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Jazz Educators Step Up to Face COVID-19’s Challenges

Learn how teachers are adapting to pass on the art form by any means necessary

An extra accessory for saxophonists: the bell cover. (Photo: Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University Photography)
An extra accessory for saxophonists: the bell cover. (Photo: Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University Photography)

In late August, members of the Temple University Jazz Band rehearsed on stage in Philadelphia for the first time since COVID-19 separated them in March. But they still weren’t quite together. A series of giant plexiglass screens on rollers, spaced six feet apart, isolated the 21 musicians from each other and their leader, trumpeter Terell Stafford. Even before the music started, there were more reminders of the risks of playing in a group. Stafford, face mask firmly in place, checked with the horn section to ensure they had the proper bell coverings and filters needed to keep everyone safer during practice. He also explained that playing time would be limited to 30 minutes to allow the air in the school’s performing arts center to recirculate, so they would take a short break at quarter past the hour. Then he raised his arms and, with the snap of his fingers, counted in Sonny Stitt’s “The Eternal Triangle.”

Stafford started and stopped the rhythm section several times, and did the same for the horns. Their timing was off because they were sitting so far apart from each other. “Usually when we set up for rehearsal or a concert, everybody in the section is directly next to each other,” said saxophonist Adam Abrams, 22, a senior from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. “Maybe there’s a foot of space, so it’s much easier to hear and blend and listen to whoever is leading the section when we’re close together.” The safety measures affected more than the music, said Stafford, who also serves as director of jazz studies and chair of instrumental studies at Temple. “It felt at first a little sad, because we’re huggers, we’re family, you know,” he said. “But after they played a few notes and we got used to the sound of the room, it was good.”

Jazz educators across the country are grappling with how to teach jazz effectively and safely in the COVID-19 era. Some have been frustrated by having to rely on technology to teach an art form that traditionally thrives on close mentoring relationships. However, like all good improvisers, they regrouped and adjusted their teaching styles to fit the moment and address the needs of their students. While lamenting the remoteness that the pandemic imposes, they are heartened by the opportunities to interact with larger audiences. There is still considerable debate about the depth of those interactions, and the consequences for the genre going forward.

Before COVID-19 disrupted all of life’s familiar norms, Temple’s jazz program was on track to have a spectacular year. The band took top honors at the inaugural Jack Rudin Jazz Championship, an invitational competition for university jazz programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) in New York. They were invited to perform at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, and planned to do a recording to document and celebrate their success. “Then the pandemic hit, and it knocked the wind out of us for about a week and a half,” Stafford said. But for Temple, this was more of a speed bump than a roadblock. John Harris, an engineer at Temple, created four mobile recording kits. One of them was designed for the band’s rhythm section and the others, which used different mics, were for horn players. The kits were sent out in groups of four. After setting them up, students would plug into a computer and log in to Zoom. An engineer in Philadelphia or Los Angeles would run the session and later mix the tracks together. A few band members who lived closer to campus arranged to have their parts recorded at the university. The finished product, titled Covid Sessions: A Social Call, features seven tracks of big-band repertoire such as “Avenue C” by Count Basie.

Stafford was mentored by saxophonist Bobby Watson and pianist McCoy Tyner while playing in their bands, and he credits both men for influencing his personal and professional development. He recalled that, though Tyner was rather quiet, he conveyed invaluable lessons just by how he played. “He supported you by showing how to build a solo, how to build intensity into a solo, and how to interact in a solo. There was so much I got from him.” Stafford in turn has tried to pass these lessons on to his students, along with perhaps the most important lesson of all: “The music made on the bandstand comes from relationships off the bandstand.”

It’s likely that most fledging musicians won’t have the same opportunities to inhale the wisdom of a seasoned artist. This, in combination with the separation imposed by COVID-19, has moved Stafford to change his teaching approach. Influenced by his classical training and his own sensibilities on the importance of sound, he enlisted the aid of students to describe both the characteristics and the feeling of the sounds they produced while playing.

This was necessary because the quality of recorded sound over Zoom never matches what’s heard in live playing. During lessons with his students, he would ask a series of questions about their playing experience: How did it feel? How did it sound? Was it difficult to play? “I had to rely on the students to help teach, which I’ve never done before,” he said. “It was more of a team teaching, and the students were more invested in what they did because they were my assistants.”

Terell Stafford conducts the Temple University Jazz Band’s first post-COVID rehearsal (photo: Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University Photography)
Terell Stafford conducts the Temple University Jazz Band’s first post-COVID rehearsal (photo: Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University Photography)

Equity and Tech

Stafford said these are the issues that he and his counterpart Rodney Whitaker discuss regularly. Whitaker is a university distinguished professor of jazz bass and director of jazz studies at Michigan State University. He’s faced down and overcome the awkward stages of matching his teaching needs to the current environment. But the shift for Whitaker and his colleagues didn’t come gracefully. He recalled that after the school shutdown in March, the faculty was pushed online without warning. “We knew it was a possibility that it might happen, but it was just abrupt,” he said. “The first week was awful, and most of us failed miserably, primarily because we didn’t know how to navigate the technology. We didn’t know what was possible.” 

Whitaker enlisted the aid of teaching assistants and learned how to integrate PowerPoint, artist bios, and recordings while in the Zoom environment. Once he hit his stride, his classes had 100 percent attendance. He also started using the program GoReact, where students can submit performance videos and instructors can write comments on them, like “This is where you’re making a mistake.”

Many of Whitaker’s students have taken virtual bass lessons with other instructors using Skype or FaceTime, a practice he once frowned on. “I was one of those people who didn’t believe in that because I grew up in a different time,” he said. “I didn’t think you could do that because something would get lost in the translation. But for [my students] it was normal. They would get frustrated with us when we stumbled over the technology.”

Whitaker, 52, said some of his peers in jazz education are still resistant to changing their approach. Part of this reluctance is generational. “I talk to people older than me and some of them are still hung up on ‘I like to move my student’s finger over the fingerboard on the bass,’ but we can’t do that anymore. It’s a different time and a different landscape.”

Although Whitaker has embraced technology and the teaching opportunities it provides, he’s concerned that growing reliance on expensive items like USB mics and high-speed WiFi that facilitate online learning may put quality instruction out of reach for some students and their communities. “The thing about jazz is, jazz was equity,” he said. “Most of the lessons I had growing up in Detroit I didn’t pay for, because someone saw that I had talent and said, ‘Come over here and let me show you how to play this.’” In late August, Michigan State was slated to return to classroom instruction. The school spent $60,000 on microphones to distribute to students in the fall in case digital learning returns.