From blues and punk to rock and roll, Arthur White has at one point in his life played nearly every kind of music, but now he believes he has finally found “the perfect gig.” As the director of MU’s Jazz Performance Studies program and Assistant Professor in the School of Music, White now handles all things jazz at MU.
That includes directing several big bands and a handful of differently themed jazz combos, as well as teaching numerous courses, maintaining the MU Jazz Festival (which just celebrated its twenty-second anniversary), and taking care of “the nuts and bolts” of MU’s brand new Jazz Performance Studies Program, which began in the fall of 2008. This program offers options in jazz studies for both music and non-music majors and, with nearly twenty students in its first semester, appears to be off to a running start.
For this feature, we sought to document the creative process—from practice to performance—as MU’s big band prepared for and performed a concert at the Missouri Theatre on November 13, 2008. We also talked to four students of jazz—a drummer, a saxophonist, a trombonist, and a trumpet player. In the process, we learned what constitutes jazz, why people are drawn to this type of music, and the gratitude they feel for being able to play along with other jazz lovers.
Jazz is a uniquely American art form, one that grew out of many musical developments around the turn of the last century. “It’s a huge art form that sprang up very quickly and is a representation of the twentieth century, the black experience, and the Harlem Renaissance,” says trombonist David Witter. Jazz’s origins, in fact, are part of what attracted saxophonist Jacob Hallman, who explains that “it’s had time to develop and become its own thing.” What most sets jazz apart from other kinds of music is its complex improvisational content. You can play a piece multiple times, it's often said, and it will be different each time. “Jazz has this element of spontaneity,” says Hallman. “There is a degree of interaction that happens between musicians that is never planned; it is always unique.”
Many jazz musicians have a story to tell about how they developed their love affair with jazz. Arthur White is no exception. “In high school,” he begins, “my band director gave me my first Charlie Parker record. It was Bird with Strings. I remember hearing the string orchestrations as very lush combined with this incredibly technically proficient, forward-moving saxophone playing, and I’d never heard anything like it. I think I was 15 when I heard that album, and it was all over for me then! That was the minute I fell in love with jazz, and I wanted to get my hands on as much of it as I possibly could.” Percussionist Lloyd Warden turned to the drums at age ten when his band director told him he couldn’t play electric guitar. Warden vividly recalls one moment at age eleven—the night he saw Bernard “Buddy” Rich play drums on The Tonight Show: “After that, I knew that I wanted to play jazz. His presence, and the way he had mastered the instrument was just so riveting to me as a child…. I stayed up late and I watched every move he made. And then I would go downstairs to my drum set and try to mimic what I just saw.”
Meredith Hammer recounts that, although “there wasn’t any defining moment” when she felt jazz call to her, she found out in junior high that it was “kind of natural” for her to “take it to another level” with improvisation because it gave her an opportunity to express her ideas about the music. Warden explains this phenomenon further: “The thing that makes jazz unique in relationship to other forms of music is its complexity—theoretically, analytically, aurally. Yet if it is presented appropriately and professionally, all of those things that make it complex seem relatively hidden. If you see someone who is proficient at jazz, it seems effortless. It's like he is just breathing or walking down the street, but the development of skills behind it is enormous.” Dave Witter agrees: “I was turned on to jazz initially just as a listener. I knew immediately that it involved a technique that needed to studied.” Furthermore, notes Witter, “there is a subversive poetic nature to it, which is always appealing.”
After spending much time looking over and directing scores, White notes that the music tends to rub off on him. It is interesting to hear jazz composers explain their creative process. Starting with a germ of an idea, many jazz arrangements become mélanges of the composer’s musical heroes. For example, “The Macadam of Good Intentions,” written by former MU jazz director Doug Leibinger, has many influences, starting with one intriguing chord played by a tenor saxophonist by the name Bob Mintzer (of The Yellow Jackets)—a chord that broke the rules of jazz arranging and became the germ for a new song. “It’s certainly a fulfilling thing when you’ve spent a lot of time writing something in your office or at home and then it actually comes to life with real musicians,” says Leibinger. “It’s very inspiring.” The debut of “The Macadam of Good Intentions” occurred on a drizzly November evening in the beautiful Missouri Theatre and featured guest saxophonist Ron Dziubla.
From selecting charts and arrangements to planning the nitty-gritty details of rehearsals, considerable work goes into preparing for concert performance. “There’s so much behind-the-scenes work,” says White. “When people go to concerts, they see the final product, the polished act (or hopefully polished), and that’s what people hear. It sounds so effortless, it sounds so easy, and it seems like so much fun.” A normal big band will rehearse three to five times a week, White explains, “but a lot of people don’t realize the countless hours spent in the practice room, working on scales and arpeggios and technical abilities, and then working on reading music and fixing parts.”
In fact, the process often begins on the page. Giving students unfamiliar charts provides opportunities for sight-reading, an important skill, and “the more you sight-read, the better you are going to get.” Being able to take a brand new score and breathe life into the notes on the page is a wondrous thing. Once they have read the score together, individual band members are expected to practice on their own and in sectionals grouped according to instrument. As concert day nears, the director and band must quickly determine the sections on which to spend their precious remaining rehearsals. “The preparation of music is an unfinished product, always,” says White. “I think that’s what keeps a lot of us motivated to play, because we want to be the absolute best players we can be. But we have to realize early on that it’s not about the end result. It’s about the process, it’s about the journey, it’s about making every performance a little bit better than the last time we played.”
The transformation from idea to musical score and performance, as spellbinding as it is, must eventually come to an end. Such is the ephemeral nature of music. After the concert, the musicians get one day off, and then they're back to work preparing for the next big gig. With the jazz students at MU increasingly commissioned to perform at community functions, they frequently get “a real gig and real professional experience.” This experience, White notes, provides excellent training for the real world.