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Jazz Ed, Italian Style

Faculty performance at the Teatro Morlacchi
Berklee president Roger Brown, Stefano Bollani, Renzo Arbore, Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez and Lawrence Simpson
Umbria Jazz Clinics Director Giovanni Tommaso addresses students
Giovanni Tommaso with award-winning students

There is always something to learn at Umbria Jazz, the July celebration in Perugia, Italy, long recognized as being among the world’s leading festivals, and the 2010 edition was no exception. Those who attended the 10-day event marveled at the ongoing power of Django Reinhardt’s music in separate concert celebrations by Trio Reinhardt/Manetti/Eche-Puig, Florin Niculescu and Christian Escoude; explored ECM in performances featuring Nik Bärtsch, Bobo Stenson and nativesons Stefano Bollani (solo) and Enrico Rava (leading Bollani in an all-star quintet); heard supergroups in settings both vast (Chick Corea’s Freedom Band at the 4,000-seat outdoor Arena Santa Giuliana) and grand (the Bobby Hutcherson/Cedar Walton quartet in the Teatro Morlacchi); got better acquainted with such vocalists as Nikki Yanofsky, Roberta Gambarini and Hilary Kole; and marveled at the continuing charisma of festival favorites Sonny Rollins, who played for more than two hours, and Tony Bennett, who had Herbie Hancock’s Imagine Project as his opening act.

Those wanting to learn how to play jazz found satisfaction as well, even if the education component was a bit off the festival’s beaten path. Follow the right labyrinthine via, off Perugia’s central Corso Vannucci, and one finds, set against a magnificent vista, the Ariodante Fabretti Elementary School. The view is of the magnificent Umbrian countryside, known to natives and tourists alike as the “green heart of Italy,” but the sounds are produced by young musicians from all over Europe, jamming on bebop tunes, fusion lines and standards, or singing pop staples and shouting out gospel classics. The Berklee Summer School at Umbria Jazz Clinics have been part of Umbria Jazz for 25 years, and thrive as both an intense and idyllic jazz education experience.

Berklee in Umbria is not the only international affair run by Boston’s Berklee College. The school has nurtured the large number of foreign students enrolled at its Boston campus through similar programs at Puerto Rico’s Heineken Jazz Fest and smaller summer sessions in Dublin and Los Angeles, as well as a Berklee International Network that links 13 contemporary music schools in a dozen countries. As international outreach goes, however, the two-week Umbria Clinic is the oldest and the flagship, with a vibe all its own. “The mindset would be different if we did this in America,” admits guitar instructor Jon Damian. “These students are into it.”

Bassist Giovanni Tommaso worked with Chet Baker as a teenager, was a founding member of the pioneering Italian fusion band Perigeo in the 1970s, currently leads the quintet Apogeo, and has been the Italian director of the Umbria Clinic since 1986. His connection with jazz education in Perugia goes back to 1983, when Umbria Jazz founder/director Carlo Pagnotta asked Tommaso to translate for visiting clinician Stafford James. “Once Carlo asked me to become the director, we had to choose between using whatever great musicians were on the program each year and a great institution that knew how to run a school,” Tommaso recalls. “I recommended trying Berklee for one year, and 25 years later here we are.”

Part of Berklee’s attraction was its sense of how to best structure such a program. Each student is given a two-day schedule, with instrumental instruction and theory classes each morning and ensemble work each afternoon. Alto saxophonist Larry Monroe, the Berklee vice president who has been Tommaso’s counterpart for the past quarter-century-and who passed the administrative baton to tenor saxophonist Greg Badolato this summer-calls the structure “an invention that Gary Burton and I came up with in a Tokyo hotel room in the ’80s, when we learned that what we thought was a single clinic was really for 100 students on all kinds of instruments. This model of theory and instrumental teaching in the morning, then ensembles in the afternoon, ensures that all of the players will be available. With so many guitar, drums and keyboard students, those teachers only have time to give instrumental lessons. Teachers who are horn players and bassists, though, also teach theory.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the teachers is student placement, which is handled through live auditions on the first day of classes. “We did live auditions for years because it was hard to ask for cassettes in the old days,” Monroe explains. “Even though it’s easier to make recordings now, the kids wanted to continue playing live, and Giovanni, being old-school, wanted to maintain the tradition. It remains an inexact science, but it is easier to say, ‘Your teacher heard you and agreed to your placement.'”

“Audition day is pretty intense,” says Damian, who, together with Jim Kelly, is responsible for all of the school’s guitarists. “Jim and I, seated separately in a room, hear 60 players who get about five minutes each. As a teacher you learn, even in this brief time, how to gauge reading ability, technique and potential for success. What resulted this year in my Level 1 class was 11 guitarists making music together, but some of the most fulfilling moments come from the lower-level cats, who make up for lack of technique with commitment and energy.”

Student enrollment-which expanded to 250 this year in honor of the quarter-century celebration-is drawn from across the continent: Typically 25-30 percent of the students are non-Italian. With this international mix, basic communication presents a problem for English-speaking faculty. Berklee has solved the problem by pairing each instructor with a musician/interpreter. Many of the latter include respected Italian artists who return every year, several of whom are Berklee College graduates, and a few who are also alumni of the Umbria program.

Stefania Rava, who interprets for vocal instructor Donna McElroy, is indicative of the loyalty that the Umbria Clinic has generated. “I come from Parma, a small town that is the land of Giuseppe Verdi but had no information about jazz,” she explains. “And attending the Umbria Clinic as a student in 1987 and ’89 was like heaven. I won a scholarship to Berklee and after graduating decided to return to Parma, but I’ve been a translator here for the past 16 summers. I just love the individual teachers, and I love the teaching approach of American musicians. And what could be better than being among musicians all day, then hearing the masters at night?”

Other interpreters tell a similar story. Nicola Cordisco, a 13-year veteran who translates for Damian and runs his own school in Campobasso, loves “the atmosphere of no rivalry, no behind-the-back criticism.” David Boato, a trumpeter based in Mogliano and an interpreter since 1992 who assisted Ken Cervenka this summer, emphasizes the clinic’s ability to help international players improve their English. “Speaking English is part of the jazz thing,” he says. Cinzia Stanza, a respected vocalist who attended the clinic in 1989-90 and worked this summer with gospel-choir director Dennis Montgomery, says, “Just like going to Berklee, the Umbria Clinic gives you experience and professionalism.” (It also helps that those who teach can also play, as was demonstrated at one early evening Morlacchi concert that featured both teachers and their Italian interlocutors.)

According to Gojko Damjanic, Berklee’s assistant director of admission, roughly half of the students attending the Umbria Clinic hope to follow in the interpreters’ footsteps by competing for the roughly two dozen awards that include 11 partial scholarships to Berklee and five full scholarships to the school’s summer program in Boston. “The full Umbria program is the audition [for scholarships],” Damjanic explains, “and it’s one of the best and worst auditions a student can have, because we consider their motivation and how they grow from day to day. We take a holistic approach, looking at talent, performance, everything.”

As Damian points out, the process is not for the faint of heart. “The students are thrown right into the soup,” he says, “and most find that they’re not the hottest cat in town anymore. It happens really fast at Berklee, and really fast in Umbria, too.” Yet most students embrace the process, with even the less serious obtaining valuable pointers on chord/scale relationships and substitute harmonies as well as the technical aspects of their instruments. There are also daily master classes ranging from the practical, as when Badolato shared thoughts on rehearsing one morning, to the more purely inspirational percussion clinic/jam conducted by Giovanni Hidalgo and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. (The two percussionists are among the many artists who have received honorary Berklee degrees during the festival. While the emphasis is often on Italians, musicians with specific links to either Italy or the festival have also been honored in Perugia.) Despite the lengthy instructional day-10 a.m.-12:15 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.-6:30 p.m., six days a week-a significant number of students remain at the outdoor stage when school ends, jamming until sunset.

Each student can count on mounting that stage at least once on the final weekend, as the various ensembles, enhanced for performance purposes as required by faculty and/or interpreters, participates in a marathon two-day recital that serves, among other things, as an index of faculty taste. This year, Donna McElroy’s troop took turns on standards like “You Go to My Head”; Ken Cervenka’s unit reflected their teacher’s love for Lee Morgan by performing the trumpeter’s “The Joker” and Billy Harper’s “Croquet Ballet”; bassist Oscar Stagnaro’s ensemble surveyed “Mambo Inn” and other Latin-jazz staples. More cameras than Real Books were on display, and the snapping of shutters competed with the chirping of insects. Everything reached a grand crescendo on Sunday morning, as Montgomery led the three-dozen students in his gospel choir in shouting praise over the beautiful countryside.

After the choir’s fervor, the graduation ceremony took place. Tommaso discussed the responses gleaned from the questionnaire that has been distributed to students each year as a method of instant troubleshooting. While very enthusiastic about the teachers, the present class was less enamored of the elementary school, which like previous sites for the school didn’t feature air conditioning but at least had some classrooms in which the desks weren’t equipped with writing-surface arms that make playing even more challenging. There were brief remarks from Badolato and Jason Camelio, Berklee’s director of international programs, before what Damjanic called the “moment of truth,” the awards presentation. Four students got books and DVDs from Berklee Press, five earned online classes, five more received summer program scholarships, and a record 11 were granted partial full-time scholarships ranging from $8,000 to $12,000.

A cross-section of the winners suggests how the Umbria Clinic is able to reach musicians of varying levels. Giulia Duchi, who studies violin at Milan’s Conservatory Giuseppe Verdi and also took vocal lessons at age 10, was among the gospel choir’s featured soloists. She will definitely use her award and attend the five-week summer program in two years, once she is 15 and old enough to meet Berklee’s Stateside age requirement.

Alessandra Bosco, winner of an $8,000 full-time scholarship, was a pop singer in her hometown of Pessaro before developing an interest in jazz two years ago. She had heard about Umbria’s quality of teaching from a friend and was not disappointed. “The holistic approach of the teachers is the biggest difference,” she stresses. “Italian teaching is not as open, while at Berklee being open is a way of life.” Bosco plans to attend the Boston campus in a year, after completing her degree in the science of communication.

Trumpeter Eamon Dilworth, who collected one of the two top $12,000 scholarship prizes, was already on a grant that had brought the Australian native to London for two months of hanging and jamming in a major jazz scene. “In Australia, studying at Berklee or Juilliard is farfetched,” he explains, “and when I heard about this clinic I realized that I could do more hanging out and jamming here.” Dilworth, who was clearly at the head of a student body that, in his own words, ranged “from hobbyists to professionals,” found the Umbria Clinic to be the way station envisioned by serious players half a world away from jazz’s centers. “The quality of musicianship is great in Australia, but we’re so small and so far removed,” Dilworth says. “I know that the scholarship alone is not enough to pay for the cost of a year’s education in the United States. But I can audition to supplement it, with this award as a foundation.”

Ten of Dilworth’s classmates, each a winner of an Outstanding Musicianship Award on his or her instrument, have more specific plans for the coming holiday season. As Pagnotta reminded them during the graduation exercise, they will extend an annual tradition by forming an ensemble at the 18th winter edition of Umbria Jazz, held in Orvieto this year between Dec. 29 and Jan. 2: a reminder of Berklee in Umbria, even when the green heart is covered with snow.

Originally Published