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Todd Stoll, JALC Renaissance Man

On "the music of endless possibility"

Todd Stoll
Todd Stoll

“I oversee possibly the largest jazz education program in the world,” says Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Todd Stoll. “I manage an amazing team of professionals who produce local and national-level programs for ages eight months to senior citizens.”

Vice President of Education Stoll has three guiding principals: “One: Jazz education is for everyone. Two: Teachers need better resources to address jazz. Three: An understanding of jazz history influences all of this. Our WeBop program for preschoolers is very popular with parents, and also reaches over 300 families from underserved communities each year. Jazz for Young People will present 225 concerts for New York City school kids this year (which is up from just 26 concerts in 2012). In addition, our Essentially Ellington program is the largest publishing program of its kind in the world. This year we will give to schools over 20,000 Duke Ellington and Gerald Wilson charts.”

If you think these are enough activities for one organization, you’re wrong: “There’s also a great interactive app,” says Stoll, “developed with a tech startup, Tutti Dynamics, that allows kids to interact with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra directly around this year’s music. Authentic repertoire is what we are dedicated to, and the information contained therein will help raise the consciousness of our country. We have a great, and free, resource in our Jazz Academy Media library, nearly 400 short video lessons addressing the concepts and techniques of jazz, with more on the way. We also have a partnership with a school in Harlem, working with kids in all aspects of various programs—from preschool through high school—that is very exciting. Our Swing University is one of the leading jazz history/appreciation programs in the world. It’s led by Phil Schaap, the greatest jazz historian in the world, and has classes taught by great artists, educators and scholars. It’s got something for everyone and is listening-based.”

Stoll takes a deep breath: “And we also have a few new initiatives coming up that you’ll hear about soon…”

Raised in Springfield, Ohio, Stoll dove into music early. “I always had great music teachers-dedicated, enthusiastic, and inspiring. I guess I was very lucky. My junior high director was a very intense yet cool guy we called Mr. A: Hap Ashenfelter. He was a woodwind specialist who played in the pit orchestra for all of the local and touring Broadway shows, and he could really give you the ‘ray’ during band. He made all of us (7th-9th graders) learn to play a two-octave chromatic scale. He let me sit in the pit orchestra for one of his professional gigs when I was 12 years old; I got to hang with the musicians, which was a very influential experience. I saw how those guys had a family vibe—just a certain way they addressed each other and the feeling it created. I had the pleasure of introducing Mr. A to Wynton [JALC Managing and Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis] at a jazz conference a number of years ago; that was a highlight of my life.

“I also have to mention a mentor who dramatically influenced me after college, Ohio jazz legend Vaughn Wiester. He was a former trombonist with Woody Herman; a professor at Capital University; and an amazing arranger and scholar par excellence. I spent hours upon hours at his house listening to records (over 20,000 LPs), looking at scores, discussing everything from Bach cantatas to Bitches Brew. Mr. Wiester is one of the most giving and generous men alive, and I’m sure there are others like him out there who influence musicians and educators outside the walls of academia.”

When asked to discuss his music-teaching career, Stoll replies, “Interestingly enough, I did everything I could to run from it! I had finished my master’s degree in trumpet at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music, and all I wanted was to play. I went on the road—didn’t even know where my teaching certificate was—but ended up, as things happen, back in Central Ohio one summer without a gig.” Through several contacts, Stoll heard about a part-time job at a school district south of Columbus, “a very rural area. I interviewed and was hired.” As the years passed, Stoll wound up the curriculum coordinator for a suburban school system.

“Teaching really led me to a few truths that still guide me today: One: There is an industry and political hierarchy around music education that doesn’t always have the interests of the art form or kids as a priority. Two: The access of great art/content in the classroom is purely in the hands of that music teacher. Three: The leadership at a school has the ultimate power for allowing said teacher access to the kids. Scheduling is probably one of the biggest challenges for music teachers nationwide. See how those things work together?”

Speaking of authentic repertoire, in the early 1990s Stoll was surprised at the dearth of available Duke Ellington charts. “I was shocked. It would be like Mozart or Beethoven charts not being available for string students, or Sousa or Holst charts not available for band students. I had not seen one piece of music by Duke Ellington, our nation’s most prolific composer. I specifically remember calling Wynton and discussing this with him—this lack of high-quality literature for school bands, and the state of jazz education in general.”

During this time, Stoll founded the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra, “which became a major part of my life for the next 20 years. We were dedicated to the 3 Ps: Performance, Preservation and Promotion of great jazz music. We reached kids from all over Central Ohio, and ended up as a finalist at JALC’s Essentially Ellington competition. We expanded to having three youth big bands, toured internationally and have alumni who are not only great musicians, like Aaron Diehl, but are teachers, lawyers, doctors, finance people—some in the ‘jazz industry’—a whole generation of young adults who are connected to our music. Despite our reputation for playing at a high level, we were never afraid to struggle with a great piece of art. The content was always more important than the technical performance. And, I believe, that was why we were successful.”

Just how did the Jazz at Lincoln Center gig come a-knocking? Says Stoll: “I received a call from then Executive Director Adrian Ellis, who said they had an opening. I met with him a few times—understand that I had been a consultant, an Essentially Ellington director, simply around the program for a number of years—and then a final meeting with him and Wynton, and they offered me the gig. It was the right time in my life in terms of my family and career. I’ve been very lucky to have the right experiences and the right people in my life.”

Working with Marsalis must be quite interesting. “This word,” says Stoll, “may come across as clichéd, but [working with Wynton] is transformational. He has the amazing ability to take in huge amounts of information and analyze it in a way that is meaningful. His work ethic is super-human; that alone inspires me, as it exemplifies his commitment to the music. He doesn’t have to work the way he does—he chooses to—and that in turn inspires all of us at JALC. The other remarkable thing is his humility. He is the first to admit what he doesn’t know, and he will defer to someone with more experience. That is a sign of great leadership.”

Along with being a supreme musician, composer and leader, Marsalis is also a fine human being, says Stoll. “I’ve never been around someone who gives to strangers and kids the way he does. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve stood with him one hour, two hours or more after gigs, talking to kids, parents, teachers, fans, taking pictures, encouraging, teasing, inspiring. It’s amazing and never gets talked about in the media—and that’s the tip of the iceberg! Wynton talks about a lot of things in a spiritual sense—that this music and our mission are on a different level. It’s a very deep and personal thing for us. Wynton has also got a great wit and loves sports. We call him The Oracle of Chelsea because he always predicts the outcomes of big games.

“Understand,” says Stoll, “we have our differences, but because of our long friendship it’s always framed by the mutual love and respect we have for each other.”

On the theme of love, Stoll discusses his family: “I just lost my father…my mother passed a few years ago. It’s a strange feeling when your parents are gone, when you are carrying their legacy. I hope I have instilled a sense of responsibility in my daughters (ages 18 and 21) to this legacy, that nothing we have is earned entirely on our own: We stand on the shoulders of those who have sacrificed for us.

“I had an almost idyllic childhood. My parents were teachers who supported me in anything I wanted to do. My mother played piano, my dad the trombone, and he was the one who really took music very seriously. My dad took me to all kinds of concerts—bands, symphony orchestras, jazz concerts, all from a very early age. I had the opportunity, after my mom passed away, for my dad and I to live together for about four years. Even though he was older, we had an amazing time going to all kinds of concerts. I took him to my daughters’ concerts, to my school concerts, to my looooooong jazz gigs. Man, we had a ball! I feel very lucky to have had that time together and have zero regrets in our relationship.”

Stoll is also lucky in his two daughters, Lauren, 21, and Kyrsten, 18. “I really tried to be open and honest with them. You know the traditional way of raising kids, where you never actually see your parents in a ‘real light’? I didn’t do that. I hid nothing from them and tried to explain everything I could in a way they would understand. I talk to them both every day—they text me constantly! I’m just now coming to terms with the fact that they’re going to grow up, have their own lives, and I’m not going to see them as often. It’s the circle of life that no one tells you about when you’re young.”

In an October gig at Manhattan’s Bank Street Books with gifted pianist Eli Yamin and master trombonist Art Baron, Stoll blew some fine horn. How often does he get to play? “Well, I used to play a lot. I owe a great deal to my great trumpet teacher James Olcott, from Miami University (in Ohio), who is now retired and moved to Minnesota. He studied with the legendary William Vacchiano at the Manhattan School of Music, who incidentally was Wynton’s teacher at Juilliard. I really don’t have the time to play as much as I used to. Occasionally I get the privilege of subbing in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which is a true blessing. Those guys…whew! I’m hoping to play a bit more in the coming years, and have a specific project coming up-not ready for public consumption yet!”

The Jazz at Lincoln Center gig comes complete with travel. “In a church in East London we did an outreach concert that had both elementary school kids from a very underserved neighborhood and older adults from a senior center. It was a 300-year-old church and all of these people were vibing on the music—kids dancing, old people clapping, just a beautiful scene.

“Another amazing place I visited due to work was Cuba. I spent a week in Havana over Thanksgiving of 2012 and really saw something that few Americans get to experience. I visited five of their music conservatories and met amazing young people and incredible teachers. With very little in terms of resources and formalized jazz pedagogy, these students were just amazing. One truly inspiring incident there had to do with a salsa club we visited late at night. Packed to the rafters, with people dancing, singing, and having a good time, it was apparent that their culture included at least three generations, both on stage and on the dance floor! Imagine if we as Americans had our grandparents and grandchildren dancing together and celebrating our music!”

What’s cooking in the future at Jazz at Lincoln Center? “We want to develop larger audiences for our music, provide more access for teachers and students to our resources. In addition, we want to develop an advocacy program for anyone interested in the music: musicians, presenters, fans and families. We wish to do this both nationally and internationally. Stay tuned-we’re just starting to swing out here!”

Finally, in the words of Todd Stoll, what makes jazz such an incredible music? “Jazz is the music of endless possibility. It is the feeling of a mother’s love for her child, the wonder of creation, a first kiss and unbelievable loss. Jazz is courtship and heartbreak, joy and pain, simplicity and high intellect. You can be in a small club in Lima, Peru or the Blue Note in Milan, Italy, and it’s always the same: swinging, blues and personal expression. Jazz also allows for a painless way to navigate our country’s complicated history. Jazz helps explain the concept of an individual in relation to a group, and how that process relates to our humanity. In addition to all of this, you can have a profoundly good time!” Originally Published