history of cutting-edge education in and out of jazz. The program is, of course, an outgrowth of the institution known initially as the New School for Social Research, founded in 1919 by a group of dissident professors at Columbia University and various other schools who were dissatisfied with rigid administrative mandates. In 1941, the school was the first American university to offer a course on jazz history, taught by early jazz scholars Leonard Feather and Robert Goffin.

The seeds were planted for a jazz performance program in late 1984, when Lawrence approached David Levy, a former dean of the New School’s Parsons School of Design, with the vision of a progressive advanced degree program that would connect students from all walks of life with eminent jazz figures. Levy responded with enthusiasm, and although they were met with some initial skepticism, the two garnered enough support from New School administration to push forward. Anywhere else, the notion of a working jazz musician launching a grassroots effort to start a conservatory program at a major university might be scoffed at, but not at the New School.

Armed with a promising idea but no capital, Levy contacted printer and jazz promoter Paul Weinstein with a proposition: Print 35,000 catalogues advertising the program pro bono. (Payment would be deferred pending the plan’s success at attracting prospective students.) Weinstein seized the opportunity to be an instrumental part of what might become jazz history, and the pamphlets were distributed to high schools across the country. The next fall, the fledgling program began at 66 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village, and despite the pared-down facilities—one unisex bathroom, for example, served the three dozen students, faculty and staff—Lawrence’s dream had been realized. Drummer Chico Hamilton and guitarist Vic Juris were among the first faculty members, and beyond the impromptu special guests he brought in, Lawrence established a student-led jam session at the hallowed, now-defunct Village Gate. With momentum building, the program grew to accommodate some 300 students at any given time, with a faculty of more than 70 respected artists.

The program received an overseas complement in 1997, when Lawrence left New York and established the International Center for Creative Music in Jerusalem, a school that promoted reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis through music. Starting this school year, the New School will launch new outreach programs in Brazil and Argentina and foster ongoing partnerships with the Bern International Jazz Festival, the Veneto Jazz Festival and Casa Del Jazz in Rome. Due to the New School’s international visibility and diverse campus, the program nurtures the type of multiculturalism that treats jazz as a constantly evolving art form.

Championing this global perspective is martin Mueller, the program’s executive director and a longtime faculty member, and one of the founding members of the International Association for Schools of Jazz. During his tenure, Mueller has taken students to conferences in more than 25 countries. In 1989 he took Brad Mehldau, then a New School student, to an IASJ meeting in Barcelona, where he met drummer and future trio collaborator Jorge Rossy.

But musical-cultural diversity is also a staple of the curriculum in New York. In addition to the requisite courses in theory, arranging, jazz history, ear-training and other essential subjects, the school offers 37 themed elective ensembles ranging in focus from Indian classical, West African, Afro Cuban and Brazilian choro music to compositional giants Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter and contemporary genres such as drum ’n’ bass. “We are very conscious of what this can mean as an amazing learning experience of other cultures and customs, musically and personally,” Mueller says. “All jazz roads now don’t only lead to New York, they also lead out to nearly every country in the world, and this globalized creative nature means that jazz is no longer just owned by America, but by the world.”

Soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom has been on the faculty since 1998, and has collaborated and recorded with Ed Blackwell, Charlie Haden, Kenny Wheeler, Bobby Previte and numerous others. Reflective of the New School paradigm, Bloom reaches across genres, also composing for various chamber ensembles and TV programs. She brings this wealth of experience to the program’s Ornette Coleman Ensemble, which she leads in addition to teaching a course on Coleman’s music. “The New School curriculum was conceived by the people who do it, think it, live it and breathe it, and they used as much creativity to try to help young musicians into this world of improvisation as they do playing it,” she says. “The concepts came from a real place, and were massaged and worked through to help them fit into an academic environment.”

Having such an international student body only enhances the experience of learning from a working professional, Bloom says. “It really makes for a global music community,” she explains. “When you’re learning about the American songbook and you have international students, it makes you think twice about it. The students benefit from having people from around the world around them, because that’s the way the music world is now.”

Drummer Charli Persip has been a member of the core faculty since 1994, serving as a repository for jazz history over a six-decade-long career. Persip got his start in the 1950s, when Tadd Dameron and Dizzy Gillespie began taking him on tour, and went on to perform with countless jazz icons, including Lee Morgan, Dinah Washington and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. This informal multigenerational apprenticeship system still exists on the scene in some form, but is not nearly as prevalent as it once was. By having Persip on the faculty, the New School continues that tradition. Through its open curriculum and the option to study under any musician willing to work under the New School contract, the program goes a long way toward recreating the vibrant marketplace of ideas that flourished in the golden age of jazz. “I learned everything by watching and listening to bands and talking to the musicians when I had a chance to. I did not learn my music from the university,” Persip says. He did spend a year at Juilliard, but back then the conservatory only offered courses in the European classical tradition. Now, Persip tries to impart hard-earned wisdom to his students the same way the seasoned veterans mentored him.

Saxophonist and educator Erik Lawrence has taken up the mantle of his father, who in founding the New School program sought to take the jazz club into the classroom. Beyond touring with Levon Helm and having recently released an album with his Honey Ear Trio featuring Rene Hart and Allison Miller, Lawrence has used his jazz pedigree to impart whatever he can during periodic master classes and courses at the New School and various other colleges. “[He] wasn’t by any stretch your typical administrator,” Lawrence says of his father, who, beyond his dedication to the New School, performed with Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones and Blood, Sweat & Tears. “There would be a jazz history course taught by Barry Harris. People would get the experience of jazz through the jazz masters, and, as a result, people come out of the New School being real players.”

In 2009, French-Tunisian saxophonist Yacine Boularès transferred into the program from the National Conservatory in Paris, a transatlantic jump out of classical orthodoxy into an improvisational environment. For Boularès and students like him, the program took a more laissez-faire, expressionistic approach to jazz education, throwing green-sleeved international students into a veritable United Nations of jazz that emphasizes soul-searching over blind imitation of the jazz canon. It was a pilgrimage the French system could not have mentally prepared him for, one that fundamentally altered his course as an artist.

“At the New School, you have room to find yourself and your own personality. I’m half-French and half-Tunisian, and I’ve always cultivated that aesthetic in my original compositions, but it hasn’t always been encouraged the way it was at the New School,” says Boularès, who graduated in spring 2011, studying under Bloom and bassist and faculty member Reggie Workman, as well as saxophonists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek, among others. Through the program, Boularès explored the common ground between Arabic and Israeli music, resolving any tension there might have been by extending an olive branch in the practice room. “There was a strong political aspect,” he explains. “I was Arabic, they were Israeli, but we actually share the same Semitic musical roots.”

Among the Israeli students was guitarist Gilad Hekselman, who graduated in 2008 and was immediately struck by the cultural collision at the school. “With so many different cultures in one place, you get exposed to all kinds of music,” he says. Hekselman studied with guitarist Ben Monder, Ari Hoenig, New School alum Peter Bernstein and others. Hearts Wide Open, Hekselman’s third album as a leader, will be released in September digitally and on CD in October. “At the New School, you can listen to Brazilian music, North Indian music and Latin music. Everybody comes to New York eventually.”

Trumpeter Leron Thomas, who graduated from the New School in 2002, cultivated a fertile network of collaborators, including Robert Glasper, E.J. and Marcus Strickland, Damion Reid, Sasha Dobson and others. Thomas featured fellow New School graduates pianist Shimrit Shoshan and guitarist Michael Valeanu on his recent release, Dirty Draws, Vol. 3. Having grown up in Houston, the global aspect of the program opened his ears. “You got to see the different aspects of what was learned where. Dexter Gordon was in Paris for a while, and a lot of the European guys in the program played in a kind of old-school way. That kind of playing is the glue that holds the more innovative elements together,” Thomas says. “There were the little rivalries—some European cats were more into electronica, we knew hip-hop—but at the end of the day, we all learned from each other.”

Multireedist Steven Lugerner, who graduated in 2010, came to the program from a classical background and has played with John Hollenbeck, Jason Moran, Miguel Zenón and others. He didn’t catch the jazz bug until high school, when he started listening to Sonny Stitt and Charlie Parker, but when he arrived at the New School, his horizons were broadened after he was encouraged to incorporate elements of jazz and classical into his playing and compositions. “I went there just trying to be a saxophonist, and when I got there I really realized how valuable it was to have all of those other skills I had developed,” Lugerner says. “Every school has a vibe of how traditional they teach jazz education. The New School is one of those places where there’s a pretty big gray area.”

Phil Ballman, the program’s coordinator for special programs, works to ensure that the hardnosed jazz tradition still has a firm place in the core curriculum. “It’s about striking a balance between having a healthy respect for the history of the music while encouraging and facilitating innovation,” he says. “We’re trying to honor those veterans of the music that are on the faculty.”

Ballman has also organized a speaker series that will connect students with industry insiders in order to help them focus their creative energy with an eye towards the business end. This year’s series will feature publicist Matt Merewitz of Fully Altered Media, Brice Rosenbloom of Boom Collective and Ashley Capps, a co-founder of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. “The feeling is that success will come if you’re talented,” Ballman explains. “Those who have been around a little longer have found out that it’s rarely that easy.”

Some students have had early success, though. Vocalist Brianna Thomas, who graduated in spring 2011, originally came to the New School to gain a music theory background, but in the process got exposed to a world of cultures she had never encountered in her hometown of Peoria, Ill. Adopting this core international principle as her own, Thomas recently performed at the Bern International Jazz Festival and toured Russia with Oleg and Igor Butman.

Thomas continues to incorporate this global perspective into her music, but always remains true to her artistic vision. “The New School really promotes individuality and applauds individuality, not to say that it force-feeds it. When you’re up and coming as a young artist, you can have so many identity crises, and the program leaves room for you to find your own niche,” she says. “It’s jazz and more. It’s old-school; it’s contemporary. It’s the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.”

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