Oklahomans love their football. Many youngsters see only two options when it comes to higher education: Sooners or Pokes. Smaller schools, even with their own areas of specialization, face a stigma that keeps them hidden from the public eye, particularly in the Midwest. Many of these academic underdogs merit a second glance, though, for certain areas of expertise often fare better in cozier environments.
Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla. is one such school. And though it resides in the shadow of larger state schools, NSU has one of the most innovative degree programs in the nation for, oddly enough, jazz studies. Like the school, jazz remains a peripheral relative to its more predictable counterparts: it neither enjoys the credibility assigned to classical music nor does it resonate with the lowest common denominator like Top 40 hits.
The bucolic, eastern Oklahoma setting doesn't seem a likely place to find the kind of music that flourished in urban, intimate nightclubs. New York City's Village Vanguard, one of the most popular and well-known clubs, holds only about 100 people; but many of the best jazz musicians of all time have held some of their most memorable performances there: John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, to name a few. Its cozy atmosphere allows for a close connection between audience and the players, a feeling almost impossible to duplicate in an arena or performance hall.
Northeastern State University in Tahlequah has recreated this kind of environment with its Jazz Lab. There, university and professional musicians practice together and perform for guests in a 130-seat, cabaret-style theater complete with a café that serves coffee, tea and desserts during concerts. Lined with old photographs of artists who have played there, the lobby was modeled after New Orleans' French Quarter. The entire facility was built with sophistication and students' creativity in mind.
"Very rarely do students get a chance to work out their music and perform their music in this atmosphere, which is where jazz developed- in the nightclub atmosphere," said Jazz Lab manager Shane Ohlson. According to director of the jazz studies program Arthur White, the famous musicians who come through usually respond with something like, "Holy crap! I had no idea this was here; this is so cool!"
During the past few years, the NSU jazz degree program has undergone many developments that have placed it among the top 10 in the nation. With the program's emphasis on improvisation, mentorship and professionalism, graduates emerge with the know-how to carve a successful career in the music business, in addition to a profound understanding of their instrument.
In the late 1960s, Dr. Lowell Lehman, former professor of music at NSU, began the university's first jazz band. Soon after that, he established the Green Country Jazz Festival in the early 1970s. Lehman was responsible for bringing some of the most famous jazz artists to Tahlequah, including big band Count Basie Orchestra, Buddy Rich Band and the late Maynard Ferguson.
In 1992, then-NSU president Roger Webb approached jazz instructor Joe Davis about finding a place where his students could play for the student body in a casual, relaxed setting. After several months of preparation, the NSU Jazz Lab was designed and built in 1993. Since then, all jazz-related classes, concerts and private lessons have been held there.
Most important, though, it has given jazz students a place to congregate, share ideas and produce music together.
The Jazz Lab's evolution took another turn in 2004 when director Arthur White envisioned an entirely different dimension to the program. And with the help of his colleagues, he has reinvented what it means to study music in an academic setting.
Aspiring musicians, particularly adolescents, often fall victim to the misconception that their pursuits are not just unwise, but futile. This can be especially true in regions of the country where fine arts are placed on the back burner (in and out of school). White's program, however, defies this assumption. Some aspects of the program are unconventional, but as Ohlson explained, "Before we start doing anything new we always ask, 'How is this going to help the students toward a better career?' We don't usually do anything here that isn't focused on the students. They are involved in everything we do here."
Growing up in small town Kansas, White was first exposed to jazz as a teenager. "I heard Charlie Parker at 16 and never turned back," he said. "He defines jazz for many and he was certainly the first player I listened to who attracted me to the art; and it was really love at first hearing...He invented the language of Bebop along with Dizzy Gillespie. For many, Bird is jazz."
Initially, Bebop was met with some disdain by traditionalists. The new approach entailed improvisation based on harmonic structure, as opposed to melody. Despite initial criticism, though, the style continues to thrive due to its inherent experimental nature. White's high school band teacher fostered his appreciation for the genre; but his exposure was limited.
White has come to appreciate the power of formal music education, though, especially given his experience as a young adult. After high school, he intended to earn a music degree at Emporia State University in Kansas but dropped out at 19. He eventually graduated but learned much during his stint as a non-student playing as a bar musician in a country band, for a cohesive jazz scene was non-existent. "Those guys were all considerably older than me; so it wasn't just about playing music, it was the education I got playing music with them," said White.
Nevertheless, he missed studying the saxophone and jazz technique and returned to college enthusiastic about his education. "Not everyone gets a second chance to come back and prove themselves; I was really lucky," he said.
White's enthusiasm never waned; he went on to earn Master's degrees in Jazz Pedagogy and later, Saxophone Performance from the University of West Virginia. Finally, he earned a doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, also in Sax Performance.
Near the end of his journey through academia, White realized that he wanted to pass on his love of learning to future generations. He wanted to give his students an educational experience as comprehensive as his own, both in and out of the classroom. White and his colleagues have developed a curriculum that encompasses all of the necessary skills one would learn in a traditional university setting. However, certain intricacies make it rather novel.
The objective of the jazz program at NSU is to provide a practical, career-based education. Every aspect of the curriculum connects to the music business as a whole. Whether students are learning to master their own recordings or booking their own gigs, the skills they acquire possess real-world applicability.
Students pursuing this degree at NSU learn that there is much more involved to forging a successful music career than that to which they were accustomed in high school. "Most students show up to college having had everything done for them in high school- everything right down to how to hold your instrument" said Ohlson. "They have to learn to deal with people who want music for events...students don't realize how much work it takes to actually get to the bandstand."
The admissions process is similar to that of other music programs. Guitarists, pianists and brass instrumentalists are all welcome, for they all have a place within the genre. All students must eventually learn to improvise as well as develop a thorough understanding of music theory, the foundation for advanced techniques.
I Got Rhythm
Theoretical knowledge becomes more important once students declare the major, usually during their sophomore year. Traditionally, students begin their music education with theory basics (i.e. how to read music, chord relationships, scales, etc.). Learning to improvise is, more often than not, secondary. Essentially, young artistes learn to play with their eyes instead of their ears. And while classical musicians typically rely upon sheet music, the need to improvise inevitably arises at some point. Educators have only recently realized its importance.
"The way of doing things for years has been to learn the theory and learn how to arrange certain music or to write certain music, specifically classical music, which is not a bad thing," said Ohlson. "But when you start out with that and when it comes time to improvise, which everyone has to do, you're not ready...because you've always done the stuff that's written out specifically and mechanically."
White has been aware of the discrepancy for many years, so naturally, his first priority was to create a "culture of improvisation." When he took the job in 2004, there were only two student bands: one large ensemble (big band), which consisted of about 20 members, including a sizeable brass section; and one small combo, which was made up of three to seven players. White immediately added another big band and a second combo.
"It was a smaller group when I got there and the first thing I said was, 'There are other kids who can play that are interested'...maybe they were afraid to at the time. So I encouraged a lot of kids who weren't playing to play," he recalled.
For students who have never improvised, this can be frightening. Just because one can hammer out Rachmaninoff on the piano doesn't necessarily mean that one can jam. "I'm a firm believer that anyone who wants to play jazz can if they work their ass off," said White.
Ohlson is a classically trained pianist who was introduced to music theory long before improvisation. "I don't know how my career would have turned out if I had started with improvisation. I'd probably be a better player for it. But, who knows? It's hard to say," he said.
"There are a lot of debates about improvisation even in classical music. There's a movement in music right now. It's not something new I guess, not a new concept, but starting out music students with improvisation rather than theory because of its importance," Ohlson added. "Students begin making associations with music before even getting into the mechanics."
Saxophonist Jonathan Rice, an NSU junior, didn't take jazz seriously until he came to college. He admitted that he needed support and instruction when it came to improvisation. But after working hard for a few years, Rice said he now feels comfortable with spontaneity thanks to White's guidance.
"It's a very relaxed setting, there's not a whole lot of pressure. [White] really breaks things down and explains it to you if you don't understand it. Or he teaches you different ways to approach things that might be considered easier," said Rice. "I've improved drastically since I've been here."
The addition of private improvisation classes at NSU emphasizes the importance of finding one's own voice, which many classical musicians lack. "Improvisation is an individual art. No two people improvise alike; and everyone has their own inherent issues and problems and you have to address those singularly or you don't really help the student," said White.
Once this is accomplished, students learn to vocalize appropriately in a group setting. The jazz combo groups give students ample opportunities to do so. The groups exist today, allowing students to explore different types of jazz at various skill levels. "You don't really get to dig in and work on the craft of improvisation in a big band setting; you just don't. It's limiting," said White.
This aspect of the curriculum reflects improvisation's historical significance within the genre. "Improvisation is really what jazz is supposed to be about; but some people think that's not conventional," said White. "But they're doing everything any normal jazz musician would do...they communicate; they bounce ideas off each other; they are completely in the moment, spontaneous. Whatever happens happens. They just don't let confines bother them."
Back in the day, amateurs and seasoned musicians would play together in nightclubs. In a sense, novices learned via trial and error through working with both peers and role models. "Once upon a time, there were no schools for jazz. Jazz was club music and taught in the oral tradition. Musicians had a mentor that could take them on the road and do that sort of stuff; that doesn't really exist anymore," White explained.
He has found a way, though, to recreate this dynamic by bringing in world-class jazz musicians to both practice and perform with the school's top ensemble. This aspect of the program greatly enhances students' education on many fronts. First and foremost, the artists are proof that it is possible to be a professional musician.
"I think in some ways it helps to validate [the students] love for the music," said Ohlson. "The jazz artists who come through always say they have no regrets about doing what they're doing, that in every way it has been fulfilling. It's not the most lucrative career, but it's a fulfilling life."
Straight, No Chaser
White's other major goal was to foster composition. "Kids have to write; they have to discover their own voice," he said. This is where music theory becomes important. And despite his love for improv, White sees the benefit in classical training.
"A lot of jazz guys piss and moan about having to play classical music. But what does it do except teach you...about tone production, sound, technique and how to phrase and interpret music?" White asked.
"It's not that different from jazz. Any good jazz musician will practice the same way any classical musician would. You have a regimen and daily goals. Then you work to get those goals done. The difference is the execution, how you go about doing it. Jazz is an improvising music; it's a spontaneous music."
The differences between classical music and jazz are highlighted more often than are the similarities; but upon closer inspection, the two styles are not mutually exclusive. "All composers are improvisers. At some point, they have to be," White said.
Largely considered to be one of the greatest "classical" composers of all time, Johann Sebastian Bach was both an avid improviser and a theoretical genius.
"[Bach's] experienced both worlds; he would improvise his own cadenzas in a classical style," said White. "I think he is one of the greatest improvisers that ever lived." When one thinks of music education, the last thing that usually comes to mind is spontaneity, particularly for classically trained students. The way to improve is to push through that inexorable feeling of vulnerability; beginners must first accept, and eventually ignore their fear of messing up.
"Classical teachers, not that they don't appreciate it, they fear [improvisation]. It's just like anything else, fear of the unknown," said White. The classical teachers of whom he speaks were the timid classical students of yesteryear; and it takes a great deal of work to shed old thought patterns and perceptions.
White sees the delicate nature of this phenomenon as an opportunity to build a stronger rapport with students. Before young musicians can let themselves 'open up,' they must feel safe enough to shed their ego, which requires more compassion than the typical student-teacher relationship provides.
"Jazz is all about the mentoring process. If you trace it historically, hopefully, all music is about the mentoring process in some respects," White said.
"When you become a mentor, you take over a lot of responsibilities. You're not just their formal teacher, teaching them scales and arpeggios and chords and the formal stuff. You become invested in their development and growth as musicians, as people; and it's a job I take really seriously. So, yeah, you kind of become -- for better or for worse -- a surrogate father-type or a surrogate big brother. A mentor is all of the above."
Jonathan Rice appreciated White's attitude immediately. "The jazz program was the main reason [for choosing NSU], but Arthur was also a huge influence on my decision," Rice said. "He's just a really nice guy. I had a few private lessons with him before I came to college while I was in high school. The first lesson, though, this is just where I knew I wanted to go; this is who I want to study with."
White acquired his compassionate demeanor from his own professors at UWVA; and their influence was potent enough to help him realize his long-term goal to work with young adults. "I got to work with some really cool guys and realized, after all, that I enjoyed teaching," he said.
So, White established the state's first Jazz Studies bachelor degree program. His obvious enthusiasm for education, though, comes from being an enthusiastic learner. White's inherent curiosity compels him to reach beyond what he knows, even as an adult, to consciously expand his understanding of the music.
White's first year at NSU was characterized by experimentation that challenged students and faculty alike. One of the most innovative projects required everyone involved to step outside their comfort zone, including White.
In order to bring the degree program full circle, White wanted students to record what they've written, a valuable experience for any musician. He considers the recording process an indispensable part of creating a "culture of composition."
"This kind of experience is priceless. Kids can put this on their resume. How many kids can go to college and say they got to record with Robin Eubanks or Bobby Watson?" White asked.
After White proposed the project, the department raised the funds and chose a guest artist; the result was a worthwhile endeavor for all involved. At 33, White had never produced an album either, so he figured that everyone could learn together. Furthermore, doing so would give the university positive exposure. Furthermore, the resulting CD has proved to be an effective recruiting tool.
"The idea was received well, but the kids were nervous. They had never composed," White said.
Recording an album can be tedious and time consuming, and a project like this had never been undertaken at an Oklahoma college or university before. The department invited trumpeter Scott Wendholt to collaborate with the ensemble. The project was a success and the department decided to turn it into a yearly project. They have four CDs to date and intend to record a fifth in May.
All stages of production are done in-house, including recording, mixing and mastering. The Jazz Lab sends the finished album out only to be replicated. The students gain much more than technological knowledge through the process. They are able to develop a discerning ear as well, and examine how different combinations of instruments sound together. "We talked about arranging and voicing for the number of instruments and what we can do with them," said White.
"We always bring in students during the mixing process to allow them to listen and make some decisions about how music should sound," Ohlson added. This yearly project is a culmination of all other aspects of the degree program and gives real world significance to the more abstract elements of one's training. "You work so hard getting the songs ready and when you finally get to record your part it is amazing," said bassist Gerad Breeding, an NSU junior.
When students encounter adversity, they are accepting of the fact that they need to work a little harder to get what they want. As a student, Breeding has developed the attitude necessary to build a solid career.
"Sometimes you may go awhile without a gig, which can leave you financially high and dry. That honestly only gives you more drive to be a better musician," he said. "If you know your stuff people can see it and will give you the gig."
White expressed bewilderment at the fact that both the quality of education at NSU and the music profession in general are often met with skepticism, despite the program's sophistication.
"NSU has a stigma to it; that's what really bothers me," he said. "There's still this weird stigma about music in general. And I don't know why that is because it's an amazing place with an amazing faculty, one of the best I've ever seen...but we're changing it every year."
The numbers are evidence that the Jazz Lab's developments are steps in the right direction. When White began his job as director, only about 20 students declared jazz studies as their major. Today, there are 65-70 students per year.
White was the first to point out that no one person can take credit for the program's recent surge in both popularity and recognition. "When people say that the program has exploded since I've been there, all I can say is 'thank you.' I just do what I think my job should be," he said. "I have amazing colleagues. Without them, I couldn't do what I do. I owe my colleagues a great deal of credit for the change in perception; but there's still work to be done.
"It's had a reputation and it's been fortunate for that; but anybody who rests on reputation is stuck. There's no growth, no development. So you have to keep pushing forward; you have keep doing better things, keep building. I think that's the mentality our music department has as a whole. We get great students, inquisitive students who demonstrate if not talent, a willingness to work hard and learn."
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