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John Hollenbeck: Time to Rearrange

The drummer, composer, and bandleader is finding new ways to approach both his own music and the songs of others—as well as his playing style and the future of jazz education

John Hollenbeck with Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann
John Hollenbeck with Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann in the Frankfurt Radio Big Band’s studio

Hollenbeck’s work as an educator is as inextricable a part of his musical world as are drumming and composing. Akinmusire, for one, appreciated Hollenbeck’s compositions enough to ask for a lesson. “It really opened some doors that had been closed for me,” he says. “I’m still using a lot of the things that I learned in that lesson today.” Hollenbeck says he has since been approached for lessons more than once by people to whom Akinmusire referred him.

He spent 10 years as a full-time professor at the Jazz Institute Berlin before moving to McGill in 2015—partly to be closer to his and his wife’s family, partly because McGill was a better fit for his personal aesthetic. “They’re really into cross-boundary work,” he says. “In Berlin, we didn’t have contact with classical music departments: I didn’t even know where they were. At McGill, I walk down the hall and meet theory people, classical musicians, electronic musicians, engineers.”

In addition, Hollenbeck hopes to create educational and community-based events through Flexatonic Arts. Playing, writing, teaching: They’re all means to the same end. Recent events, though, have the drummer/composer/teacher rethinking both end and means.

Hollenbeck has long been “woke,” in the parlance of our times; for example, the names of both the Claudia Quintet and his early Quartet Lucy were responses to toxic masculinity in the jazz world. (“If I was creating those ensembles in 2020, I probably would make sure there were actual women in the band!” he says today.) The killing in May of George Floyd, and the social upheaval that followed, have him reconsidering race and its function in the music he loves. He recorded a drumming accompaniment to the spoken words of Los Angeles protester Jeremy Frisch, releasing it for Juneteenth on his Bandcamp page (as “I Yield My Time”); he is collaborating with a Montreal DJ on another project, this time with Floyd’s words.

Teaching, though, gives Hollenbeck the greatest pause. The loudening conversation about institutional racism has made him see it within his own institution. “I hadn’t realized how many of the systems that I deal with are basically European,” he says. “When a jazz department goes into a music school, they have to conform to this European system, where European music stays at the top and jazz gets taught on European terms. We never talk about African music. I’ve had time now to do a lot of reflection, a lot of reading, and realize that for some people, it’s a completely oppressive system.”

There was no undergraduate jazz program at Eastman School of Music, where Hollenbeck went to college. Just getting in required claiming, untruthfully, that he aspired to play classical percussion; jazz came outside the classroom, first in informal sessions with fellow students, then on tour with Bob Brookmeyer in the ’90s. In that context, the very existence of undergrad jazz studies felt like progress.

“But here I am teaching jazz, and everyone’s white and everyone’s male, and I didn’t even think about it. I feel foolish for getting this far and not thinking about it as much as I have these last couple of months—but it’s so ingrained that it’s easy not to see.”

Thus Hollenbeck is pushing back against the tenets of white male supremacy. He’s organizing a lecture series with Black women scholars; reconfiguring his curriculum to include female composers; and agitating for more women and people of color, both on the faculty and in the classroom. “We don’t have that many female students, but we also don’t have many female students auditioning,” he says. “That’s not a coincidence. So now we have to reach back before McGill. Like, middle school. It’s about role models. It’s about outreach, and it’s something that has to systematically be changed. It’s similar to the discussion about police departments: It’s very difficult to just change them. But I’m thinking about it a lot right now.”

That apartment building in Montreal may no longer be a church, but with Hollenbeck cloistered inside, it remains a center of inspiration—and contemplation.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.