NYU Steinhardt Offers a Global Perspective

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NYU Steinhardt has numerous bands of various sizes.

(Photo: Courtesy NYU Steinhardt)

If jazz has an epicenter, New York is it. And in New York, Greenwich Village—longtime home of iconic clubs like the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note—still has cachet.

At the same time, jazz, more than ever, is a global art form.

It follows that New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development—with a main campus in the heart of the Village and links to satellite campuses that give it worldwide reach—is a prime spot, perhaps the prime spot, to study jazz.

That, in any case, is the considered opinion of Dave Schroeder, who recently became director and chairman of NYU Steinhardt’s department of music and performing arts professions after 16 years as director of jazz studies. And who’s to argue?

“The resources are ridiculous,” Schroeder said with a smile as he kicked back in his Third Avenue office on a hot July day.

Despite the heat, the atmosphere in the jazz program’s digs was cool in every sense of the word. Schroeder’s ground-floor office was packed with memorabilia and trafficked by celebrated jazzmen—saxophonist Tom Scott, the original “Jazzman” of Carole King fame and countless other high-profile projects, being just one of the players popping in and out throughout the interview.

Next door, in a similarly well-appointed office, Dave Pietro, the new director of jazz studies, had his eyes on his computer screen, plotting changes in the fall curriculum as students and faculty outside his door descended a stairway leading to a lower-level warren of practice rooms and rehearsal studios. Summer or not, the spaces were in use.

Schroeder and Pietro seem well-suited to lead the team of more than 40 adjunct professors, noted practitioners all, enlisted to help teach the 100 or so jazz students. The two musicians bonded as substitutes in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in the early 1990s. Later, when Pietro came to NYU to pursue his master’s degree in jazz composition, he took a class with Schroeder, who ultimately hired him as an adjunct. As they assume their new roles, their shared history is reflected in a similarly expansive view about matters of curriculum.

“The way that I teach jazz and the way that I see this program, this is not just a conservatory, it’s a liberal arts school,” Schroeder said. “The kids are smart. They come here because of the faculty, but also because of the rich liberal arts environment. They think further beyond just getting a gig at Smalls.”

As a liberal arts school, NYU offers a plethora of courses in and out of music, and jazz majors are required to take at least some of the latter. Like all undergraduates, they must fulfill requirements in subjects like math, science, social sciences, English and foreign languages. Some jazz majors, in fact, choose to double-major—taking a full load of nonmusic courses atop their jazz studies.

“Our students are very eclectic in that they have a lot of different interests,” Pietro said. “They have academic interests; they also have music interests. They can pursue all of that.”

But for most jazz majors, he said, the focus is the music and, this fall, the offerings will begin to better meet expectations of a “personalized” curriculum shaped by the digital environment. Acclaimed saxophonist Dave Liebman, a graduate of NYU, has been hired as faculty to meet the demand for a highly customized, post-master’s artist diploma in jazz performance. And while undergraduate requirements in classical theory, ear-training and music history will hardly disappear, they will be eased to give students greater room for electives in music technology and business.

“My vision,” Pietro said, “is to contemporize the program because there have been a lot of changes, obviously, in the ways students learn, and where and how they get their information. It’s important that we get up to speed with that, and that we’re providing them with the kind of education they need for today’s music world.”

One thing that will not change is the centrality of ensembles; the jazz program offers more than 40. Combining both undergraduate and graduate students—the idea, Pietro said, is to optimize chances for networking—the ensembles might seek to develop students’ skills in improvisation, sight-reading, composition or arranging. Apart from a big band and a nonet, the ensembles generally have at most three horns and a rhythm section.

The vehicles they use vary. Some ensembles cast a wide net in terms of tunes that fit neatly into anyone’s definition of a jazz mainstream. These groups include one run by saxophonist Ralph Lalama, who, having cut his teeth in the bands of Woody Herman and Buddy Rich, concentrates on material from the Great American Jazz Songbook.

Other ensembles focus on a single artist. Pietro, a multireedist, composer and stalwart of modern orchestras like those of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue, runs a group that studies his arrangements of Wayne Shorter’s compositions. The ensemble embraces the full sweep of Shorter’s career, starting with his days with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. As it happens, Shorter, like Pietro, holds a degree from NYU—a bachelor’s in music education, earned in 1956—a fact not lost on students.

Some artists run ensembles focused on their own music. Guitarist John Scofield has a group in which his tunes are arranged for five guitarists; in it, each student has the opportunity to play against him. Essentially, it’s a two-hour workshop, after which he has a two-hour lecture when he discusses a range of subjects, from people he’s played with to some of his influences.

Other ensembles are run by a musician with a direct link to the artist being studied: Bassist Mike Richmond, who replaced Charles Mingus in the original Mingus Dynasty, runs one devoted to Mingus’ oeuvre. Pianist Andy Milne, a disciple of saxophonist Steve Coleman, leads another that, in part, explores Coleman’s idiosyncratic principles.

Still other ensembles focus on alternative formats. Saxophonist Billy Drewes leads one that concentrates on orchestral improvisation. And drummer John Hadfield explores the world-music landscape with a percussion ensemble dedicated to improvisation techniques that are common in India and the Middle East.

Focusing on sounds closer to home is the Lenny Pickett Block Party Band. Run by Pickett, the longtime director of the Saturday Night Live Band, the ensemble often plays his arrangements of music by artists like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Lest anyone question the relevance to a jazz curriculum, he points out both the rigor of his approach and its value in broadening students’ perspectives. Likening Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” to a jazz waltz in 9/8, he stresses students’ understanding of commonalities in styles.

Proximity to artists like Pickett—an iconoclastic figure whose mastery of the altissimo register first gained notice in the 1970s in the legendary San Francisco r&b group Tower of Power—can be a tremendous benefit to students. Pickett did not attend college and has an acute appreciation of the role schools can play in filling the gap left by the decline of the apprenticeship model through which jazz musicians once earned their stripes.

Schroeder said that Pickett’s contributions to the program reflected outsize skills, both musical and interpersonal. Lack of the latter, he said, had doomed the chances of other elite performers seeking employment. “It’s one thing when you’ve been a road warrior for years and you’ve been on Blue Note records and you hang out after your set and have a few drinks. It’s another thing to come into a class and inspire young minds.”

Pickett said that enrolling in jazz studies programs was a strategy for aspiring musicians to acquire expertise, even if their goals lay outside of jazz per se. But he made sure to probe students one-on-one about those goals. “We cover a lot of territory,” he said. “I ask them, ‘What is your life? Why are you doing this?’ I want them to understand with their eyes wide open what they are getting into.”

Pickett has led versions of the SNL band that included NYU alumni, among them guitarist Jared Scharff, who earned a bachelor’s degree, as well as saxophonist Ron Blake and pianist Tuffus Zimbabwe, who both received master’s degrees. He has facilitated internships, some of which have led to jobs in television. One intern, he said, became a music producer for comedian Caroline Rhea’s show. Others have landed spots as SNL band librarians or copyists.

“If you sit by these doors for a semester you see a lot,” he said of the gateway to SNL’s studio at NBC in Rockefeller Center. “You get a feeling for what production is like.”

Pickett was speaking after a Sunday brunch gig with the NYU jazz faculty group Combo Nuvo at the Blue Note. In the band, led by Schroeder on harmonicas and horns, were regulars Brad Shepik on guitar, Rich Shemaria on keyboards and Hadfield on drums. Scott, in town for two weeks of teaching and performing as part of the jazz program’s summer session, joined Pickett and Schroeder on the front line. Jerry DeVore, a onetime NYU student, filled in for Richmond on bass.

Schroeder has made it a point to bring music and music students to untapped spaces around the Village, which, despite its continuing cultural cachet, has lost clubs to the realities of New York real estate. The aim, he said, is to “recreate Greenwich Village as it was, with coffeehouses with live music, and have all of our students come here and interact with the world. You never know who’s watching. Once you become used to that, you can relax and be creative and really grow faster than you can anywhere else.”

The Blue Note is among the venues already serving that purpose. Some student musicians are enjoying prime exposure as members of the 18-piece NYU Jazz Orchestra, which from time to time plays Sunday brunches there. Other students have worked as interns at the club, squirreled away in upstairs offices helping with booking and the like. A select few, like singer and instrumentalist Mary Gatchell, have run the occupational gamut: A 1999 NYU graduate, Gatchell has served customers both offstage (as a waitress) and on (playing with her combo).

With two decades of experience now under her belt—in addition to performing widely, she has taught at Nyack College and co-founded Siena Summer Music, a chamber music festival in Siena, Italy—she has, at the urging of her Nyack employers, returned to NYU to pursue a master’s degree. She has been welcomed, she said, with open arms. “It was really such a beautiful thing; I feel like I never want to leave now.” Describing her experiences in classes, she said, “I’m weeping every week.”

On the day that DownBeat visited campus, Scott was speaking to one such class packed with eager students, many from Perth, Australia. They had come for one of the summer sessions, which Schroeder said have become increasingly popular, in part because of online promotion. The response from outside New York and especially outside the United States, he said, has been striking.

“It gives students a chance to dip their toe into New York City,” he said. “The city’s a big place, but there are pockets of small communities, like our programs, where you can stand out as an individual.”

During the class, Scott discussed the need to be flexible in collaborating with artists who can be less than explicit in their requests. One such person was Joni Mitchell, who, during one of their famous recording sessions in the 1970s, issued this cryptic appeal: “‘I’d like it more green,’” he laughingly recalled her saying. “What the hell did she mean by that? You have to have an open mind.”

Scott, one of the busiest session musicians of the past half-century, also offered a hard truth, noting how the rise of synthesized sound and other digital tools, along with other machinations of the music industry, had led to a decline in studio work. “The world of sessions is not anything like it used to be,” he said. “It’s much harder for a musician to make a comfortable living.”

Known by many for his fusion group L.A. Express, Scott said that in his own work he had largely sought “a happy medium between what I like and what the audience likes.” In doing so, he said, he had hoped to “form a path to the kind of jazz I love.” A few days later, at the Blue Note, he was playing some of that as he and his Combo Nuvo bandmates fashioned brilliant takes on mainstream styles of the recent past and present.

Scattered throughout the set were the seeds of a possible future for jazz studies, one as global enterprise. Scott hinted at it with his East-West synthesis in 7/4, “Blues For Hari,” as did Schroeder, when he unveiled his ever buree, a Mongolian woodwind instrument made from an antelope horn. The instrument—integral to his opus on climate change, One World Suite, which he presented in nearby Washington Square Park for the United Nations’ 2018 International Day of Peace—mesmerized the Blue Note audience with its snaking curves and haunting sound.

Building on that feeling, Schroeder ushered onstage Grammy-nominated singer Chandrika Tandon, who, backed by flute, clarinets and soprano saxophone, performed a kind of microtonal blues, “Song Of The Teacher.”

After the set, she chatted in general terms about using NYU’s 18 worldwide sites as a starting point for creating a multicultural community of improvisers—and doing so with Schroeder, who has directed Steinhardt Music’s study-abroad program at the school’s campuses in Paris and Prague.

“He’s one of the most expansive, brilliant musicians I have met,” said Tandon, who, as the chairperson of the NYU President’s Global Council and a mover and shaker in New York’s cultural and financial circles, has the clout to develop the idea.

“NYU has the chance to bring together extraordinary global influences,” she said. “The best is yet to come.” DB



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