Summer school passes along the legends of jazz
ON a sunny Idaho mountaintop a million cultural miles from the smoky jazz cradles of New Orleans, Chicago, and New York, a dozen young jazzmen are learning respect for their elders. Jazz school students of the Festival at Sandpoint who come from South Africa, Finland, and both coasts of the United States share a common lineage by virtue of their interest in jazz.
Musically, the genealogy they share runs something like this: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Gil Evans, and Miles Davis.
Like the telling and retelling of Homeric legends, jazz standards are played and replayed here.
``You should always subject yourself to the task of the history,'' says trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The multi-Grammied jazz and classical recording artist is on the faculty of this growing music festival's first-ever jazz training school.
Under the leadership of artistic director Gunther Schuller, this summer music festival has grown from a concert series to include a haven for musicians seeking training in chamber music and jazz, and young conductors seeking the wisdom of Mr. Schuller.
With Schuller's well-known respect for the past and advocacy of modern music, a jazz program was a logical addition to the academic program here.
In ensemble rehearsals, effervescent jazz professor Doug Richards pushes the student players through ``East St. Louis Toodle-oo,'' a bluesy early Duke Ellington composition that's about 50 years old.
Mr. Richards, who has led a series of award-winning jazz bands at Virginia Commonwealth University, is known for his transcriptions of early jazz as well as his knack for creating hot student jazz groups.
In a jam session loosely labeled a ``class,'' jazz drumming's all-time master, Max Roach, rotates students in and out of a series of pickup groups in which he plays drums, as he has with Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis since the early 1950s.
And in a quiet hour, Martin Williams, a Smithsonian Institution jazz historian, will distill his life's work, the study of jazz as an art form with a traceable history and a progression to higher and higher sophistication.
Because of the presence of people like Mr. Roach and Mr. Marsalis, young players like 22-year-old trumpeter Mika Myllari, of Helsinki, rushed to sign up for the program. ``When I heard, I right away bought a ticket,'' he says.
Mr. Myllari, who studied jazz at the Manhattan School of Music, is a striking example of the universality of jazz. His solos at a jam session July 31 were notable for the breadth of their vocabulary: Here was a European musician borrowing phrases and styles from American trumpeters from Armstrong to Davis.
All the discussion of the music's masters of the past 60 years does not mean this program's only focus is on the past.``This music is a fluid music, it's not static,'' Max Roach says.
Ironically it was 26-year-old Marsalis who gave students one of their sternest lectures about how the study of ``old'' jazz is making his ``new'' jazz some of the most critically acclaimed and be-Grammied music around.
Strolling into a Wednesday afternoon class in high-top basketball sneakers and sweat pants, with his trumpet slung under his arm, Marsalis looked like an unlikely proponent of musical scholarship.
``For some reason, in jazz everybody is against education,'' he told the class. ``They feel the more you know about music, the less of a jazz musician you're going to be, which is wrong.''
Marsalis wise-cracked and waxed serious about the fact that his generation grew up listening to ``Earth, Wind, and Fire'' and playing music that ``is not going to teach you the fundamental elements of playing jazz, which is the blues.''
Blues, he made it clear, is not some mythical state of mind attributed only to the long-suffering and the soulful.
Rather, Marsalis contended, it is a complex system of harmonic relationships that has been refined within the jazz tradition.
``A man like Duke Ellington, such a great intellect ... invented a harmonic vocabulary based purely on blues,'' he says.
So, despite a common attitude among young musicians that the blues is ``old music,'' the rhythms and harmonies of the blues are the building blocks of jazz, Marsalis says.
``The blues is what makes music sound American, that's something George Gershwin understood,'' he notes.
Listening to Marsalis juxtapose the identical harmonies in two jazz compositions a generation apart drove the point home and illustrated his claim that blues and blues harmonies are the building blocks for jazz of all kinds.
``If you're building a building and something goes wrong on the sixth floor, every floor you put on top of it is in danger,'' he says, by way of further illustrating the importance of the blues.
Though jazz has suffered second-class status beside rock and roll in the public's eye, says Mr. Williams, the times are changing, and students here are receptive to his message and Marsalis's.
Youthful players like Marsalis sell millions of records, and his emphasis on the past is bound to rub off on fans, Williams says.
For now, though, Marsalis and his older colleagues at the jazz school here are content to sell the message to musicians.