Notes From An Interview With John Garvey

Great band directors have been few and far between in the history of jazz though there have been many great leaders who moulded bands in one way or another. Ellington and Basie did it mostly by hiring musicians with the right experience and leaving them alone. Gerry Mulligan, and Quincy Jones have made particular artistic choices and communicated them well to their respective bands and there have certainly been others in the professional world who have accomplished outstanding things with their ensembles. But the particular skills involved in taking a disparate group of musicians and demonstrating the meaning of music to them in a way that allows them to interpret it in a unified and effective way, is something more often found in the world of classical music.

In the jazz world it has been my good fortune to have had a chance to see at least xtwo great jazz band directors at work. When I was first learnig about this music in Boston in the mid 1950’s, Herb Pomeroy had a wonderful big band and he was kind enough to allow interested people to attend his rehearsals. They were models of efficiency and communicative skill. I wish I remembered more about them.

Some twenty years later I became re-acquainted with John Garvey, a violinist/violist whom I had known earlier when he was a faculty member at the Lenox School of Jazz. I have had ample opportunity over many years to see John at work with both student and professional bands and to discuss his philosphy and conceptions with him. He has performed inumerable compositions and arrangements of mine and we travelled to Moscow together in 1990 where he directed the University of Illinois Jazz Band and Oleg Lundstrom’s Russian Jazz Orchestra.

John is another great leader. One who has applied his training in “classical” music traditions to his interest in directing jazz ensembles. No one comes through John’s bands without changing his or her conception of the expressive possibilities of music. Here are some interesting and valuable ideas I have reconstructed from notes about things John has had to say in some of our discussions.

“Music is something produced and received by human beings. The crucial fact that is involved is that they are beings with bodies that work in a certain way. Whether the producers or the receivers are consciously aware of it or not, they experience it through their bodies.

Music is either singing, dancing or a combination of the two things.

You can not make music, you can not write it, you can not listen to it, perform it or do any of the things that are involved without doing them according to how the human body works. Singing is governed by how the lungs work in breathing and by how the vocal chords work. Dancing is governed by how the large muscles work (mainly the legs) and by how the body reacts to gravity. Every abstract gesture in music relates in some concrete way to how these things are experienced by the human body.

The fact that most music making in the western world is learned by notation obscures the whole thing enormously. Music students have a minimal amount of aural experience from their own family or cultural background. Instead they learn the rules of grammar, of intonation, to start and stop at the right times and together and to play or sing with the conventional idea of what a beautiful tone is. With only these elements you can not make music.

All notation, useful as it may be, is a falsification in some way or another from the actual style of performing that particular music. The job of the performer is to turn it back into music, a living thing. Most performers need to be deprogrammed. The program they need to be deprogrammed of is the learning of the grammatical rules of notation. One of the jobs of the conductor is to shake off this program. It is necessary for each conductor according to his nature and according to the kind of people with whom he is dealing, to do something to shake people up so that they can pierce through to the stylistic, emotional, corporal, corporeal reality.

The attitude of many listeners and musicians is one of observing music from the outside, not permitting music to affect their emotions, breathing patterns, muscular tension etc. In aural cultures such a thing did not exist. People got emotionally involved so that when a passionate thing began to happen they would breathe faster and their legs would want to move. We can also experience such emotions inside ourselves and by projection of the imagination, but someone who has been prohibited from making the external motions never learns the internal ones. Most musicians count 1 2 3 4 instead of feeling rhythm.

The choice of a repertoire:

For the student jazz musician in the present situation, the availability of real grown up music is scant in comparison to the inundation of student oriented music. One thing all the traditional music around the world has in common is that the music itself and the human relationship that is involved in the group activity is one that is not limited to an age group. When you are young you come into the group and you learn from the more experienced people. Instead (in the world of organized “jazz education”) the high school and college level students play all the time with people of the same age and circumstance and are limited to a repertoire that panders to that situation.”

This last subject is one that has great importance to anyone whose training in the world of European musical tradition has led to the perception that “what you play” has a significant influence over “how you play”. In spite of occasional articles and discussions on the subject, the jazz education community has stubbornly ignored the lessons of 300 years of musical tradition as if somehow jazz students were a different breed of being. Young jazz musicians are no more imune to the influence of their early experiences than clasical musicans are. No one would dream of suggesting to a developing violinist that it would be a good idea to base choices of repertoire entirely on pieces created for students by composers whose work is mainly representative of mundane aspects of musical fashion. Yet this remains the situation for almost all jazz students.

Certainly it is easier to attract the interest of an impressionable student with material that has already been impressed on that student’s consiousness by the mechanisms of musical commerce, but there is no educational defense for allowing taste and understanding to stagnate at that level. There are good reasons for the existence of student oriented compositions and arrangements but it is ludicrous to think that exclusive exposure to this kind of repertiore represents effective education for any musician.

John Garvey took great pains to find and commission interesting music for his bands. Morgan Powell, Larry Dwyer, Jim Knapp and other fine composers created a wonderful and highly individual repertoire for the University of Illinois Jazz Band during John’s 25 year tenure as its leader. We could all learn from the example of his repertoire.

Short of creating one’s own repertoire, here are a couple of sources of reliable music. David Berger has transcribed dozens of classic Ellington compositions that are avaliable through Classic Editions in New York and Don Sickler (Second Story Music) has produced fine, detailed transcriptions of good small group charts from the “Blue Note Records” tradition of the 50’s and 60’s. There is good material available through other sources though little of it is availabe through the publishers (big or small) that regularly market music to schools.

One thing that is needed is an equivalent of the Bartok Mikrokosmos, a masterful set of graded pieces for piano which starts from gound zero and grows ever more sophisticated as the student progresses through the work. Two such projects would be useful; one with the intention of developing individual player/soloists and one for ensembles. This is no easy task. Bartok was a master when he accomplished it.

Chuck Israels

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