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Jazz Education Network: Miracle Workers

Stefon Harris performing at 2009 JEN Conference.
University of Missouri - St. Louis Big Band performing at 2009 JEN Conference
University of Missouri - St. Louis Big Band performing at 2009 JEN Conference
Mary Jo Papich at 2010 JEN Conference

“It’s a miracle.” These are the words of Bob Sinicrope, a teacher at Massachusetts’ Milton Academy prep school and a board member for the Jazz Education Network (JEN), in describing JEN’s remarkable arrival in jazz education circles. “Really, in many ways, a miracle,” he reiterates, “a testament to how badly the people who were working to mount this thing wanted it to happen.”

Founded in June 2008 in an effort to fill the void left by the implosion of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) three months earlier, JEN is only two years old. It has no office, no newsletter, no executive director or full-time staff; its only permanent locus of any kind is its Web site. Nevertheless, it has in its short lifespan become a force to be reckoned with. It held its first conference this past May, on the campus of the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and Sinicrope (who is chair of JEN’s membership committee) reports that around 1,250 people attended the performances, clinics and panel sessions.

When it began, JEN had 37 charter members, most of them in the Midwest. Today the organization boasts nearly 1,000 members in 45 U.S. states and 18 countries. A substantial portion of these members joined after the St. Louis conference. “I think a lot of people were playing the ‘wait-and-see’ game, to see if this was going to go anywhere,” says Mary Jo Papich, fine arts chair at Highland Park High School in Illinois and JEN’s co-founder and first president. “Now that we’ve done a conference, and we’re going to have another one in six months, there’s a huge spike in the number of people who are now joining.”

The second annual conference is indeed in the works, this one at a hotel in New Orleans in January 2011-and will by all indications be a much larger event. “Our submission applications are significantly larger than the applications we had for St. Louis,” says Lou Fischer, professor of music at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, and JEN co-founder and current president. “I mean significantly larger. Our room block is selling out quickly, our exhibit space is selling out quickly.” JEN, in short, is filling not only an industry gap, but a human need as well.

The “wait-and-see” game that Papich describes can be traced to IAJE’s March 2008 collapse, which took a financial and professional toll on the organization’s members but also a psychological one. This included Papich herself, who was president-elect at the time the organization’s bad finances became known. “I was in total disbelief,” she recalls. “This was a far worse situation than any of us on the board had realized. I became very upset. We weren’t doing anything, and we weren’t being honest with the membership until we lost the window on saving the organization. It was at that time that I handed in my resignation, and went away in tears thinking, ‘What are we going to do?'”

Papich joined forces with Fischer, who had also been on the IAJE board, and the two determined to build another organization, starting completely from scratch. “Mary Jo and Lou are the mother and father of JEN,” says Andrew Surmani, a music-publishing executive who is now JEN’s president-elect. “They put hundreds, thousands of hours into getting this organization up and running.” Their work included selecting 92 individuals from within and without the world of academia; this group would be invited to meet in Chicago the weekend after Memorial Day 2008, and form a pilot board of directors. Thirty-seven accepted the invitation and traveled-at their own expense-to a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where they crowded into a room designed for only 35 and huddled for two days.

“We started with ‘Why are you here?'” says Papich. “And we went around the room: ‘I’m here because I love the art form.’ ‘I’m here because I learned so much from the former organization.’ There were some tears and some real emotional sharing. But then we were all ready to roll up our sleeves and go to work.” By the end of the weekend the volunteers had drafted a name for the organization, a set of bylaws and a mission statement in which they took great pride: The Jazz Education Network is dedicated to building the jazz arts community by advancing education, promoting performance, and developing new audiences.

“We labored over every word of that mission statement for hours and days, and I’m really happy with what we finally came up with,” says Surmani, who attended that initial meeting. “Right up front it tells you the main purpose of the organization: jazz education. The jazz arts? Very broad. It can be instrumental jazz people, choral jazz people, photographers, visual artists, dancers. By building that community, advancing education allows the art form to continue. And we want to develop new audiences. Jazz is dead unless you have audiences. I think that may be the most important thing of all.”

After the mission statement, the steering board’s first priority was to equip the organization with fixes for the problems that had done in IAJE. For most participants, that boiled down to one thing: transparency. Whereas even the board of IAJE had been shielded from the association’s financial affairs, “We post everything we do for the members to see,” says Fischer. “The minutes from the board meetings, the expenditures, everything. The members have the ability to make comments, and we are reviewing those all the time. We listen carefully.”

“In St. Louis, a guy from the South African Jazz Association came up to me afterward and said, ‘Could I see a copy of the budget?'” Surmani adds. “And I just handed it to him.”

The governance structure was designed with substantial differences as well. The founding board of volunteers yielded in 2009 to a board that had been elected by the membership, with term lengths staggered such that a third of the seats would open for election each year. After that, “it’s a three-year rotation,” says Fischer. “So there is no potential for 10 years on the board, or for 12 elections happening at once on a 15-member board. You have fresh ideas coming to the board every year, and you also have history sitting there.” It is the board, since it knows its own members best, that then elects the officers of JEN’s executive committee (president and president-elect, vice president, secretary and treasurer).

“The biggest difference between us and the former organization is that we do not have an executive director-and that’s not really something on the horizon,” Fischer adds. “Our bylaws provide for it if we feel like we need one, but at this point things are running quite efficiently the way they are. We have hired some part-time contract labor, and they’re relieving some of the day-to-day stress.”

Likewise, JEN has steered clear of publishing an in-house journal or newsletter, unlike IAJE’s Jazz Education Journal (a perennial money loser for the association). “Publishing is a whole different business. It’s not being with educators and trying to educate people; that’s not the same as being a publisher,” says Surmani. “There are many organizations out there that try to do everything. They try to plan conferences, do their own publications, raise funds, serve their membership … and along the way, things suffer.”

Instead, JEN has struck a partnership with Symphony Publishing, who publish JAZZed magazine, which has thus become the official publication of JEN. “They give us six to eight pages every issue,” says Sinicrope. “So we don’t have our own journal, but we have a voice. They send out e-mail blasts and publicize us, and the [publisher] of the magazine, [Rick Kessel], is a board member.” Other board members provide content for the magazine at no cost to the organization.

The choice to avoid self-publishing was part of a deliberate effort to sharpen JEN’s focus on educational initiatives-a focus that many felt had been sidelined in IAJE’s final years. “My personal belief, and this is just me, is that the former organization had just lost their way,” says Jim Widner, another original board member. “I was there at the very beginning, and it ended up far from what it started out to be. People were saying that we have to put the ‘E,’ the ‘Education,’ back into JEN.”

“We desperately needed to step back and review where things were going,” John Clayton, bandleader and JEN’s vice president, adds. “So this gave the new organization a chance to learn from all of those dips in the road. Education, education, education: Everything that we do is feeding that.”

For its first year, JEN was largely a virtual organization. Steve Crissinger, a former student of Fischer’s, volunteered to develop and maintain a Web site, which became JEN’s de facto home. But Papich and Fischer were hard at work spreading the word. They announced the organization’s establishment at that year’s Texas Bandmasters Association conference in San Antonio, and sent press releases to the jazz trade publications and prominent associations. “The jazz world is a small world,” notes Widner. “It’s a small, close-knit community, and the news is out there. It’s the people who are spreading the word: ‘Hey, have you heard about JEN? What do you think?'”

Membership slowly began growing. However, Papich’s observation of a “wait-and-see” game proved to be on the mark: Despite JEN’s efforts to distance itself from IAJE, the fiasco surrounding the latter had left members shell-shocked and skittish. “There are people who gave their lives to that organization, who helped found it and helped advance jazz education, and it went down the tubes,” says Surmani. “There was a lack of trust.”

With this in the background, JEN’s board (now elected by the fledgling membership) met in August 2009 in Columbus, where Fischer is based, to discuss an inaugural conference. The members were clamoring for one, but some questioned as to whether the finances and organization were yet stable enough for a 2010 conference, or whether they should plan on 2011 instead. For Widner, a professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, there was no question. “My belief was that if we waited for 2011, interest and membership would have declined a little bit, like, ‘Is it really for real?'” he says. “I thought, ‘Those Doubting Thomases out there, if we move forward with or without them, then they’ll come around and decide that JEN is for real.’ So I pushed to have it in 2010.”

Widner easily convinced his own campus to host the conference, making it a minimal expense to JEN and great PR for the university. He was also able to negotiate excellent group rates for nearby hotels, and rounded up a hardworking cadre of volunteers from among his students. The work was enormous, for Widner as well as the rest of the board, but it paid off at a level that surprised everyone. If anything, it seemed, they had underestimated the jazz educators’ hunger for an industry gathering. “They invited me to do the keynote,” recalls David Baker, the esteemed composer and educator, “and they told me to expect an attendance of about 500 people. When I arrived there were over 1,100.” What’s more, says Baker, it was a success that JEN had completely earned with their planning and execution of the conference. “Now, granted, I may be Pollyanna-ish,” he admits. “I really wanted so badly for it to succeed. But when I looked at St. Louis, I saw only good things.”

Of particular significance was the heavy lineup of student performances. According to the St. Louis program, the three days of the conference saw 27 ensembles from middle school, high school, college and extracurricular programs playing. “We had many more student groups performing than I think we did in a while. That was one of the main showcases,” says Widner, who also led his own University of Missouri – St. Louis Jazz Ensemble. “There was something going on all day long, and I think that’s important for an organization that wants to focus on education.”

“I heard nothing but rave reviews,” adds Sinicrope. “We were a startup, we were people who had little funding, and the physical space was not as large as other jazz education conferences. But people were really happy to have a place where they could gather and share.”

More than anything, says Clayton, it’s the success of the St. Louis conference that has buoyed JEN’s reputation and won over the more jaded observers. “The word has gotten out,” he says happily. “Even there, during the conference, word was getting out: ‘Wow! This is fantastic; this is the real deal; this is much needed and long overdue. Boy, we’ve missed something like this for so long.'”

At presstime, JEN had already sold half of their hotel-room block for the New Orleans conference in January 2011.

• • • • •

The annual conference, which moves to A standard 12-month rotation after 2011, will remain the JEN’s flagship project. However, it is only one of several initiatives the organization has on its agenda. Closest to the hearts of Papich and Fischer is the JENerosity Project: a drive to collect donations of sheet music and used instruments for distribution to music programs in New Orleans schools that were affected by Katrina. Future such projects will target New York and Los Angeles in efforts to preserve and advance school programs. “We want to have an altruistic project going on each year that is dedicated to helping others,” says Papich.

Fischer rattles off a number of other initiatives: “We also have a partnership with Music for All, in which we present the jazz component of the summer symposium every year, and we also present the National Honors Jazz Band of America in tandem with them. We are part of the NAMM SupportMusic Coalition, and help to disseminate and distribute that information to folks if they request it. We’re part of the Quincy Jones Musiq Consortium, which meets about once a year now, but there’s some great initiatives going on there. We now have some scholarship programs, including one honoring David Baker [sponsored by Jamey Aebersold Jazz] and one that Mary Jo established for female students. We have an education fund we’ve just created. We have a program-cover design competition that’s open to middle schoolers and high schoolers in the visual arts every year. We’re about to announce a composition competition. So we’ve got quite a few things brewing.”

JEN is also presenting some important awards. Most prominently, they have taken over co-sponsorship of the John LaPorta Jazz Educator of the Year award, which until recently was jointly given by Berklee College of Music and IAJE. “That’s a project that was near and dear to me,” says Sinicrope, who was the LaPorta award’s inaugural recipient in 2007. “So I just kept working with Berklee and Mary Jo to try to piece that together. It’s changed a little, but we will present the John LaPorta Jazz Educator of the Year in New Orleans next January.”

That the organization has taken on so many action items-and indeed, has come far enough in such a short time that they can take them on-has fueled the optimism of its members, both the founders and the late-coming “Doubting Thomases,” about JEN’s viability and role in the jazz and jazz education communities. But it also speaks to the optimism that inspired JEN in the first place, the belief that to fill the hole left by IAJE was a valuable endeavor. Certainly that’s what John Clayton sees when he looks at the network he’s part of. “It’s about the passion of the jazz community,” he says. “Everybody is so devoted to this music and to the education of the students. That’s how it moved forward so quickly and so beautifully. They’re really stepping up to the plate and putting their efforts and finances forward to make sure that we are successful at what we do.”

That, perhaps, is the real miracle.

Originally Published