After spending (some would say wasting) seven years working in the music industry as a music producer for a variety of well-known artists and record labels, I reached a breaking point. The years of I – IV – V triadic harmony, the hundreds of hours spent correcting vocals (by singers who could not sing) in Pro Tools via Auto-Tune, Melodyne and Vocalign, and the endless studio days spent demoing songs for A&R’s (who could not hear) had taken their toll. Music was dead for me. I was not alone in this depressing epiphany. There were many other music producers (friends of mine who shall remain anonymous) who felt the same way.
Though some of us had made a lot of money producing pop (more were owed money), over time we developed a phobia, which has made it extremely painful to even participate in the creation of the songs/drivel that we were then expected to produce for record companies. Additionally, music had also reached a plateau of simplicity, which allowed a moderately talented 15-year-old child to produce the same results. This meant that we were now competing with a few hundred 15-year-olds who would sign any contract and produce any song for $1,000!
I remember talking with my friend, who is a well-known producer, at great length concerning the direction that things were headed and deciding that something had to be done. Like the Titanic, the industry desperately needed a change in direction.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) shortly after this conversation the entire music industry imploded, which made the choice of finding an alternative much easier. Many blamed this implosion on mp3s and song sharing, but I to this day hold the incessant pedaling of an inferior product to the public responsible. You can only tell somebody that the turd in their hand is actually gold for so long…
Sometime later, perhaps out of frustration, I sat down at home and started working on a solution. Unusually, my departure was to create a music education program that would focus on creativity. During my previous talks with other musicians, producers, industry veterans and listeners, we had often come to the consensus that creativity was the important missing element rarely present in modern music. We thought that if we could find some way to “re-inject” this into the music scene or the next generation of artists and musicians, that all would be put right.
While working on the concept of this program I borrowed many ideas from past experiences. Looking back I had toured the world as a jazz musician for 12 years and spent much of this time assisting and observing Steve Coleman teach master-classes to students from all over the world. I had spent months with Steve while he was the director of jazz at U.C Berkley. I had worked on a number of large-scale teaching and workshop projects with Eugene Skeef and the London Philharmonic, where we taught all over England, South Africa, and Eastern Europe. I had setup and ran a music tech. department for a school for girls in London. Ultimately I had experienced many different approaches to teaching in many different environments.
The program that I proposed was called The Creative Music Program. It focused on stimulating the creativity of the student by promoting individual self-expression using improvisation as the vehicle. The jazz tradition provided an excellent framework for this, and also allowed me to build a curriculum centered around a collection of universal disciplines, which I had been taught and thought were essential to great musicianship.
They are the following:
- Melody & Voice-leading
- Vocabulary, Historic context & Tradition
- Improvisation & Composition
- Reading skills
I stressed that all tutors should be respected working musicians on the scene, who also compose and arrange for various sized ensembles. I wasn’t seeking the pure academics who came by their teaching careers via school. I wanted tutors who taught from their real life experiences and not from the usual textbooks. To me this approach was closer to the original apprenticeship tradition that “jazz” was founded upon. Since “jazz” is an aural tradition, the majority of its content is found “off the page” and the majority (if not all) of it’s great masters honed their craft via orature, whether in person or via recordings. “Jazz” is an art that requires close proximity to a master, at some point.
Most importantly I wanted to immerse the students in an environment where constant creativity was always happening around them. All concerts were to feature original compositions written by the tutors or students under their supervision. This reinforced the philosophy that although “jazz” was the past it is also now! For the masters it was always about the expression of this moment, the present. It was about honing a skill set which allowed the musician to spontaneously compose and re-invent in the moment. It was about being fluent in a common language within their tradition, which held self-expression, integrity and originality as its highest pursuits.
It required constant reinvention. The jazz musician looked back while constantly moving forward. For those in the know, this has not changed.
The proposal was completed in a couple of weeks. As if by divine providence, around the same time I got a phone call from my good friend Homer Jackson, who had recently read my proposal. Homer talked me into taking this now 30 page document/manifesto into a job interview with his friend Julia Lopez, the then director of education at the Kimmel Center, who was frantically seeking a replacement to run their music department.
The concept of interviewing for a job was strange to me, mostly because I had never interviewed for a job before. People either liked what you did or they didn’t. I had never needed to prepare a resume, or list the past 5 years of my employment. For a semi-successful producer/musician this could literally mean 500 plus engagements, made up of gigs, tours, recording dates, album productions, movie scores, etc. To a corporate type, you might seem like a liar!
Anyway, astonishingly I was hired and the The Kimmel Center Creative Music Program shortly after became a reality. I was given the breadth and freedom to really experiment, creating the best program possible within the given resources.
Since then there have been many improvements and refinements made. I was lucky enough to retain my now assistant director, Stephen Tirpak, who assists me in running all aspects of the program. We have three separate ensembles of varying levels, the most advanced of which is a full big band, populated with the most talented students I have ever encountered.
We augmented the program by adding a series of celebrity master-classes called Meet the Masters, which features stellar artists such as Steve Coleman, Rudresh Mahathappa, Dafnis Prieto, Sumi Tanooka, Vijay Iyer, Wayne Krantz, Ralph Alessi, Ciro Batista, Jonathan Finlayson, Ari Hoenig, Wycliffe Gordon, Danilo Perez, and the list goes on.
After four years as director, I am absolutely certain that music programs such as these play a vital role in the lives of not only young developing artists, but also those students who may choose not to pursue a professional career in music, but who may likely go on to become the Benjamin Banneker’s, Einstein’s, Kepler’s, MLKs, or Chomsky’s of future generations. Programs such as these are places where young gifted students can meet their contemporaries, ask questions of living legends, and become further inspired to reach new heights of achievement.
Since the youth of today will undoubtedly become the artists, managers, producers, A&R’s, publishers, marketers, entertainment lawyers, record company execs, audiences, promoters, venue owners and maybe even the Cyrus’s and Thicke’s of tomorrow, investing in their cultivation today must be analogous to investing in the type of future that we would like to experience tomorrow. In the absence of strategic education a child will ape whatever their environment presents them with. As the present custodians of all culture, we owe it to the next generation to see that this present content-void, lowest common denominator, prison-pipeline and by default mis-education is replaced with a content rich, creative, and empowering real one!