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Jazz Educators Network, 2011

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I was New Orleans this January for the annual Jazz Educators Network meetings. JEN is the phoenix that has emerged from the ashes of IAJE, and there’s a lot to like about it!

There were three unexpected stand-outs for me at this year’s JEN. One was a masterclass on self-directed learning by Harry Pickens, special assistant to the provost at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He’s also a monster piano player who’s recorded with a bunch of luminaries. He teaches jazz improv to both undergrad and grad students, and he offers cutting-edge classes on creativity and critical thinking. Practically every word that came out of his mouth was life-altering for me—I’m using a lot of his materials today.

The second thing that blew me away: the New Orleans locals who were featured on the performance side of the docket—they were just amazing! I’m thinking especially about a banjo player who could play anything on that instrument, from Cajun and zydeco to second line to bebop. He had this biting sardonic humour and really knew how to work with his audience. I also heard this woman play the tambourine like it’s never been played before. Honestly, you could hear the ride, you could hear the snare—you didn’t need a drummer! She was trading fours with the sax player, it was great. All the New Orleans musicians I heard know how to mix wit with the music, and that gives their playing so much dimension.

The third thing: watching the Air Command band perform with Dave Liebman. I didn’t really expect a strict military band to be so successful presenting such a free and self-expressive art form as jazz but their show knocked my head off! They were all in their impeccably pressed uniforms with high-powered chevron displays—they looked like robots yet their music was swinging like there was no tomorrow. Not only that, but there were well-composed originals, and they had all the most modern language. Military big bands tend to lag about thirty years behind, but I heard stuff out of them that was absolutely fresh.

I was just musing that you don’t find better players in Slide Hampton’s band when the singer walked out. She had a bunch of chevrons too, and she stood at attention—then she proceeded to sing. She had the sound of Ella, Sarah, Peggy Lee, and then she did some of her own original stuff. She had a four-octave range, and she was good across all of it. When she scatted, she blew everybody off the bandstand—including Liebman! I felt stupid for doubting that a military band could be relevant in the jazz element. They schooled me.

Next January, the Jazz Educators Network meets in Louisville Kentucky. I recommend it highly to everybody who’s involved in jazz instruction. I think it’s way better than IAJE because it’s still small—you can see practically everything, and everybody’s open and interested in connecting and sharing ideas. You hear great performances, and you get to connect with people who are committed to passing along the skills and philosophy that make up this amazing art form.


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