Community College Jazz Thrives

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Stephanie Austin Letson, left, leads Contra Costa College’s JAZZ-ology vocal group during a performance in Grenoble, France.

(Photo: Courtesy Contra Costa College)

All the steps in the progressive ladder of music education are vitally important, but community and junior college jazz programs sometimes don’t get the recognition deserved for developing the talents of music students who otherwise might not have the opportunity.

Four community and junior college jazz programs — Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California; Cuyahoga Community College Metro Campus (Tri-C) in Cleveland, Ohio; Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami, Florida; and MiraCosta College in Oceanside, California — certainly deserve recognition. Conversations with the jazz educators who lead these programs highlight the variety of challenges they face and the strategies they’ve implemented.

Steve Enos, director of Jazz Studies at Metro Tri-C, played trumpet in the U.S. Navy Band before earning his bachelor’s degree from Berklee College of Music and his master’s in Music Education at the University of Akron. Enos began teaching as an adjunct at Tri-C in 1995. When he became director of Tri-C’s jazz program, he used his Berklee connection to build an articulation partnership between the renowned Boston music college and Tri-C.

“What prompted me to reach out to Berklee was Tri-C’s decision to change from a quarter to a semester system,” Enos explains. “We had a golden opportunity to rewrite the program, which also presented a golden opportunity to reach out to Berklee. I called Gary Burton, who was Berklee’s executive vice president, and asked if Berklee would be interested in partnering with Tri-C. He was interested and sent Berklee administrators to come and work with us to develop a jazz curriculum that aligned with Berklee’s core requirements for their first two years of study.

“As a result, we’re teaching Berklee’s core, and using Berklee’s books for those courses. For our students, it’s a great opportunity to come to Tri-C first rather than go directly to Berklee. It’s a less expensive approach for them, especially if they live here. And our program is smaller, so they also get more attention. We’ve had more than 100 students transfer to Berklee, and those transfers have a 92 percent graduation rate there.

“And we’ve also been able to set up an articulation agreement with the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at the Hartt School.”

Michael Di Liddo, director of Jazz Studies at Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson campus in downtown Miami, has led the jazz program since 1998. When he began at Wolfson, Di Liddo, like Enos at Tri-C, saw the need to adjust the curriculum. And like Tri-C, the Miami Dade Wolfson jazz program earned an articulation agreement with Berklee College of Music in 2008.

But that’s just one of the strategies Di Liddo has used to increase interest in the program. When he started, Di Liddo decided he needed to create a series of jazz performances on campus featuring professional jazz musicians. The free series, “Jazz at Wolfson Presents,” is scheduled once a month at noon on Wednesdays during the spring and fall semesters. Over the years, the series has featured Rufus Reid, Mike Stern, James Moody, Jamey Aebersold, Jeff Coffin and many other noted jazz musicians.

“We needed to bring in jazz artists who were active in the community once a month to increase the profile of the program by playing a concert and doing workshops and clinics,” said Di Liddo. “We did it at lunch mid-week and made it free to really try and reach out to students. It gave the students a chance to really interact and ask questions of the musicians in a one-on-one setting. And we also featured concert performances by all three of our jazz ensembles here at Wolfson to put them in the spotlight.”

Di Liddo has also started a high school dual- enrollment program. High school music students who qualify can come to the Wolfson campus after their regular class schedule and take music classes at the college level.

“It gives the high school students a head start,” he said, “and it also gets them familiar with what we can offer. And, for example, if they want to go to a four-year university like the University of Miami, they can start here and get their grades up or get a better jazz foundation and background so they can transfer there.”

For Stephen Torok, chair of the Department of Music at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, California, teaching at the community college level after earning his undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon and his masters from the University of Southern California was eye-opening.

“I taught at a community college for five years before I came to MiraCosta, and it was really interesting to me that the music students in my classes were so diverse,” he said. “I had the traditional high school band students who wanted to continue their studies. But I also had older people in the community who were coming back to take music courses. And I had high school kids who didn’t take band in school. They learned by playing in garage bands and often couldn’t read music even though they were talented players who really knew how to find a groove, since they learned it the old-fashioned way.

“First, I had to learn to be more patient in my teaching. And most importantly, I realized I had to emphasize the listening process. I knew if I was going to have any kind of success teaching, I’d have to emphasize formal listening as an entry point into reading and studying charts. Basie Band recordings turned out to be great for this. I’d create a playalong of the original recording with a count off I’d insert. The students could play along with the original recording to create their parts, then we would cut the original when we got to mixing stage. It helped them pick up the sophisticated style and rhythmic nuance of the Basie band through an organic back-and-forth process.”

Torok also focused on having his students play other styles of music — especially Latin and funk — as a gateway to capturing the attention for those who weren’t into jazz and getting them into the concept of playing in a groove. It’s an approach that has helped MiraCosta jazz ensembles win a number of DownBeat Student Music Awards over the last decade.

Stephanie Austin Letson holds a number of titles at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California. The professor of music is also the director of choral activities, performance program director and coordinator of vocal and piano education at the college. But wearing all these hats didn’t stop her from essentially creating a DownBeat Student Music Award-winning program from the ground up.

“We’re one of smallest community colleges in nation, and one of poorest,” said Letson. “When I was hired at Contra Costa, the program really had to be built piece by piece. I was here for several years before we had our first official vocal jazz group in 2008. It was a long process. First, we had to get the minimum student numbers to even have classes, then bring in instructors and create the curriculum to include the right classes.

“I decided to begin by focusing on beginning classes in voice, choir and piano to build skills. And I decided to do a vocal version of a boot camp that I had read about [that] a middle school jazz band teacher had done. In 2008, for the first six weeks of class, we didn’t do a single piece. We did ear training, sight reading, scatting — anything that would help the students grow. And they liked it, and it began to work.”

Letson’s first official vocal group was Jazzanova, which varied from six to eight members. By 2011, it became clear to her that the program had reached to point where a more advanced group could be created.

“We needed a place for the Jazzanova singers to go,” she explained, “and give them the next level of challenge. So we started JAZZ-ology.”

Once Jazzanova won the program’s first DownBeat Student Music Award in 2013, more followed. Contra Costa jazz vocal ensembles have won nine over the past nine years — as well as being named a top six national finalist at the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation competition.

“For me, that’s what’s lovely about community colleges,” Letson concuded. “There’s such diversity in age and socioeconomic background of the students. And for some students, a community college degree might be it, while for others, it’s a stepping stone. No matter what, these vocal students get a great experience — and hopefully a love of jazz. And that’s a wonderful thing.” DB



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