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Getting jazzed

Anyone who’s ever been to a summer jazz concert in Skidmore’s Bernhard Theater knows to arrive an hour early. By then there’s already a queue of Saratogians snaking out the door. There were six concerts this summer, courtesy of the Skidmore Jazz Institute—all free, all standing-room only.

When Gerald Zaffuts (who founded the college’s jazz program in 1981) started the SJI in 1987, one goal was to “give the community a chance to hear great music and get them to support jazz. Because why train young jazz musicians if there’s no one to hear them?”

This year’s two-week-long program included fifteen all-star faculty and fifty-eight students—average age: seventeen. (There was also a handful of adults for whom music is a side career.) The young players are quite accomplished for their age, and Zaffuts has the unenviable task of weeding through their audition tapes, trying to strike a balance of instruments and come up with small groups of compatible-sounding players.

Students come to the SJI to develop their “personal voice” (as former Tonight Show drummer and faculty member Ed Shaughnessy calls it) and become better improvisers. Plus, “they get to listen to people who do this for a living and who have played with the greatest players on the planet,” Zaffuts says. Legendary trombonist Curtis Fuller is the reason student Corey Fritz returned to Skidmore for a second summer: “He’s a walking piece of jazz history. He’s given me a whole new perspective.”

Weekdays at the SJI are broken into 8:30 combo rehearsals, 10:30 lessons, 1:30 performance classes, and 3:00 master classes. Friday afternoons feature a three-hour student concert, and most evenings there’s a faculty performance with a guest artist. It’s round-the-clock jazz. Even when there’s downtime, the students are practicing—or composing original tunes to rehearse with their combo groups.

The combo setting, Zaffuts notes, is where players learn to communicate musically with each other—and where they take in a lot of practical advice from the pros. (John LaBarbera, rehearsing his eight-piece group: “How about that energy level? Yeah, it sucked. Even on a run-through, you gotta play like it’s the real thing.” Bobby Shew, coaching his combo’s drummer and piano player to back off a bit: “On a bass solo, you gotta give the guy some acoustical space. There’s too much noise goin’ on.”) Master classes give them a chance to query faculty about the recording industry and the future of jazz, or take in some archival jazz videos.
Students and faculty agree: the SJI is more collaborative than competitive. Participants play because they like to, not because they’re trying to prove anything. Pianist Renee Rosnes wants to inspire them “to take their playing to the next level” and let them know “what needs to happen in the practice room to achieve their dreams.”

Beyond that, bassist Todd Coolman says the institute’s mission is “to nurture qualities that help people get along in the world: selflessness, sharing, team work, responsibility, initiative. The truth is, not all of these people are going to become professional jazz musicians. So ultimately they carry something away with them that’s larger than the music.”

Still, many SJI participants are dreaming of a career in music. Drummer Cory Cox, a high-school senior from Houston, is hoping to go to Juilliard. One night in July he and some buddies played on a street corner in downtown Saratoga. “We made forty bucks each, playing for two hours. So that could be a career,” he says hopefully. Eighteen-year-old Irishman Eamonn McCarron says, “There’s not much jazz where I come from. Here, there are a lot more opportunities to play.” He talked with LaBarbera about studying jazz in the US—which prompted the young drummer to conclude: “It would be pointless for me to stay in Ireland.”

Zaffuts is encouraged to see young players so interested in—and excelling at—this art form. Jazz is “finally earning the respect it deserves,” he says. “I think people are realizing some of these players and composers are the best artists this country has ever produced.” —MTS



Todd Coolman has a class of eight male bass players in Filene Recital Hall. Most are wearing knee-length cargo shorts and sandals; many have moppy hair. Several have yawned in the last couple of minutes. But every ounce of their attention seems focused on Coolman. He is making a few key points:

1. Conserve energy. “I do not see what this does”—he makes some exaggerated rocking motions, sweeping his bass along with him—“to help the music come out in a clear, concise way. You can be completely effective without excessive physical motion. It’s not a bad idea to practice in front of a full-length mirror.”

2. Sing. “If you’re going to play in tune, you’re going to have to learn to sing. Singing is the only way to internalize music.” For incentive he adds, “I’ll tell you this, man: if you’re on the subway late at night, and you sing to yourself? no one will bother you.”

3. Practice. “Have an objective when you enter the practice room. Narrow your focus. Try to avoid practicing things you know. We don’t go into a practice room to sound bad. But what do you least like playing on bass? What we have an aversion to is what we need to work on.” —MTS