Left to right:
- Ken Schaphorst chairs NEC’s College jazz department and founded the NEC Youth Jazz Orchestra, which he coaches and conducts.
- Hankus Netsky chairs NEC's Contemporary Improvisation department and is director of NEC's Jewish Music Ensemble.
- David Zoffer chairs NEC’s Preparatory and Continuing Education jazz programs, including the Continuing Education Certificate Program.
Rob Schmieder recorded this conversation in November 2008. A shorter version appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of NEC’s Notes magazine. Photos are by Andrew Hurlbut.
I learned to play guitar by myself, by reading fingering charts. As soon as I learned a few chords I started writing songs — I guess I called them “pop songs” — pretty early, I’m guessing at age nine or ten. I started playing trumpet in fourth grade. That was sort of the first instrument. I started piano in first grade, and gave up lessons but kept playing. Learning chords on the guitar, I’d go to the piano and sort of figure out “oh, that’s an A chord on a piano.” So I learned harmony that way at a pretty young age.
Then a big thing in terms of what I do now is that I started writing in seventh grade. Our jazz band director said “Okay, let’s all improvise” — and I had no idea what he was talking about. And he said “Okay, everyone just play up and down the scale” — and I wish I had a tape recording of that! We all took turns kind of improvising up and down the scale. That was a big step.
I understood that, yeah, you could actually make music that had never been made until that moment. So in eighth grade I wrote my first jazz band chart. Now I look back and think, “What the hell was I thinking? What made me think that I could do that?” Through high school I got more and more interested in jazz and more and more aware. I do remember a few jazz records around the house, but I can’t say my parents were big jazz fans, or that aware. My mother played piano but she didn’t do jazz.
As soon as I started playing I was trying to figure out the music I heard around me. And that was a lot of different kinds of things. My mother’s family were all musicians, so if we would go down to the seashore or something my whole family would be playing, and if we went to a bar mitzvah or wedding, my grandfather would be playing drums. My uncle was a Broadway composer, and so Broadway was very heavy on my mind, to try to figure out songs from Broadway shows. But he also was a classical pianist, and he played with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The “music world” to me was more that there were a few different music worlds, I was very sensitive to that as a kid. It wasn’t really about one genre or style. I saw this classical music world, which had concerts and concert halls. Then I saw that if you played for parties, you needed to be able to make the party work. And that to me was so much harder than playing classical music. And then there was the synagogue, where I would go and hear the cantor, and I thought that was amazing. What was interesting about both of these things was—nobody offered to teach me either of them.
I remember when I was in fourth grade a teacher getting really mad at me for improvising on a written piece. “If you took the time to write down a piece of music wouldn’t you be upset if somebody just made up their stuff all over it?” And I remember going “No, that would be nice! Maybe it would be neat to hear what they would do with it.” And my brother and I growing up were just jamming on whatever, Santana tunes, literally driving our parents out of the house. And I was definitely playing jazz, sitting in at clubs with these guys I had absolutely no business playing with whatsoever, that were just the real-deal jazz guys.
I did get obsessed with jazz eventually. But for me in elementary school it was the Tijuana Brass, I loved the Tijuana Brass. So I sort of started organizing bands, because I thought “that’s what a musician does.” This stuff of piano lessons, playing recitals — that was not. What a musician does is, you organize a band. I had a band — Robin Eubanks [who taught at NEC for several years] will tell you this — he was in one of these groups, I think in fifth or sixth grade, in my garage. He was probably completely incredulous, because a friend of mine kind of roped him into it. I remember I had two trombones, I had a neighbor who played the drums “sort of,” and the guitar. I had my grandfather’s old stuff just sitting there. Anyone who wanted to try and play an instrument came to my house.
And I always found there was a use for musicians. My first job, I was probably in fifth grade, and it was a Torah Procession. When you donate a Torah to a synagogue in Europe they had a procession down the middle of the street. We were the only musicians that the rabbi knew, so he hired us, and we were these little kids marching down the street playing songs from Fiddler on the Roof.
I had very little formal education in jazz. I would say I learned mostly by trial and error, and also by listening. Very early on I started transcribing solos. I think it might have been my high school band director who had me listen to Clifford Brown. I was very eager and I would go out and get the record, and try to figure out his solo and write the chord symbols above it. It wasn’t just trumpet solos — I would do Coltrane solos, solos by other instrumentalists. That’s sort of a cornerstone of jazz education still, and yet when I was doing it, it was not through a class.
When I was a student here, NEC was also very helpful for me. I came here as a classical composition major, but I took jazz classes. I took Pat Hollenbeck’s arrangement class, which was helpful. And then the other thing that is important to me is analysis.
You try to figure out everything top to bottom — analysis. There’s the microscopic thing of transcribing solos and then transcribing all the other instruments and how all the musical stuff fits together. Then there’s the cultural picture, and what was the artist going through at that time. Where was the country at, at that time. You sort of have to take the lens out further. I think to a large extent we have to make that curriculum, it doesn’t entirely exist.
It’s all about experience: you go out and you try things and see what works. But I think analysis is a lot of trying to figure out how you can actually get this across to people.
Hankus talked about genre — I’ve never really felt that Stravinsky was that different from Ellington. And so I learned things from writing pop songs or classical music that influenced my jazz teaching as much as any jazz curriculum that I studied. And going back to my Philadelphia days, sitting in trumpet sections, I remember just learning a lot by observing. I noticed how they would breathe and the way they would pick up their mutes and be ready for their entrance.
I think it is typical of jazz education today that we are now teaching things that maybe at one time were not taught in a formal way. I find that I have learned certain things by going to school myself, and I’ve learned a lot outside of school, based on the experiences I’ve had.
Is there such a thing as being “not ready” to play jazz?
No, music is just like a language, that’s like saying you are not ready to speak French. You can say, “technically, you need to study classical first.” Well you know, when I teach a jazz piano student, they have to curve their fingers too. It’s just a language.
It is, but your ears do open up as you get older. I find young students, say ten or eleven, can hear Andrew Lloyd Webber. It’s fine, it makes a lot of sense. But then a couple years later it’s like, “If you like Andrew Lloyd Webber, you’ll love Duke Ellington.”
Any of these things can be a gateway to anything else. I had this really quiet, straight-A student. And she was doing okay, but she wasn’t really putting her heart into her lessons. So as a last resort I just bust out the wildest stuff. I’ve already tried everything I know, so let’s try this Xenakis and Cecil Taylor. She went nuts for that music. She became a composer. It’s also really important to say to a student, “Look, this is a thing called the blues, and right now Buddy Guy is trying to convince you that he’s an incredibly psychotic, jealous lover. ‘You’re going to leave my little girl alone’ — you’re going to learn a lot by that expression. Then there’s this guy named Miles Davis and he’s chill, and you’re gonna learn this completely other mood. And then do whatever you’re going to do as a composer, but at least you have experienced the theatre these artists bring to their music.”
We don’t usually get students who are blank slates, though. They come here saying “Well let’s see here, the saxophone comes with a ‘John Coltrane’ or ‘Wayne Shorter’ preset, and it’s the only way the instrument can sound.” One of the things that I try to do is liberate students from whatever they’re shackled to — what they think the limits are of what they can do musically.
I had to figure out things myself, and it forced me to learn how to write and play in a way that was somewhat unique. Ultimately, that’s a little closer to the jazz tradition than this idea that “Okay here’s the right way, don’t play that note, that’s wrong.” I think that one of our struggles at NEC is to teach jazz in this way that I think is closer to the original tradition in jazz. It’s more of a mentoring relationship between faculty and students, less rules based.
The thing is, in the classes at NEC, you put the responsibility on the students. The question is, are you going to take responsibility to figure out how this works, or do we just tell you “Apply X, Y, and Z,” like an algebraic formula. Ken doesn’t do that in the College, and we don’t do that in the Prep either, even though we are dealing with younger students. I remember back when I was a student here myself, Hankus would listen to something and give serious criticism of what we were saying as artists, it wasn’t just the technical thing. Of course you’re playing the changes, of course you’re in time, of course your tone is good, of course the vibe is consistent with the rest of the song. Yeah of course, but what are you saying, are you really saying something as a composer in real time. That’s something you can’t get out of a book, but you have to get out of a live human.
Some of these kids want to turn themselves in to the authorities at various times, but some of the authorities are not the right authorities, you know? And NEC has enough variety so that you can eventually find the person that is going to kick your butt in the right way. You’re trying to find your own voice — within the tradition. And finding your own voice within the tradition — even if you have been listening, listening, and listening — there’s still a lot of listening to do.
My favorite quote from Rani Katsenelenbogen, who teaches jazz piano to Prep kids, comes from when he’s talking about classical concerts: “Seven months from now, at 8:30, I will play all 42,000 of these notes in this order. What a commitment!” And we do this. But the funny thing is, the student Grace Kelly and I transcribed the entire Ellington orchestra and condensed it to this arrangement that will fit with the students we have available for one night. And then Grace transcribes Johnny Hodges’s solo. And we have this Martian orchestra, this bizarre instrument that basically brings to life Ellington from many many years ago. So it doesn’t matter if it’s classical or jazz, its that same. You must understand the whole thing, every note.
It’s also transformative, going through those things and exposing your brain to these people who have spent a lifetime developing music as a language.
And at this point, modern jazz is more defined by what it isn’t than what it is. All these genre things eventually go out the window.
They’re going out the window faster than our retirement money!
Who needs genre? What are the reasons to be confined within conventional genres that were valid for a while, but they’re all bursting at the seams? You look at contemporary classical composition, and it’s bursting at the seams, with world music kind of beating down the door on one side and with experimental music beating down the door on the other side. And you look at jazz, and world music is beating down the door on one side and rock beating down the door on the other side, and it’s got Indian music coming in as well.
Be a great musician, learn everything you can. There are so many places to draw from if you want to be a solid, total musician these days.
As a teacher, all you can do is mentor a student. And if you want to mentor students who are creative, it’s really, really exciting because there’s no limits. It’s an amazing community here, and it’s a community that really is open to each other’s music.
It’s really fun for me to bring the jazz kids to see the classical kids play, because one thing that’s so great about being here is that you see all these kids playing classical music with a lot of heart and understanding. There are classes and teachers here that have a bigger perspective than just “get the notes right” or “hold your hand a certain way,” whatever. They really want you to play musically.
I remember convincing a kid to come here who was going to go to Berklee, where they have a bluegrass department, by saying, “You know, you’re right, you’re probably the only one at NEC who is doing what you’re doing, who is really into Celtic music. But that would be good, because you’ll give a lot to the other students and they’ll give a lot to you.”
And she thanks me for that all the time. And I have to go teach her sister right now.