From Club to Classroom: Early Days of Jazz Education at New Trier High School

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The 1968 New Trier West Jazz Ensemble

(Photo: Courtesy New Trier West Jazz Ensemble)

Like many nouveau-upstarts, jazz had to fight for recognition. Academia frowned on fun, especially when its venues were hotspots like clubs, hotels, ballrooms and bars. Only as its popularity waned on the pop charts did jazz become a contender for academic favor. In October 1947, the world’s first jazz studies program was established at the University of North Texas in Denton.

Today, 75 years later, UNT still wails, the ballrooms have all closed and the largest single big band jazz venue in America has become the classroom. Or, more properly, the high school and university environment.

How did this happen? To get a peek into this transition at ground level, we have to go to the surviving pioneers of early jazz education. Not the leaders, but the younger foot soldiers who took the initiative to pry new options from what were then stuffy, tradition-bound high school music programs.

One was such pioneer was Roger B. Mills. Starting in 1966 as a young music grad from Northwestern University, he received a student teaching assignment at New Trier High School in the upscale Chicago suburb of Winnetka. By 1982 he had built one of the model high school jazz programs in the country. Recently former students Gregg Dorner, Mike Friedman and other alumni combined to create a website of the history of the New Trier West Jazz Ensemble (ntwjazzstory.com) before it was too late. “The program became a phenomenon,” says Friedman, “and encompassed performances across two continents and drew national attention.”

This writer attended New Trier between 1956 and ’60. It was a public prep school that sent 90% of its grads to college. In those days, it was also a school whose teachers’ noses would wrinkle at the mere mention of jazz in any music appreciation class, as if some acrid aroma had wafted into the class from the wrong side of town. Count Basie once played in the New Trier gym, but he never got near the music building for a clinic. If you were a young musician interested in running down a new Neal Hefti or Thad Jones chart, you were out of luck.

“The closest thing to jazz then were the ‘stage bands,’” recalls Mills, who at 80 still gives far more credit to his students than to himself for his accomplishments. “Stage bands played contrived stock arrangements of things like ‘One O’Clock Jump’ and ‘In The Mood’ with the solo parts written out. They never did anything contemporary by Kenton, Herman or Buddy Rich. The emphasis was on accurate reading. It was a very formalized thing. Improvisation was not emphasized at all.

In 1966–’67, Mills was appointed a teaching assistant at New Trier West in Glenview, a new sister school built to absorb the coming suburban baby boom. With no programs, precedents, history or traditions to tell him he was wrong, he began bringing in current charts and watched student interest suddenly spike. Parents noticed, too, and preferred that enthusiasm to “In The Mood.” When Mills’ contract was not renewed, parents protested. Mills was rehired at nearly twice his salary, and New Trier West joined the procession of early jazz programs.

That summer Mills met with other pioneer jazz educators at the National Stage Band Camp at Indiana University. They included many whose names would soon become familiar as curriculum and content leaders — David Baker and Jamey Aebersold — and familiar names like Stan Kenton and DownBeat publisher Chuck Suber. All were true believers in the mission, but their purposes varied. For Kenton, jazz education was a potential lifeline of high school and university venues in which a combination of clinics and concerts could help keep his band on the road. For Suber, the challenge was keeping DownBeat a jazz-oriented publication as rock threatened to marginalize its advertising market. He saw an important future in jazz studies and a major role for it in for DownBeat.

“I owe half my life to Chuck Suber,” Mills reflects today. “Around 1969, he and I put together a plan called Discover Music to utilize high school jazz groups within grade schools to help kids get good training. Then around 1970 Chuck wrote a story about the NT West ensemble that really put it on the map and made us the model for others. I began getting calls from all over from people who wanted to know what we do and how we do it. Man, I tell you, Chuck was the key jazz education person in the world.”

The program was among the first multi-tier jazz curriculums at the high school level. In addition to the jazz ensemble and improvisation elements, it reached into composition, conducting and advanced levels of theory, performance and recording. A series of LPs documented the NT Jazz Ensemble’s growth through the 1970s, and they can be heard on the website.

Mills says that to his knowledge nothing like it existed anywhere in the country and credits its success to the quality of the students, who made it a dialogue between mentor and protégé. “Kids would buy records,” he remembers, “and play them for me. The learning was absolutely a two-way street.”

If Suber brought Mills’ program attention, Kenton helped bring it content. “Music is the key to any good jazz ensemble program,” Mills says, “and in the beginning we didn’t have much. Stan helped me a lot. When he’d come to Chicago, he’d always bring me new charts. We once did a 1968 Kenton suite called Adventure In Emotion, and I think the New Trier band was the only one that ever did it. Stan opened up a partnership between working bands and educators. His heart was really in it because he believed that kids need it. Same with Clark Terry. And soon with Louie Bellson, Don Ellis, [Woody] Herman and others.”

The original Roger Mills program would continue to evolve after his departure in 1982 under the direction of successors Jim Warrick (now retired) and currently Nic Meyer. But the story of its beginnings was in danger of being lost, which prompted the creation of the website. It is one of the more important, but less known, chapters charting the arrival of jazz into the canon of the curriculum. DB



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