Manhattan School of Music’s Jazz Program Celebrates Its 30th Year

Where versatile music education is delivered by famous faculty

Bobby Sanabria and the MSM Afro-Cuban Orchestra perform with legendary percussionist Candido  Camero in 2008
The MSM Jazz Orchestra performing at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, NYC, in 2012
MSM Jazz Orchestra performing at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, NYC, in 2012
Pianist Vijay Iyer, accompanied by MSM students, gives a distance-learning master class in 2011
Justin DeCioccio and Dave Liebman at NYC's Zankel Hall in 2008, during a concert that featured the MSM Jazz Orchestra (bassist Linda Oh is at back)
Trumpeter Jon Faddis leads a master class in 2004. Photo courtesy of MSM
Bassist John Benitez and Elvin Jones at the latter's master class in 2003. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan School of Music

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Pianist Christian Sands has toured with Christian McBride’s Inside Straight, performed with vibraphonist Stefon Harris and collaborated with McBride on the soundtrack for The Contradictions of Fair Hope, a documentary narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. But first and foremost, he’s a master’s student in the Jazz Arts program at Manhattan School of Music. Sands met Harris, a 1997 graduate, when Harris returned to the school to conduct a master class, where Sands made a strong enough musical impression to launch a performing career at the top of the game. Nevertheless, he decided to hold on to his mortarboard and stay on.

“I figured it would be a great opportunity to just continue with the family that I grew up with,” says Sands, who is going into his second and final year of the master’s program. Even though at 23 his accomplishments would qualify him to teach in his own right, there are still a few people out there who can show him some tricks. In the past through Manhattan School, he studied with Jason Moran and Billy Taylor, and he’s currently studying with Vijay Iyer. “Every week, my mind was blown,” he says. “I would have lessons on Wednesday and I would tweet, ‘Just left his house. My mind is oozing out of my ears.'”

As Sands enters his valedictory year as a student before finally leaving the nest, Manhattan School of Music’s jazz program is growing as it initiates new blood into the flock and marks its 30th anniversary. The milestone will be celebrated with a series of special events, starting Sept. 21 with an evening dedicated to composer Tadd Dameron featuring the Manhattan School of Music Concert Jazz Band, led by program chair and percussionist Justin DiCioccio. On Oct. 19, DiCioccio conducts the MSM Jazz Philharmonic in a program of Ellington works arranged for full orchestra. On Oct. 26, as part of the Harlem Nights series, the Grammy-nominated MSM Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, led by percussionist Bobby Sanabria, performs a program in honor of the Apollo, Savoy, Woodside, Park Palace and other venues that presented Afro-Cuban jazz.

On Dec. 4, the MSM Chamber Jazz Ensemble, also directed by DiCioccio, presents a full recreation of Oliver Nelson’s seminal album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth. Other events include concerts featuring artist-in-residence saxophonist Dave Liebman and trumpeter Jon Faddis, and the fifth annual Charles Mingus High School Competition. Festivities culminate in a program at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola from April 2 to 7, featuring the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, a night of emerging artists with MSM alumni, combo performances featuring guest artists culled from the faculty, and a tribute to Gil Evans in honor of the Evans centennial. This year’s master class offerings include Christian McBride, Fred Hersch and Maria Schneider.


The program began in 1982 when the institution created a jazz department, one of the first in New York, and by 1984, courses toward a master’s degree were offered. In 1987, the school launched its undergraduate program. Manhattan School of Music had already established its classical pedigree, which attracted jazz luminaries Max Roach, John Lewis, Ron Carter and Donald Byrd, all of whom had some success before enrolling, but it ironically took years for the concept of a university jazz program to migrate to New York.

“No one really knew exactly where it was going to go, so I think the first couple years were hit or miss,” says bassist Harvie S, a faculty member since 1984, who counts Drew Gress and Todd Coolman among his first students. “Over the years, because of the great musicians that have been there, it’s snowballed into being quite a major program.” After current chair DiCioccio took the reins in 1999, the program expanded its stylistic range beyond straight-ahead jazz, S says. “Justin completely opened it up to all styles-contemporary styles and avant-garde, but traditional also. He’s gone to great lengths to get the classical musicians involved in the jazz program.”

Vice President Emeritus Richard Adams, who was the dean of admissions when the jazz program began, facilitated the relationship between jazz and classical. Auditions for the first entering class were held in March, but the program wasn’t approved until April. In typical jazz fashion, Adams and initial program director Dick Lowenthal had to play it by ear to recruit faculty for the fall. Adams is a former French horn

player and manager of various jazz and classical groups-as an MSM graduate, he once sat next to Ron Carter in a humanities class-and partially as a result of his broad perspective, the interdepartmental relationship flourished. “Jazz people at a lot of schools are kind of isolated and balkanized, where I think at the Manhattan School of Music, they really interact more with the classical department, and I think that integration makes for a more well-rounded school,” Adams says.

The program’s success trickles down from the enthusiasm of DiCioccio, a percussionist who has performed with Stan Getz, Randy Brecker and Chuck Mangione, in addition to a stint in the Rochester Philharmonic and having been the official White House drummer during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Beyond this wealth of experience across genres, DiCioccio espouses a three-pronged approach to jazz education, geared at developing a vision of artistic versatility that he first cultivated as the director of the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art jazz program.

“Parents ask if you can make a living as a jazz musician. I say yes, absolutely. We’re hopefully creating the complete artist-musician of the 21st century, one who is a performer, a composer and a pedagogue,” DiCioccio says. “It’s really not innovative, it’s the way you have a life in jazz, and this is what we do,” he says, referring to his own career and the path of many of his contemporaries. Under DiCioccio’s direction, the interdisciplinary curriculum has evolved to include an eclectic mix of ensembles, including the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, Concert Jazz Band, Chamber Jazz Ensemble and various combos, in addition to theory, improvisation and jazz history components.

Liebman is currently the artist-in-residence for the program and has certainly lived by DiCioccio’s mantra. “We did it by necessity, and by trial and error. You need to know how to write for all kinds of formats, you certainly have to be able to perform in all formats, and teaching will definitely be involved-from teaching young people to teaching at a college level,” Liebman says. Beyond his usual duties as a faculty member, Liebman will be giving periodic lectures and performances that expand on the concepts outlined in his book, A Chromatic Approach to Jazz Harmony and Melody. “After 40 years, I have it together, but we can present these challenges to a student in a very organized way. I wish I was a student now in that respect,” he says.

Sanabria has given numerous students real-world experience through the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra-both of the group’s albums were nominated for the Grammy in the Latin Jazz category. Sanabria has led a similar group at the New School, which prompted DiCioccio to enlist his help in bringing the program to MSM. “It’s a group of professionals masquerading as students,” says Sanabria, who has collaborated with many of his former students in his own groups. Baritone saxophonist Danny Rivera is featured prominently on Multiverse, Sanabria’s latest release as a leader.


In the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, Sanabria insists on presenting the music in an entertaining manner, faulting Miles Davis’ evasive stage presence for endowing the art form with a much-needed respect at the expense of mainstream audience engagement. “It’s become this esoteric, intellectual exercise to impress the other musicians, and that’s why we’re losing audiences year by year,” he says. Sanabria points to Tito Puente, Machito and Cab Calloway as examples of past artists to bridge the gap between art and a commercially viable sound.

Saxophonist Steve Wilson has been on the faculty since 2007, replacing saxophonist and teacher Dick Oatts. Wilson also noted a lively exchange between students and faculty. “I’ve been able to get as much from the students as they’ve gotten from me. They’re very self-motivated and it’s a nurturing atmosphere,” he says. “They bring so much to the table, and I’m able to try to take what they bring and work with that. Without exception, I’ve seen every student grow and evolve so much, not just from a saxophone standpoint but as a total musician, and in many cases as a total person.”

Jason Moran graduated in 1997 and has since returned as a teacher and clinician. Not only did the program get him from Houston to New York, he also got to study with influential teacher Jaki Byard, made connections with fellow students Stefon Harris and Jane Monheit, and, lastly, met his future wife, mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall, whom he married in 2003. When Moran was asked to teach a master class at his alma mater, he was surprised. “I thought I was too young to teach a master class, but what I also appreciated from Justin DiCioccio is that he gave me an opportunity to be an educator as well and put my foot in that water and see how it felt,” Moran says. Many of the students were encountering issues for the first time that Moran had finally begun to reconcile for himself. “We could not only talk about what it is to think about music in a conceptual sense, but also the social aspect, the financial aspect of being a musician, or the horror, and to try to overcome those things.”

Monheit graduated in 1999, studying under Peter Eldridge. Before graduating, Monheit was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute’s vocal competition, and has since gone on to a successful recording and touring career. “My time at MSM prepared me for life as a musician in different ways. I was learning from professional musicians in my classes, of course, but more important, school offered me the chance to play,” she says. “Any musician will tell you that the bandstand is the best classroom of all, and the opportunities I had to play with other students and faculty, not only at school, but at sessions and local gigs, helped to prepare me for the real world.”


Pianist Ted Rosenthal joined the faculty in 1999, having graduated from the program in 1982 as a classical piano major. While a student, jazz took a back seat, though he played on the side. After winning the Monk competition in 1988, Rosenthal got a break that eventually led him back to his educational roots as a faculty member. “The program has flowered and grown year after year. It’s a very exciting place and it keeps you on your toes,” says Rosenthal, who in the coming school year will teach a course in jazz piano styles surveying the history of jazz piano, among others. “There’s an openness starting with Justin DiCioccio and on down. There’s not a dogmatic attitude of ‘this is jazz, this is not jazz.’ We have people who are into mainstream or bebop, we have people into earlier styles, and we have a lot of people into current things, pop music and others, but there’s an openness to how people express themselves in the jazz idiom.”

Fellow pianist and faculty member Garry Dial has been on the faculty since 1989, when he was recruited based on his experience playing with Red Rodney and Gerry Mulligan. Dial didn’t have an advanced degree when he started, so he spent his first two years teaching while taking courses at the school. When DiCioccio took over the program, Dial was drafted to develop the improvisation curriculum. “These classes are designed to be a combination of improvisation studies and bands. Every year it gets harder harmonically,” says Dial, who observes that the level of sophistication for incoming students has steadily gone up over the years. This is as a result of the school’s small size and consequential selectiveness-between undergraduate, graduate and doctoral candidates, there are fewer than 200 students. Like Sanabria, Dial has also taken some of his students on tour. “I just put a class together, and in one of my freshmen classes, they all know each other already, because they were already in the Grammy band,” says Dial, referring to the national high school competition for the Grammy Jazz Ensembles.

Dial got saxophonist Jon Gordon a gig subbing for Dick Oatts in Red Rodney’s band when Gordon was a 21-year-old student at the school. Gordon went on to win the Monk competition in 1996, having attended MSM in the late ’80s, where he transferred into the newly created jazz undergraduate program from a classical major. He recently returned to complete his degree. Now a professor at SUNY Purchase, while at MSM, Gordon studied with Bob Mintzer, Rich DeRosa, classical saxophone specialist Joseph Allard and classical composer David Noon, among others.

“A program like that needs to be in New York City, and there really is no other place in the world like New York City. You can go to the clubs at night, and there’s a great cross-section of people to study with-it makes for a complete experience,” says Gordon. “If you took a program like that and you put it in an isolated area where the kids didn’t have a chance to actually go and sit in at the clubs and go and listen to music live, it wouldn’t mean as much.”


Saxophonist and composer Jonathan Ragonese is going into his second year of the master’s program after getting his undergraduate degree at MSM. “By my junior year, I realized there was a whole group of the faculty in the classical division which I wanted to get to know. The classical teachers are open to working with the improvisers, and I’m really interested in the marriage of improvised and exact music, so being able to study there gave me that window of opportunity,” says Ragonese. Since enrolling, Steve Wilson commissioned Ragonese to write a suite for one of his groups. “All of my heroes were playing down the street from me when I first got to New York, and I didn’t want to play out until I knew what I had to offer. The school was a good space for that to happen.”

Drummer Jake Goldbas also continued on into the master’s program after finishing his undergraduate work. He studied with percussionist John Riley, in addition to playing in the Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra and in groups with DiCioccio. “If you had asked me if I wanted to stay and do my master’s before I went to college, I would say no way, but the program made it so comfortable that I really wanted to stay,” Goldbas says. “Where else can you go and leave your undergrad program with a Grammy nomination? It definitely developed me into a professional musician, as opposed to a musician who can just play certain styles.”