Ashley Kahn: Meet the Professor

JazzTimes contributor Ashley Kahn looks back at the 15-year evolution of his teaching approach and recounts some recent educational adventures on two continents

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Ashley Kahn gives a lecture to students in Siena, Italy (photo: Francesco Martinelli)

These days, the name for what I teach is either Non-Performance Studies or Emergent Media. When I started teaching, only 15 years ago, it was simply Music History and Criticism. A big part of the challenge and the fun—if one cares to look at it that way—of being a music instructor is riding the waves of change that continue to wash through the world of music instruction and academia in general.

The university courses I first created for music majors and general college students alike—players and non-players, jazz-focused or not—were specific to artists and styles: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, and Modern Jazz. Paul Simon, Graceland, and “World” Music. John Coltrane, Spirituality, and A Love Supreme. Led Zeppelin, Electric Blues, and Hard Rock. The syllabi consciously balanced contemporaneous articles and reviews with more contemporary views. I employed video clips of historical performances, excerpts from recent documentaries, and lots of music, old and new. I treated the artists and albums as doorways into more expansive perspectives, considering creative triumphs and controversies, and finding connections to and parallels in today’s music scene.

This was music that had to be listened to, commented on in class, and written about; the word “survey” did not apply to my teaching approach. It’s still that way with the courses I’ve created and continue to teach, most often at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music (NYU calls them “Topics in Recorded Music” courses), but also in other institutions, conferences, and festivals in the U.S. and Europe.

Written assignments range from writing weekly diaries responding to the readings and music, to tightly focused research papers: a single artist, a single influence, a single recording. One recorded solo can be enough for this kind of examination, if the student has sufficient sources and a desire to delve into all that’s been said and written to generate a 10-page expository essay.

An A+ example from this past year was an in-depth analysis of Ella Fitzgerald’s seven-minute, tour-de-force treatment of “How High the Moon” from the 1960 live album Mack the Knife: Ella in Berlin. The well-written paper considered the singer’s embrace of bebop ideas, the general structure of her improvisation, a listing of other melodies quoted, and the BPM (beats per minute) of the performance. It ended with a perfect Dom Cerulli downbeat: “There are times when [Fitzgerald] seems to be unaware there are things the human voice just doesn’t do, [because] she does them.”

“Don’t be the expert,” I like to tell my students. “Take the time to find the right quotes from the right experts, weave them together to tell a story, and you’ll get the A.” I could be describing my own research approach: drawing from collective wisdom, from historians and journalists and musicians. Especially musicians. “Prioritize interviews with the musicians who made the music, at the time they made it. Look at the liner notes on reissues.”

“Liner notes?” they now ask, and I remind myself how much more of the past needs explaining since I started teaching. Enough has changed in just 15 years—in technology, in recorded music formats, in attitudes and habits—that an instructor cannot assume any research will be done with anything physical: a book, a magazine, an LP, or a CD. I’ve noticed other things, too. One cannot expect full attention and participation in the classroom unless phones and laptops are off and closed. Almost all music listening is done privately, through laptop speakers or headphones, playing compressed, digital files that have lost significant sonic detail. And the triumph of the internet—instant connectivity, one-click information searches that immediately bring up Wikipedia entries—offers a downside as well: an unfortunate curtailing of the kind of curiosity that can send one down a tantalizing rabbit-hole of sounds and information.

As an instructor still in love with all that is music, its legacy as well as its latest twists and flavors, it can be a challenge to avoid being dispirited by such things. That’s why it’s necessary to remember that the positives outweigh the challenges. Among the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in growing as an educator is this: Although students go through generational changes, their connection to music—especially if they’re performance or music business majors—does not. It remains consistently, deeply dedicated. An instructor can do a lot with that.

“Don’t be the expert,” I like to tell my students. “Take the time to find the right quotes from the right experts, weave them together to tell a story, and you’ll get the A.”

 

Another lesson: Learn to push even harder on the idea of generational connection. To better understand John Coltrane’s singularity, as well as the derision he faced, I’ll ask students to nominate a modern-day parallel, in jazz or R&B or hip-hop. To grasp Kind of Blue and Miles’ genius for isolating, then weaving together distinct elements and ideas from other music, I’ll suggest similar habits in the current era of cut-n-paste and sampling. In praising great scenes of the past—some of which I had the good fortune to experience first-hand—I’ve made it a point to say that there’s always a golden age of music and it’s right now.

What I mean by that is that whatever music my students will experience and absorb between their teens and twenties, whatever its genre might be, that’s the music they hear with full freshness and clarity and that they will keep with them for life. The trick for the instructor is to help them keep that connection at full flame, and let it spread to music of all styles and from all time periods.

In recent years I’ve also added to my educational arsenal lessons in career-building, the practicum of professional musicianship today: courses in self-promotion and marketing, in stagecraft and bookings. I’ve dug into my own professional experience to develop lectures on writing biographies, promotional materials, and press kits; on programming festivals and nightclubs; and on arranging and budgeting tours. In even the most conservative conservatories, these have become necessary components of professional music instruction. The 16-year-old Clive Davis Institute was in fact created with the notion of effectively balancing study in performance, production, history, and business.

This is where I am today, wearing many hats. Along with my other roles as journalist, author, and producer, I am a proud professor of non-performance music studies, focusing on the “why” of music-making more than the “how,” although it would be inaccurate to not acknowledge that the two are forever linked. Inevitably, it seems—especially when the classroom is filled with music majors—lessons drawn from the lives of the legends serve as examples for the modern-day musician.

One happy outgrowth of this expanding range of teaching experiences is that in the past 10 years, I’ve developed a European network of music educators and event producers who regularly invite me to guest-lecture in classrooms and at music festivals and conferences in such countries as Italy, Holland, France, Spain, Belgium, Finland, and Great Britain. I’ll arrive with an overnighter and backpack, plug in the laptop, project slideshows, play music and videos, and discuss a wide variety of topics—most often jazz-related but frequently touching on other styles. When possible and if appropriate, I’ll invite local or visiting musicians to participate, and the lecture will take on a workshop aspect.

Of course, I consider myself fortunate to do this in locales steeped in cultural flavor and history, like Nice, Perugia, or Barcelona. (And don’t get me started about the food and wine!) But to be able to visit these storybook cities with a sense of purpose and the chance to connect with student musicians is, for me, the most valuable payback—why I keep my passport at the ready.

What follows are three snapshots of recent teaching engagements at music education programs in Europe, two in Italy this past June and one in France in July, explaining how they came together and what took place in these cross-cultural classroom encounters.

The Associazione Siena Jazz
The Associazione Siena Jazz (photo: Ashley Kahn)

Associazione Siena Jazz—Siena, Italy
The Fortezza Medicea, where once a medieval garrison force kept Siena’s citizens in check, sits atop one of this town’s highest points, overlooking the rolling Tuscany countryside. It now houses the Associazione Siena Jazz, the 42-year-old school that began as a group of friends teaching themselves to play instruments in a local garage. Today it’s one of Europe’s leading jazz-focused institutions, fully accredited by the Italian government and offering bachelor’s degrees in music performance and music education; they’re working on a master’s-level degree program in the same fields. Author and historian Francesco Martinelli oversees the school’s history curriculum, teaching most classes himself and bringing in scholars and speakers as well.

Martinelli first invited me to participate in Siena Jazz’s summer program back in 2004; this year I visited during the school’s regular semester, just before summer break. I delivered five hour-long lectures on one day and was pleased to see that word seemed to have spread through the student body as time went on; by the final class the room that could comfortably hold 30 was overflowing.

My lecture topics, chosen with Martinelli’s assistance, included separate sessions on Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme (my books on each of these albums have been translated and published in Italy) and on the overlap of hip-hop and jazz (which prefigured a course I’m co-teaching on the same topic with legendary rapper Q-Tip at NYU this fall semester). On Martinelli’s suggestion, I emailed PDF files of readings for each of the topics—around 10 pages for each lecture—that he distributed to the students. We figured that even if a few gave it only a cursory read, it would help familiarize them with the topic and spark interest.

Though the Italian educational system does not prioritize learning English as those in some other European countries do, we decided to trust the students’ familiarity with the language and not use a translator. Martinelli sat in on all lectures and was available if needed, and I made sure to begin each lecture by asking students to stop me if anything was unclear or needed explanation. (In non-English-speaking countries, I consciously use a slower, more pronounced way of speaking that I developed when hosting college radio programs: favoring shorter statements and avoiding compound sentences and idiomatic expressions.)

I like to open my presentations with a participatory question to help break the ice, and to link the topic to something currently relevant. It’s an effective way to both grab attention and take the temperature of the students. In Siena, for example, I opened the A Love Supreme presentation asking about “spiritual jazz”—who of today’s players they consider part of that legacy (Kamasi Washington and Shabaka Hutchings were both mentioned) and what musical ideas or devices might be considered typical to the style (modal forms; slower, often rubato tempi; ostinato bass patterns; relaxed, meditative feel; etc.). Before we began to investigate John Coltrane’s career path, a number of students had contributed to the conversation and were even exchanging ideas among themselves—a sure sign that they were engaged. I could tell, as the saying goes, I was preaching to the choir.

Not knowing which moments of the presentation will engender more interest is also part of the fun, and I noticed during the hip-hop/jazz lecture that for any track I played (Kendrick Lamar, Robert Glasper, Common, A Tribe Called Quest), many students would jot down the title and artist, while others would hold up their smartphones—either recording or Shazam-ing, I wasn’t sure. Either way, another positive sign from the instructor’s perspective.

Perugia, Italy
Perugia, Italy (photo: Ashley Kahn)

Conservatorio di Musica “F. Morlacchi” di Perugia—Perugia, Italy
Perugia is home to the Umbria Jazz Festival, one of Europe’s leading jazz-focused events every summer. Yet the jazz program in the town’s historic conservatory (its roots reach back to 1788) struggles to maintain its stature—administrative support, adequate funding—in that primarily classical institution. That’s the hard truth in Italy; jazz can still be looked at sideways by the entrenched music education establishment.

At the Perugia conservatory, though, I discovered a positive side: a small, intensely enthusiastic student body and a similarly dedicated pool of instructors, including Mario Raja, who teaches both classical and jazz saxophone; guitarist/arranger Angelo Lazzari; and pianist/composer Alessandro Bravo, who heads the jazz program. It was Raja who first invited me to lecture at Morlacchi Conservatory, and I witnessed him guiding his students. In the school’s sonically resonant chapel, he rehearsed a saxophone choir beautifully interpreting compositions by a mixed bag of composers: Ellington, Mingus, Albéniz, and Tchaikovsky. The same day, in their vaulted auditorium, he guided a formidable rotating ensemble (including five vocalists and three each of guitars, clarinets, saxophones, and trumpets) through mostly Monk material.

Raja has invited me to lecture to the jazz students for two years running. He explained that many of his students have yet to be exposed to different ways of integrating jazz and classical studies with popular music, and to consider the role of musicians in general. As such, we decided to do four lectures—the first to introduce myself and my writing, the second to discuss the social goals of musicians, and the last two to look at the careers of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. As in Siena, we trusted my paced English to be understandable to the students, though some asked for translation at times. It being summer, the classes were held in an open-windowed classroom with students clustered around a large conference table, giving it an intimate and informal vibe.

A student saxophone choir performs at the Conservatorio di Musica di Perugia
A student saxophone choir performs at the Conservatorio di Musica di Perugia (photo: Ashley Kahn)

I based the opening lecture on readings from Il rumore dell’anima (The Sound of the Soul), an anthology of my music writing recently published in Italian; the various chapter introductions, I’ve found, are particularly useful academically, as they encapsulate my thoughts about music genres, taste, arts journalism, and how music listening changes over time. I emailed PDFs of these short excerpts to be distributed, and asked for students to read them out loud in class. Each served to introduce a different idea, with an audio track to match. A case study in the blues that quoted Carlos Santana referenced the power of the individual “voice” in music, and then we played a Stevie Ray Vaughan track as an example. I later used a recent Kendrick Lamar tune to talk about the need to resist the tendency to be limited by stylistic categories, or to consider oneself finished with musical exploration by a certain age. Naturally, a discussion on personal music preference followed this last point, which I welcomed and added to with questions like: What is the benefit to hearing music without prejudice? Is that even possible after years of intense musical study?

I opened the presentation on the social role of musicians with a recent online interview in which an academic and a journalist—both well-versed in soul music of the 1960s—discussed retro-soul singer Leon Bridges and the lack of political message in his music. I explained the complaint and asked the students to consider whether music-making held a responsibility to comment or at least report on social realities, especially if the style of music was historically associated with that purpose.

I then offered a brief overview of how different eras and thinkers have approached this question—from the days of Plato to modern social theorists like Jacques Attali—and traced the rise of soul music: its sound, its name, and its role in the ’60s, delivering messages of hope and protest. We considered more recent examples of “message music” in the same continuum—like the 2016 tune “Refugee” by Gregory Porter, with Common and Keyon Harrold—and returned to the opening question. Of the four lectures in Perugia, this one seemed to have the most impact, generating a number of post-class questions and emails for a few days after.

Students in the JazzUp! Summer Camp meet Tank and the Bangas in Vienne, France
Students in the JazzUp! Summer Camp meet Tank and the Bangas in Vienne, France (photo: Ashley Kahn)

JazzUp! Summer Camp at Jazz à Vienne—Vienne, France
Organized in conjunction with the renowned Jazz à Vienne summer festival in the Rhône river area south of Lyon, the relatively young JazzUp! camp—this was only its third year—is expanding, adding Canadian and Brazilian students to the primarily French program, and now conducts all classes in English. While past years focused solely on performance instruction, guiding ensembles through a 10-day period to eventually play on a festival stage, this year I was invited by festival director Benjamin Tanguy to help develop the program’s non-performance side: lectures, discussions, and get-togethers with professional musicians.

Speaking to music students of high-school age (which the 29 JazzUp! participants are) might seem to ask for a different, more hand-holding approach than I use when dealing with music majors in university programs. But other than providing a little more contextual information on the topics chosen for them, I prefer to address younger students with the same degree of gravity, with the certainty that music is indeed their career path. In Vienne at the Lycée Ella Fitzgerald (that’s its name!) I was given the first 45 minutes of the morning to speak to all the students before they broke up into various classes to study with either saxophonist Alex Terrier, pianist Cedric Hanriot, or percussionist Zaza Desiderio. On the first day, I introduced myself with a spontaneous sermon on what I regard as the impending joys, benefits, and heavy responsibility of being part of a worldwide music community—and welcoming them to it.

Clearly, one of the benefits of a music program embedded in a major jazz festival is access to top-level music performances. I dedicated the rest of my morning sermonizing to focusing on the programming for that particular evening, playing videos and explaining, for example, why the choice of artists on the African music night (Youssou N’Dour, Rokia Traoré, and Mulatu Astatke) proved how diverse their sounds were, and why categorical terms like “African music” can be almost useless. On the Jazz and Hip-Hop evening, I noted that Black Star performing with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble represented an important reunion (Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey) as well as a first-time chance to hear them doing legendary material with live music accompaniment—and how a big part of the meeting between jazz and hip-hop was a negotiation between the idea of live performance and studio (or laptop) sound construction. The following morning, the students would report back on what they experienced and what they thought.

Ashley Kahn (left) and Hermeto Pascoal talk to students in Vienne
Ashley Kahn (left) and Hermeto Pascoal talk to students in Vienne (photo: Alex Terrier)

I was most proud of two meetings with musicians that I was able to arrange for the JazzUp! students. The first brought them to the festival’s primary venue—Vienne’s ancient, still-used outdoor Roman amphitheater—to meet the New Orleans funk/hip-hop group Tank and the Bangas, to witness their soundcheck, and to ask questions of the various members about their music and their professional path. The second get-together saw Brazilian musical legend and multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal visiting the classroom the morning after his concert and, with translation from Portuguese to English and French, regaling the students with stories of the first time he played music using kitchen utensils and silverware, hearing jazz for the first time, and why that opened the door for him to a world of sounds and styles. At one point he took the plastic top from my water bottle and used it to blow the melody of “Happy Birthday” for one of the students, improvising a two-chorus solo; a better example of pure musical spirit could not have walked through the doors.

For my last day in Vienne—and of the summer teaching gigs—I led a full day of non-performance classes. I decided to return once again to John Coltrane, A Love Supreme, and spirituality, which led to an enthusiastic discussion among the students about musicians (primarily French pop and hip-hop, from what I understood) who address God and touch upon religion in their music. The day ended with a screening of the recent Coltrane documentary, Chasing Trane, and a final sermonette wishing them well in their respective journeys and hoping that our paths would cross again. And I meant it. As much as I enjoy being around that raw teenage passion for music, I’m equally inspired if, years later, I run across a more polished, accomplished version of a student I once lectured—which I usually don’t recall unless he or she reminds me. It’s already happened a few times, and it makes me truly appreciate what I am given the opportunity to do. JT