Thursday, February 22, 2007

Passing It On

I mentioned Phil Nimmons here the other day, and today The Toronto Star’s Ashante Infantry has a nice piece about Nimmons and one of his many former star pupils. Typically, Phil shrugs off any credit for drummer Ernesto Cervini’s development while the young man was studying at the University of Toronto.

Aside from the energy and vision Phil brought to the task of creating jazz programs in Toronto, Banff and elsewhere across Canada, his legacy is the approach to performance-based learning that he implemented wherever he went.

As he told me a couple of years in a piece that’s archived here, one of the biggest challenges he faces in teaching improvisation in an institutional setting is inspiring students to allow the music they create to carry them beyond the sterility of the practice room.

Woodshedding is a tried-and-true jazz tradition, of course, but the big knock on a lot of contemporary musicians is the fact that universities and jazz camps have taken the place of learning on the job. Wherever you study the basics and hone your technique, though, the best players are always those who can extend their imagination past the ‘shed to the stage. That hasn’t changed since Charlie Parker’s day.

That puts me in mind of Michael Brecker, whose abbreviated life was celebrated in Manhattan the other night. Aside from the heights he scaled as a performer, Brecker was loved by music students for his ability to successfully straddle the worlds of formal academia and live performance. Like Dave Liebman – one of many who were on hand to fete Brecker – he was a leading member of the first generation that showed that you can learn your stuff away from the bandstand and still bring it when the time comes.


John Doheny said...

I'm pretty sure I get what you mean by all this, but I'm not sure I'm entirely comfortable with how you put it.

I've made similar arguments myself (and been roundly slapped down for it on the forum at, particularly by tenor player Terry Dean) but I still stand by the notion that playing every night before an audience creates a much different kind of player than today's university jazz program graduates. Not better or worse necessarily, but different. In any case, what also hasn't changed since Charlie Parker's day is that the cats who really want to play are going to get that information anywhere they can find it, whether it's at a jam session in Kansas City in 1939 or the campus of Mcgill University in 2007.

I'm not sure where Brecker fits into your paradigm though, as he is most assuredly not a product of the modern jazz education system, but earned his chops the old-fashioned way, on the bandstand and in the recording studio.

I'm not trying to bust your balls. I'm just not sure what you mean.

James Hale said...

You summarized my point well.

My point about Brecker is, indeed, that he was not a product of academia, but showed a lot of younger people that the two types of learning are different but related.