Lee Secard Sets High Standards


Lee Secard, recipient of a DownBeat Jazz Education Achievement Award

(Photo: Philip Pirolo)

In a rehearsal room at the Colburn Community School of Performing Arts, the illustrious arts academy across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Lee Secard has two whiteboards set up to help students learn jazz standards. “I haven’t handed out a lead sheet in years,” Secard said. “I used to dramatically make people throw their Real Books into the trash can!”

Traditional harmony, composing jazz pieces, playing in groups and learning music by ear are essential to the teaching philosophy of Secard, the recipient of a 2020 DownBeat Jazz Education Achievement Award. As the longtime chair of the Colburn Jazz Workshop, Secard has seen his young musicians win accolades year after year, including in DownBeat’s annual Student Music Awards. Some of his students have continued their education at such prestigious institutions as Harvard University, the University of Miami and New England Conservatory. Notable Colburn alumni include pianists Victor Gould and Kris Bowers.

As a youngster, Secard studied classical composition at the University of Southern California before working with alto saxophonist Gary Foster at Pasadena City College and taking lessons from vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake and tenor saxophonist Warne Marsh, who stressed the importance of aural learning through memorizing and singing solos by ear. “That was his whole thing,” Secard said of Marsh. “If you can sing the solo, you’ll be able to play the solo. So, that had a lot to do with how I was proceeding as I had an opportunity to [teach].”

That opportunity came in 1987 for Secard, who by then had played in Bill Watrous’ big band and toured as the member of a pit band for musicals. Secard applied and got a job teaching saxophone at the Colburn School. “I had one student,” he recalled.

Today, scores of jazz pupils—students in 5th grade through high school—head downtown after school and on weekends to benefit from Secard’s tutelage. Many of them are already musically advanced. “Right now,” he said, “I have an eight-piece band full of 11- and 12-year-olds. And they’re pretty much geniuses.” For Secard, the goal is to help these precocious young performers navigate both the intricate language of jazz and the challenging path to realizing their full potential.

One of his many teaching slogans is: “Don’t be frustrated, be curious.” He encourages students to go as far as they can in satisfying their curiosity. “You gotta go the whole way,” he frequently says to them. “If you become anxious, anxious doesn’t mean stop. You’ll get past it. Finish it. The best way to write a tune is to finish it.”

“The thing that struck me about Lee when we first started teaching together,” said Dr. Walter Simonsen, whom Secard brought on board in 2014 to be his assistant director, “was his commitment to setting a very high standard for the students, and being unwavering about the fact that we expect [them] to get there.”

“I know exactly how lucky I’ve been,” Secard said, reflecting on his 33 years at Colburn. “Like a lot of fortunate people, I didn’t see this—when I was 25—as being my future. Man, what a blessing. It’s been pretty unbelievable.” DB

This story originally was published in the September 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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