This is probably my favorite week of the year. Tuesday I’ll be reporting from MacWorld in San Francisco and then I fly to New York to spend the rest of the week at the International Association of Jazz Educators Conference (IAJE).

Both events amplify the ingenuity, creativity and improvisation that America presents to the world. As a twenty-one year Macintosh owner, MacWorld is like Christmas. Steve Jobs excites the faithful with announcements of exciting new products and then I spend the rest of the day wandering the exhibit hall looking for gadgets I can’t possible live without. In past years I’ve found products I can’t live without, including Delicious Monster Library, PDFPen, ProSoft Engineering’s lifesaving data backup and recovery utilities, my indispensable Boombag (luggage with a mixer, amplifier and speakers in the case) and a bunch of MIDI instruments I promise to use someday. I’ve learned my lesson and will not run six blocks to the San Francisco Apple Store to purchase the (rumored) new iLife ’07 and iWork ’07 software. The store employees tend to be surly and know nothing about what was just announced at MacWorld. Worst of all, they may not have inventory.

Apple is hinting at major announcements to coincide with their thirtieth anniversary. So stay tuned…

Steve Jobs at 2006 MacWorld

I “plan” to blog from the Steve Jobs keynote Tuesday morning (10 AM Pacific). Check back here to learn about the exciting new products announced at MacWorld. Rumors suggest that the Apple phone, iTV media device and new iWork & iLife software will be announced this week. Many of these products have implications for K-12 education. I’ll let you know about the coolest stuff I see on the show floor as well.

Steve Jobs’ evangelical performance is just a warm-up for four days of world-class concerts and master classes by many of the world’s finest jazz musicians at the IAJE Conference. The conference program features sessions from 9 AM with the last session starting at 1 AM!

Colleagues from 10 – 80
Dozens and dozens of professional musicians donate their time to perform at IAJE, often as guest soloists with student ensembles from around the world. Educators and students are able to learn from and with their musical heroes in both formal and informal settings. Imagine a conference where more than 3,000 of educators, artists and children learn together with no discussions of standardized testing or how their principal is a jerk.

One of the highlights of IAJE is the annual Jazz Masters Award presented by the National Endowment for the Arts. A gala concert features great performances and vignettes highlighting the contributions to culture made by seven artists. Dozens of past recipients representing the living history of American music attend to welcome the new inductees. It’s a rare treat to witness the camaraderie displayed among the living legends.

nea jazz masters
Living NEA Jazz Masters Pose for Family Portrait at IAJE 2006

Last year’s NEA Jazz Masters Inductees included Chick Coea,, Freddie Hubbard, Ray Baretto, Buddy DeFranco, Bob Brookmeyer and Tony Bennett. As the evening concert drew to a close the great trumpet player, Jon Faddis, invited the assembled jazz masters to sit in and play with the assembled all-star big band. Chick Corea, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath and Paquito D’Rivera took the stage to solo on Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump.”

As the band began to play I noticed something extraordinary. A little kid, actually 10 years-old with a trumpet in-hand was struggling to climb up on the stage. Jon Faddis looked down at this kid standing next to him and asked, “Are you a jazz master?” The kid replied, “What key is this in?”

Faddis shook his head and continued leading the big band. Once Paquito D’Rivera finished his solo, Faddis gestured towards the little boy since in the jazz community you are expected to play if you have the
audacity to be on the bandstand. The child began to improvise on chord changes and the crowd went wild. After playing too many choruses, Faddis jokingly grabbed his trumpet and yelled, “Go to bed!”

The “other” jazz masters soloed and the performance culminated in a standing ovation.

Jon Faddis, kid, Jimmy Heath, Paquito D’Rivera

You can tell by the photos below how delighted the professional musicians were to share the bandstand with the fourth grader. He was not playing at being a musician. He was a musician participating in the
community of practice unencumbered by grade levels, standardized curriculum or assessment schemes. The boy was evaluated based on his ability to perform.

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kid, Jimmy Heath, Chick Corea, Paquito D’Rivera
kid and Jimmy Heath

I could not imagine having the courage to perform in front of Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Roy Haynes and Freddie Hubbard, but this young musician sensed that he was welcome on stage with his new colleagues.

Jazz musicians, like many other artists, give their time generously and share their gifts because they care about the continuum of culture. They are passionate about the arts continuing to flourish after their playing days are through. One look at saxophonist Jimmy Heath, eight times the age of the young trumpet player by his side, and you remember what learning and teaching are all about.

Originally published, January 8, 2007 in The Pulse Education’s Place for Debate

Picking up lessons for schools in three-quarter time

Lifelong learning. I decided to try it. So, I packed up the car and drove to Palo Alto to participate in the annual Stanford Jazz Residency. This immersive institute welcomes adults and talented teens to spend a week playing, studying and listening to jazz.

This was no fantasy camp. Everyone was treated as a jazz musician and faced with the responsibilities commensurate with that honor. Musicians, ages 15-82, from all over the world formed a powerful learning community. There was perfect attendance, no age segregation, no discipline problems, intergenerational collaboration and achievement unlinked to grades.

A mother younger than I am yelled “Nice job!” to me across a parking lot, as if I had just kicked a goal in peewee soccer.

Each 15-hour day consisted of a theory class, an instrumental master class, an assortment of fascinating guest lectures, combo rehearsals and an evening concert followed by two late-night jam sessions. I went from not playing the trumpet in 15 years to four straight hours daily.

Although I’m still grappling with all I learned, here are a few lessons for schools.

Rethinking Tracking
The success of the residency caused me to rethink my long held position against educational tracking. After all, don’t combos need to be comprised of musicians with similar talents? How can you teach a group of musicians with different levels of ability?

My combo was comprised of two 15-year-old saxophonists, a young bass player, the father of another residency student on guitar and a teenage refugee of the White Stripes Fan Club on drums. While similarly talented, homogeneity remained an elusive fantasy.

Despite the range of attitude and experience present in the combo, you might still be able to make the case for tracking. However, I was in another group as well. The Latin Ensemble had no audition requirements and was open to any student. Everyone played a selection of compositions and improvised on each song.

From my perspective both the educational process and the product (the concert) of the “open enrollment” Latin Band was every bit as good as the combo. In fact, one could argue that playing with musicians better than yourself might provide just the spark needed to advance to one’s playing to the next level.

The Critical Role of Expertise
Regardless of ability, all Stanford jazz students did the real work of musicians for the week.

There are ample opportunities for young children to be mathematicians, engineers, historians or artists. The dogma of sequential curriculum needs to be challenged.

There is much written about the social nature of learning and how it best occurs in a community of practice. Schools have done much to embrace this concept. This residency was distinguished by the quality and quantity of world-renowned expertise available to enthusiastic amateurs. Legendary musicians spent the week teaching classes, leading combos performing nightly in spectacular concerts, sitting-in at jam sessions and just hanging out with students.

Access to experts inspires, enlightens and challenges the members of a learning community. The gifted faculty possessed a remarkable ability to articulate their thought processes and make “just-in-time” recommendations specific to each student. These experts were reflective, passionate and driven.

Regardless of the expert’s personality or approach, the students wanted to learn from them, play like them and be close to them. Tacit and explicit knowledge was gained by proximity to genuine expertise.

Since the beginning of time, the richest learning experiences have come through apprenticeship–working with and alongside the master. Too few teachers have experienced such joyful learning and fewer students are in the midst of experts. Even when teachers are expert in “teaching” they too rarely welcome students into their deliberations or think out-loud. Without such transparency, the expertise is invisible to students.

Schools must do everything possible to make demonstrable expertise available to students. The subject of the expertise is less critical.

I wish that every teacher and student could have such an intense learning experience at least once.

Originally published in the November 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine

What sort of mature culture relies on Jessica Simpson to “Save the Music?”

I first encountered Roy Haynes 26 years ago as a high school freshman sitting in a darkened auditorium next to my Dad. The occasion was a special concert featuring the jazz ensembles of our town’s two high schools. My two incredibly hip instrumental music teachers, both professional jazz musicians, had arranged for a guest artist to perform with an all-star group of students. I was not yet good enough to play in the concert, nor did I know anything about our guest artist, Roy Haynes.

What I do remember from that evening was a display of physicality and rhythmic excitement more common in a boxing ring than a high school auditorium. Mr. Haynes’ bass drum pulsed with the ferocity of a summer rainstorm hitting a metal roof or a nervous soldier emptying a machine gun. The tales of the young drummer who let Haynes use his Ludwigs only to return to the horrific scene of a hit-and-run drummer are the stuff of school legend. Haynes and the kid’s birthday present were engaged in an epic struggle. The drums were defeated.

Haynes nudges, kicks and supports band members through collective improvisation. Sometimes he hits them on the head with a mallet.

At 14, it was great to be in the presence of someone great, even if I didn’t really appreciate how great they were or why. I don’t remember anything about mitosis or slope intercept form, but I do remember how Roy Haynes made me feel. I remember how to play in a group. To leave space. To strive to be better.

Mentoring Young Players

As I studied music, aspired to be a musician and then abandoned that dream, I learned more about Haynes through recordings and occasional live performances. Roy Haynes played with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Monk, Coltrane, Lester Young, Sarah Vaughan, Chick Corea… Within him resides the entire history of American music. I’ve seen and heard a lot of fantastic jazz over the years, but it was not until my 30s that I came to truly appreciate Roy Haynes.

Roy Haynes shares his genius with the audience while mentoring young players. This gift of generosity ensures that America’s indigenous art form, jazz, continues to grow and endure. Great teachers embrace their responsibility to the next generation. I do my part to sustain his legacy by flying cross-country for an hour of musical bliss–drinking $7 cokes on tiny uncomfortable chairs. I continue his educational outreach by dragging reluctant friends to Haynes performances.

Like any master teacher, Haynes teaches by example and through collaboration with those on stage and in the audience. He nudges, kicks and supports band members through collective improvisation. Sometimes he hits them on the head with a mallet. He gives the audience so much to think about–his remarkable athleticism, musicality, precision, humor, intensity and snappy attire. Like any great work of art, a Roy Haynes performance offers a lifetime worth of beauty, complexity and wisdom to consider. When you tire of thinking, just tap your foot. He’ll swing you into bad health.

In the past few years, I seized every opportunity to sit under Roy Haynes’ cymbals. I’ve seen him with a who’s who of jazz greats and he somehow always inspires them to be even greater.

Life Long Learner

Haynes’ current Fountain of Youth band is comprised of fine young men in their early twenties. You can hear them improve every night under the maestro’s tutelage. Haynes not only teaches them to play better through their collective improvisation, he imparts lessons about class, culture, citizenship, history and manhood on the bandstand. When an elderly singer sitting in with the band forgot a few lyrics to a Gershwin standard, the young man on piano discretely mouthed the words to him until the end of the song. That demonstrated enormous grace, professionalism and respect for an elder and a colleague.

Haynes is 79 but many listeners say he is playing better than ever before. Haynes is a student of the music that came after him–a life long learner.

What will happen to a generation of children who have never heard a tasteful song sung in tune or are uninitiated to likes of Roy Haynes? To the educators fighting every day to bring beauty and expression to the lives of American kids, I say, “Keep swinging!”

Originally published in the July 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine