This article is copyright 2002 by Antonio J. García and originally was published in Down Beat, Vol. 69, No. 10, October 2002 (also reprinted in thousands of reprint copies of the Down Beat publication Where to Study Jazz 2003). Some text variations may occur between the print version and that below. All international rights remain reserved; it is not for further reproduction without written consent.

More Than the "Changes": The Pragmatic Education in a College Jazz Program
by Antonio J. García

Jazz education is a dream come true: you go to class, jam with your peers, rub shoulders with world-renowned faculty and guest clinicians and then head into the real world as a professional. You play like Coltrane, gig with Dave Douglas and the phone rings with an offer from the Zawinul Syndicate: Joe wants you to join him on his next European tour.

Well, don’t dream too long. The reality is that relatively few performance opportunities exist today, even for the best players; and the competition is fierce. Making a living in music has never been easy.

Most schools recognize this, creating curricula that encourage or require students develop pragmatic, real-world skills for survival—along with the musical growth that has always beat at the heart of creative learning. I spoke with a number of jazz educators to gauge the current campus scene.

Art vs. Career

The jazz artist’s survival cannot be taken for granted. Should your undergraduate studies focus exclusively on creating jazz, or should they leave room for the vocational, career-making education as well? According to Bob Lark, chair of the jazz studies program at DePaul University in Chicago, the responsibility of a collegiate jazz program is to, “prepare students to be the best musicians they can be via performance, historical knowledge and theoretical and pedagogical knowledge. Well-prepared people manage to find their way in the music world.”

Exactly what this path through the music world will be, however, is unpredictable and can be extremely difficult. Going into a jazz program, students must understand the realities of performing careers in the field. “Only a small percentage of jazz majors will find full-time employment as performers,” said Art Dawkins, director of jazz studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “Therefore, jazz education should expose them to a broad variety of possibilities including freelancing and other jazz-related vocations.”

One way that schools help students gain an understanding of the real world is by bringing role models to the school—in the form of clinicians—who can speak volumes about life in the trenches. “Students should be exposed to guest clinicians from both the traditional and contemporary ends of the musical spectrum—and the faculty should be diverse enough to present several different role models for career development,” said Ellen Rowe, undergraduate coordinator of jazz studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich.

After all, suggested David Demsey, coordinator of jazz studies at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J., “Young musicians rarely make an immediate living after graduation playing their chosen jazz music. You have to be ready to play, write and lead bands in other peoples’ musical styles.”

Knowing how to adapt to various musical situations is one thing. Having a background in the inner-workings of the music industry—basically, how to make money—is another. So should schools mix art and commerce, making a music business course be part of the undergraduate menu? After all, it’s important for graduates to have a grasp on issues such as contracts, copyright, partnerships, recording, grant-writing, unions, artist management, marketing, freelancing, career options and taxes.

“It’s a very important area,” Demsey said. “Many musicians graduate with the mistaken notion that their music will speak for itself. They should have a sense of themselves as businesses, with different elements of their musicianship as the products.”

Many educators agree, and Harold Danko, chairman of the jazz and contemporary media program of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., emphasized the importance of bringing in professionals from the outside. “Those of us who elected academia should make no pretense to be totally on top of the music industry. Guests from the field can talk about the present state of the business better than we can.”

Part of that business exposure can be the opportunity to learn something about producing concerts, sound reinforcement and recordings, even from informal studying. “You can learn producing from observing during performance situations,” said Justin DiCioccio, dean of the jazz division at New York’s Manhattan School of Music.

Formal study is available at some institutions, more often at the graduate level. And a final project can prompt a great lesson. “I support asking students to produce a CD for themselves before they graduate so that they can understand at least the basics of putting a product together,” Rowe said.

Big Band—Why Learn When There’s Little Play

Why should instrumentalists spend hours in large jazz ensemble rehearsals and performances if big band playing opportunities barely exist in the real world? First, “teaching that part of jazz history is important,” emphasized Ron McCurdy, professor at the Thornton School of Music at Los Angeles’ University of Southern California, and past president of the International Association for Jazz Education.

And if it is a dinosaur in the outside world, “college may provide the only opportunity for real experience and aesthetic pleasure in this area,” Danko said.

Beyond the past, many educators speak of the importance of the large ensemble’s role in preparing a young musician for a future in other arenas, be it vocational (“Utilizing those skills playing recording sessions, Broadway shows and pops concerts,” said Whit Sidener, chairman of the department of studio music and jazz at the University of Miami) or at large.

“Big bands teach you how to listen, blend and play time with correct phrasing and articulation,” DiCioccio said.

College big bands also offer opportunities for budding arrangers to experience the tradition “live,” hear the music from the inside, and be inspired to compose and arrange, in turn inspiring fellow players and sowing the seeds for advancing the jazz tradition. It’s difficult to find an accomplished brass, woodwind or rhythm-playing jazz instrumentalist whose expressiveness as a writer or player cannot be traced in part to performing in large ensembles. Furthermore, there’s a definite science to marking parts properly so that a substitute from the next city can step in and sight-read your pro gig book. That skill should be an essential element of all collegiate big band training.

Demsey pointed out an often-forgotten element of large ensemble life. “On a more practical level, a city’s big bands are the ‘jazz social scene’ where players meet one another, network and find a source of strong players for other musical ventures. If you’re not an accomplished player in the city’s big bands, it will be tougher to get work with other groups.”

For some students, the future will include ensemble direction as educators. “Big bands are still an important part of secondary school curricula,” Rowe said, “so they also offer an important pedagogical component for college students who may later teach.”

Ensembles & Styles

Almost all jazz studies programs today are providing practical playing experience. But what sort of ensembles and opportunities might an instrumental jazz student seek besides big band? Sidener offered a nearly comprehensive list: “Small jazz ensembles that stress improvisation in a variety of styles; ensembles that teach reading for guitarists and bassists; percussion ensembles stressing instruments other than drum set for drummers, plus additional percussion ensembles for non-percussion majors; woodwind-doubling ensembles for saxophonists; jazz vocal ensembles for instrumentalists; studio orchestra with strings; large and small Afro-Cuban and Brazilian ensembles; and the option of classical chamber ensembles and large ensembles.”

McCurdy added that some schools offer “‘theme’ combos, playing music in the style of Miles, Coltrane, or others”; and Rowe described “a digital music ensemble, plus a more eclectic improvising ensemble including various world music influences and exposure to different time signatures and grooves.” Lark suggested that prospective students look for ensembles to be, “coached by faculty, as well as perform at outside, professional venues and festivals.”

Is it possible for students to receive a solid grounding for avant-garde jazz playing within a four-year undergraduate period? And become proficient in Latin styles? And become strong in music technology? Gordon Foote, chair of the department of performance at McGill University in Montreal, explained the difficulty in gaining proficiency in such diversity. “It’s tough to cover all those styles thoroughly in a four-year jazz studies program, though a student can learn many of the basic styles,” Foote said. “And while we offer a degree in music technology, that degree’s study doesn’t necessarily include jazz.”

Sidener agreed: “Technology needs to be a priority in all aspects of higher education, not just in music.”

Danko suggested that while a “fairly solid grounding in a breadth of styles is possible in the undergraduate program, real depth is rarely so.” Or, as Demsey said, “It’s impossible to provide all the answers; so we try to at least provide the questions!”

Sidener cautioned that, “Educators need to be careful not to be narrow in our view of the music.” Danko shared the same view. “We should not impose our own limitations on students,” he said. “Let students discover things for themselves and go for it like crazy people.”

And the discovery might not occur on an expected path. “One of my concerns is the preponderance of books, videos and other media that spoon-feed information, encouraging students to avoid the necessary, time-consuming job of absorbing sound and vocabulary,” Rowe said. “They should learn the music with the same kind of painstaking, organic approach that all the great innovators and masters of the music followed. Students benefit from learning about process, learning how to teach themselves.”

These educators agree that the overall ability of incoming college students is ever increasing, leading to an expansion of the music that can be taught on campus. “I’m pleased by their seriousness in wanting to play the music with depth and passion,” DiCioccio said. Dawkins agreed: “Some of the most intellectually and musically gifted high school students are choosing to study jazz music seriously.”

And this has a positive effect throughout the music school, both for the overall faculty and for the jazz studies program. “Music professors of non-jazz areas really enjoy the very bright and creative jazz majors, thus giving jazz a great deal of credibility at my institution,” Foote said.

This can lead to ideas crossing any divide between jazz and other music studies. “The very positive part of jazz education’s being ‘young’ is that we can draw from the best elements of the classical conservatory model, the campus model, the jazz street tradition, and the European and African teaching models and create something that highlights the importance of jazz education,” Demsey said. “For example, jazz sparked study into the value of improvisation instruction at an early age, teaching young students to trust their ears and not learn only from the printed page.”

Final Advice

When asked their best advice to a high school senior considering jazz studies in college, these educators were enthusiastic about elements beyond learning one’s instrument superbly. “You’ve got to listen regularly to a variety of jazz artists and practice emulating their styles,” Lark said.

“You’ll never stop paying for a cheap education,” Foote said. “Prepare by studying harmony, theory, the jazz language and dialects, the improvisational aspects with someone who really understands them in a jazz context.” He offered scouting tips as well. “Ask questions about the prospective school: teachers, curriculum, playing opportunities, city and immediate locale; get CDs of the school ensembles to discover the level of the students.”

“Look for a well-rounded program that doesn’t specialize in just one methodology or type of music,” Demsey said. “Visit the school before applying, if possible; and spend a day as an ‘honorary jazz major.’ Don’t go on a special showcase day for prospective students; go on a normal, mid-week class day. Meet the students and faculty; stick with one student of your instrument; and get a gut feeling as to whether you’d be happy in that program.”

In addition, it’s important to assess the attitude of the students toward each other: “Seek an atmosphere that is competitive yet supportive,” said Rowe, who also stressed the importance of looking for “a dedicated private teacher who is excited about teaching, who will be there for you and who can be a positive role model—both as a musician and person.”

When it comes down to dollars, it’s important to realize that if you love the music, it is possible to sustain yourself with jazz. “You can make a living in jazz,” DiCioccio said, “but you have to be smart, be the best musician you can be and take care of business.”

“I believe a high school senior should understand the potential for earning a living not only as a performer but through such auxiliary areas as music business, teaching and related pop-music opportunities,” Dawkins suggested.

“I’d advise the student to double major—and not because it’s something to fall back on,” McCurdy offered. “Today’s musician should have an understanding about life, history and a strong sense of culture.”

Perhaps Danko summed it up best when he said that in order to meet the many challenges of studying jazz in college, you should “be sure you love it and are a maniac about it.”

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Antonio J. García is a Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he directs the Jazz Orchestra I; instructs Applied Jazz Trombone, Small Jazz Ensemble, Music Industry, and various jazz courses; founded a B.A. Music Business Emphasis (for which he initially served as Coordinator); and directs the Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. An alumnus of the Eastman School of Music and of Loyola University of the South, he has received commissions for jazz, symphonic, chamber, film, and solo works—instrumental and vocal—including grants from Meet The Composer, The Commission Project, The Thelonious Monk Institute, and regional arts councils. His music has aired internationally and has been performed by such artists as Sheila Jordan, Arturo Sandoval, Jim Pugh, Denis DiBlasio, James Moody, and Nick Brignola. Composition/arrangement honors include IAJE (jazz band), ASCAP (orchestral), and Billboard Magazine (pop songwriting). His works have been published by Kjos Music, Hal Leonard, Kendor Music, Doug Beach Music, ejazzlines, Walrus, UNC Jazz Press, Three-Two Music Publications, and his own, with five recorded on CDs by Rob Parton’s JazzTech Big Band (Sea Breeze and ROPA JAZZ). His scores for independent films have screened across the U.S. and in Italy, Macedonia, Uganda, Australia, Colombia, India, Germany, Brazil, Hong Kong, Mexico, Israel, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

A Bach/Selmer trombone clinician, Mr. García serves as the jazz clinician for The Conn-Selmer Institute. He has freelanced as trombonist, bass trombonist, or pianist with over 70 nationally renowned artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Doc Severinsen, Louie Bellson, Dave Brubeck, and Phil Collins—and has performed at the Montreux, Nice, North Sea, Pori (Finland), New Orleans, and Chicago Jazz Festivals. He has produced recordings or broadcasts of such artists as Wynton Marsalis, Jim Pugh, Dave Taylor, Susannah McCorkle, Sir Roland Hanna, and the JazzTech Big Band and is the bass trombonist on Phil Collins’ CD “A Hot Night in Paris” (Atlantic) and DVD “Phil Collins: Finally...The First Farewell Tour” (Warner Music). An avid scat-singer, he has performed vocally with jazz bands, jazz choirs, and computer-generated sounds. He is also a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). A New Orleans native, he also performed there with such local artists as Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole, Irma Thomas, and Al Hirt.

Mr. García is a Research Faculty member at The University of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban, South Africa) and the Associate Jazz Editor of the International Trombone Association Journal. He serves as a Network Expert (for Improvisation Materials) for the Jazz Education Network and has served as President’s Advisory Council member and Editorial Advisory Board member. His newest book, Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading (Meredith Music), explores avenues for creating structures that correspond to course objectives. His book Cutting the Changes: Jazz Improvisation via Key Centers (Kjos Music) offers musicians of all ages the opportunity to improvise over standard tunes using just their major scales. He is Co-Editor and Contributing Author of Teaching Jazz: A Course of Study (published by NAfME) and authored a chapter within The Jazzer’s Cookbook (published by Meredith Music). Within the International Association for Jazz Education he served as Editor of the Jazz Education Journal, President of IAJE-IL, International Co-Chair for Curriculum and for Vocal/Instrumental Integration, and Chicago Host Coordinator for the 1997 Conference. He served on the Illinois Coalition for Music Education coordinating committee, worked with the Illinois and Chicago Public Schools to develop standards for multi-cultural music education, and received a curricular grant from the Council for Basic Education. He has also served as Director of IMEA’s All-State Jazz Choir and Combo and of similar ensembles outside of Illinois. He is the recipient of the Illinois Music Educators Association’s 2001 Distinguished Service Award.

Regarding Jazz Improvisation: Practical Approaches to Grading, Darius Brubeck says, "How one grades turns out to be a contentious philosophical problem with a surprisingly wide spectrum of responses. García has produced a lucidly written, probing, analytical, and ultimately practical resource for professional jazz educators, replete with valuable ideas, advice, and copious references." Jamey Aebersold offers, "This book should be mandatory reading for all graduating music ed students." Janis Stockhouse states, "Groundbreaking. The comprehensive amount of material García has gathered from leaders in jazz education is impressive in itself. Plus, the veteran educator then presents his own synthesis of the material into a method of teaching and evaluating jazz improvisation that is fresh, practical, and inspiring!" And Dr. Ron McCurdy suggests, "This method will aid in the quality of teaching and learning of jazz improvisation worldwide."

About Cutting the Changes, saxophonist David Liebman states, “This book is perfect for the beginning to intermediate improviser who may be daunted by the multitude of chord changes found in most standard material. Here is a path through the technical chord-change jungle.” Says vocalist Sunny Wilkinson, “The concept is simple, the explanation detailed, the rewards immediate. It’s very singer-friendly.” Adds jazz-education legend Jamey Aebersold, “Tony’s wealth of jazz knowledge allows you to understand and apply his concepts without having to know a lot of theory and harmony. Cutting the Changes allows music educators to present jazz improvisation to many students who would normally be scared of trying.”

Of his jazz curricular work, Standard of Excellence states: “Antonio García has developed a series of Scope and Sequence of Instruction charts to provide a structure that will ensure academic integrity in jazz education.” Wynton Marsalis emphasizes: “Eight key categories meet the challenge of teaching what is historically an oral and aural tradition. All are important ingredients in the recipe.” The Chicago Tribune has highlighted García’s “splendid solos...virtuosity and musicianship...ingenious scoring...shrewd arrangements...exotic orchestral colors, witty riffs, and gloriously uninhibited splashes of dissonance...translucent textures and elegant voicing” and cited him as “a nationally noted jazz artist/ of the most prominent young music educators in the country.” Down Beat has recognized his “knowing solo work on trombone” and “first-class writing of special interest.” The Jazz Report has written about the “talented trombonist,” and Cadence noted his “hauntingly lovely” composing as well as CD production “recommended without any qualifications whatsoever.” Phil Collins has said simply, “He can be in my band whenever he wants.” García is also the subject of an extensive interview within Bonanza: Insights and Wisdom from Professional Jazz Trombonists (Advance Music), profiled along with such artists as Bill Watrous, Mike Davis, Bill Reichenbach, Wayne Andre, John Fedchock, Conrad Herwig, Steve Turre, Jim Pugh, and Ed Neumeister.

The Secretary of the Board of The Midwest Clinic, Mr. García has adjudicated festivals and presented clinics in Canada, Europe, Australia, The Middle East, and South Africa, including creativity workshops for Motorola, Inc.’s international management executives. The partnership he created between VCU Jazz and the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal merited the 2013 VCU Community Engagement Award for Research. He has served as adjudicator for the International Trombone Association’s Frank Rosolino, Carl Fontana, and Rath Jazz Trombone Scholarship competitions and the Kai Winding Jazz Trombone Ensemble competition and has been asked to serve on Arts Midwest’s “Midwest Jazz Masters” panel and the Virginia Commission for the Arts “Artist Fellowship in Music Composition” panel. He has been repeatedly published in Down Beat; JAZZed; Jazz Improv; Music, Inc.; The International Musician; The Instrumentalist; and the journals of NAfME, IAJE, ITA, American Orff-Schulwerk Association, Percussive Arts Society, Arts Midwest, Illinois Music Educators Association, and Illinois Association of School Boards. Previous to VCU, he served as Associate Professor and Coordinator of Combos at Northwestern University, where he taught jazz and integrated arts, was Jazz Coordinator for the National High School Music Institute, and for four years directed the Vocal Jazz Ensemble. Formerly the Coordinator of Jazz Studies at Northern Illinois University, he was selected by students and faculty there as the recipient of a 1992 “Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching” award and nominated as its candidate for 1992 CASE “U.S. Professor of the Year” (one of 434 nationwide). He was recipient of the VCU School of the Arts’ 2015 Faculty Award of Excellence for his teaching, research, and service. Visit his web site at <>.

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