By Saul Richardson, Principal at Jazz Workshop Australia.
We held our annual Jazz Workshop Australia ensembles concert this week, Thursday November 29 at Club Ryde X. Here are some thoughts. Earlier in the year we presented a concert of all our private instrumental students. This concert showcased another key aspect to what we do: the combos and big bands that rehearse together every week throughout the year at JWA.
102 musicians performed, including 99 students and 3 tutors. The youngest was aged 8 and the oldest was…many decades older! The program featured 12 bands: 9 JWA combos and the three Sydney Youth Jazz Orchestrabig bands. I got to hear at least some of each band’s set. Wish I could have heard more, but I seemed always to be busy marshaling my next band, helping people find misplaced music or instruments, and so on.
I was thrilled to see a large audience there to see and support all our musicians. For much of the evening the big auditorium was just about full. It was really nice to see that many of the performers stayed for the whole night to heat their colleagues play. For the younger ones it is excellent for them to be able to hear what older more experienced players can do, and to see how they do it at close quarters. For the older ones it is a great thing that they are interested in the younger ones and take time to encourage them. And to “check out” what competition is coming up for them in the next year or two!
One of the things these concerts do is test the endurance of the audience (they can be long!). But the other thing they do is clearly illustrate, in just a few hours, the progression of a young jazz musician from beginner to professional level. For parents and students the steps and stages along the way can be obscure. Musicians and those closest to them don’t really notice their own progress in the same way as an outside observer. They hear themselves or their child play all the time, and the process of learning is slow and gradual. Think of the relative who only sees a child once a year: “You’ve grown so much!” The child doesn’t notice the growth, but outsiders do.
In these concerts we have every stage of Jazz Musician Development clearly illustrated for us, live. Parents and musicians can see where they sit in the progression, and get an idea of what to expect next. They can also see the difference between where they are now and the previous step.
It is actually very exciting for us to see the progress our students make from year to year. One year a kid is crying and refuses to even get on stage. The next year they are confidently improvising and can’t wait to perform. One year another student can barely stay in the right key when they improvise. A year later they can play in tune, with a good tone through the key changes of a difficult jazz tune. One year a student sounds like the average high school player: ok, but you wouldn’t compare them to a professional player. The next year they are playing with amazing technique, fluidly and expressively soaring their way through the chord changes of any tune.
There were many highlights for me in this year’s concert. In fact, it would probably be impossible to single out any one group over the others. I could hear that everyone tried hard and has made obvious progress since last year. Of course I’m especially proud of the bands I direct. My students were terrific! But everyone who played in every combo did a great job, I thought.
Here are a couple of examples I want to single out, not for special praise, but as examples of the kind of developmental steps I talked about earlier.
1. Tuesday Junior combo, tutored by Anna Savery. Only three of the members were able to make the concert. They are aged 8, 9 and 10 and are new to playing jazz and not very experienced on their instruments. They were able to take the stage and play improvised solos with a reasonable tone, pretty well in tune and with a fairly strong sense of key centre. These things are very hard to do while simultaneously composing and performing . They are a fine example of strong young beginners. If they keep it up for the next twelve months, they will be noticeably and remarkably more advanced by the next concert.
2. JWA Academy Junior Combo, tutored by me. This concert represented a conceptual breakthrough for the musicians in this band. For the first time they were able, in performance, to do what we call “playing through the chord changes” of a fairly difficult tune. That means that they are able to change key each time the chords change and capture the sound of the chords to the song in their improvisations. It is hard to do but is one of the essential skills of the advanced jazz player. Not only did they do this, but they did so with good control over crucial musical aspects of their playing: tone, dynamic expression, intonation. Everyone in the band had a strong awareness of what the whole ensemble was doing, of where they were up to, what they needed to do next. They were able to do this with minimal prompting from me. Given that almost everything that happens in a jazz performance is improvised, and no one can be sure exactly what is going to happen from moment to moment, strong musical teamwork is essential. This group has just started to show that in their performance.
3. Thursday combo tutored by Anna Savery, and Tuesday Senior combo tutored by Richard Savery. These two groups involve players of different ages, but both demonstrated strong musical teamwork. Everyone in the senior group, and nearly everyone in the younger Thursday group clearly knew what was going on, were aware of what others were doing, and what they needed to do at each stage. They played in tune, with a good sense of key centre, good tone and were able to bring creativity to their improvised solos. They generally weren’t “playing through the changes”, but with their strong ensemble skills should be able to move towards that.
4. JWA Senior Combo, tutored by me. Twelve months ago this group was playing at about the level of the Academy Junior Combo: really just starting to play through chord changes in their improvised solos. Now everyone in the group can play through complex chords while maintaining excellent musicality at the same time. They also have developed a strong understanding of style that meant they were able to give convincing renditions of quite contrasting tunes, one in a Hard Bop/Bebop style (Art Blakey arrangement of That Old Feeling), and the other in a New Orleans/swing style (All Of Me). The next step for these musicians, apart from continuing to improve their technique and improvisational skills, is to develop their ensemble performance skills. Professional jazz musicians are able to make it sound good, sound deliberate and arranged on the spur of the moment, no matter what happens during the performance. You can hear that this group is moving towards that, but isn’t there yet.
So, there are a few examples of different Stages of Jazz Musician Development illustrated in four of the bands that performed at this year’s concert. Each of the steps is a quantum leap from the previous: quite distinct and important, though they can seem small or subtle to the listener.
JWA co-founder Karen Richards and I are both very proud of what all our students are achieving. We also love the great community that has grown around JWA, so evident at this concert. We congratulate everyone who participated and are already looking forward to the next one!