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School of Jazz

For U of T Music students, it's all about the passion and the desire to play

High above Philosopher’s Walk, on the third floor of the Edward Johnson Building, Sandra Salverda idly plays with the valves of her trumpet. The 24-year-old music student is being tested in a third-year improvisation class by her professor, Quinsin Nachoff. To an outsider, Nachoff’s instructions don’t make much sense. “Play a half-note diatonic line through the chord changes,” he says, and “Try a 5321 pattern.” But to the two jazz musicians – one professional and one learner – the words provide a route to what they hope will be the perfect musical expression of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.”

“What tempo?” Salverda asks.

“Whatever you think you can execute,” Nachoff suggests.

Accompanying Salverda are fellow students on standup bass, drums and piano. Together they quickly map out how they’re going to play, and the bass player mumbles, “One, two, three …”

The music begins. What was an informal exchange of ideas between players becomes a surprisingly accomplished rendition of a standard from the Big Band era. Closing your eyes, you’d think you were in a real jazz club.

But just when the musicians are really swinging, Nachoff waves at them to stop. They resume their insiders’ talk. Being able to improvise around a central melody is a key skill for any jazz musician, and learning how to do this involves constant playing and reviewing. “When you get to performing, you have all the freedom you want,” says Nachoff. “But you have to practice specific elements of a piece over and over.”

The cluttered performance room at the Faculty of Music is not far from Toronto’s downtown jazz clubs, but the journey from one to the other is a long haul. Students enrolled in U of T’s four-year jazz studies program practise and perform about 40 hours a week while also writing essays and exams. Many do paying gigs on the side: Salverda plays in a mariachi band at a Mexican restaurant; other students sit in on sessions at The Rex, a downtown blues and jazz bar. They are required to compose their own music, study music history and theory, and arrange songs into a jazz format (reinventing the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” for example, as a jazz instrumental). On a practical level, students also learn how to market themselves as musicians and manage their business affairs. Most will not make a full-time living from jazz. But they are all committed to trying.

Professor Terry Promane, the director of U of T’s jazz studies program, says younger students usually find improvisation class the toughest. “At first, most people can only handle a very basic set of chord changes.” He illustrates by singing, “Five foot two, eyes of blue,” emphasizing the nursery rhyme-like simplicity of the song. “By the time the students are finished, they’ve progressed to a sophisticated and professional level.”
Students receive an hour a week of private lessons from a faculty member, which can yield significant skill improvements, says Promane. “Students come to you as a big block of granite, and every lesson you knock off another chunk. By the time you get to fourth year, you hope the statue is complete.”

Despite the gruelling work and high expectations, the young musicians seem to welcome the intensity of the learning experience. “Any one-on-one you get can only be beneficial if you really want to learn to play your instrument,” says Salverda.

But can jazz – the heady brew of syncopation, improvisation and rhythm created by African Americans in the early part of the 20th century out of their other monumental musical invention, the blues – really be an academic pursuit? Isn’t it best learned in a dark club over shots of bourbon?

That’s something of a Hollywood stereotype, but Gage Averill, dean of the Faculty of Music, believes that students do have to make a serious decision about how they want to learn jazz. “If you want to throw yourself into playing 24/7, don’t do this. This is for people who want a degree – who want to stretch their mind, to think about what modernism and post-modernism mean because they don’t think music is just about playing. Our students get the university experience and they continue to polish their craft with really good teachers.”

Those “really good teachers” are a major draw for students. “Everyone who teaches here is a jazz player,” says Promane, an accomplished trombonist who played with Rob McConnell’s famed Boss Brass. “We discuss the music as a classical art form. The conversation always circles around the large body of the jazz canon and the jazz mindset.”

U of T’s Faculty of Music launched the jazz program in 1991 with the goal of providing an intimate kind of music instruction. “You have to get to know your students personally so you can help them artistically,” says Prof. Paul Read, the program’s founding director, who now heads up the master’s program. “With 65 students, you have a far better opportunity of doing that than if you have 300.” Read worked with Canadian jazz legend Phil Nimmons (who is still a faculty member at age 82) to design the program. They hoped their students would take an interest in different styles of music. “We wanted students who were interested in broadening their scope,” says Read.

Before North American universities began teaching jazz in the 1950s and 1960s, most faculties of music offered programs in classical music and opera, which were considered a better fit with a university’s academic approach. “That feeling kept jazz out of universities for a long time,” says Read. “But music is music. There are more similarities between learning to play music in the jazz idiom and the classical idiom than there are differences.” He says jazz has suffered from some unfair stereotyping. “This music has come a long way from the dance hall or the smoky bar. It still has those dimensions, but it is also a very sophisticated art form with a wide range of expressions.” Still, there are risks to submitting jazz to the rigours of academe. “One of the biggest challenges we face is to not kill off the spontaneous street character of the music by taking an overly academic approach,” says Read. “You can throttle it by talking it to death and overanalyzing it.”

Performance remains a focus of the program. And students say the daily exposure to veteran jazz musicians is crucial. Last October, Dan Fortin, a third-year bassist from Peterborough, Ontario, was the accompanist with Canadian jazz guitarist Lorne Lofsky in a master class (where prominent professional musicians participate with students in a mix of performance and detailed analytical discussion). For Fortin to be able to play alongside Lofsky is akin to an aspiring novelist getting Margaret Atwood (BA 1961 VIC) to review a first draft.

“This is the great thing about arts education,” says Fortin. “It’s about finding people who are working in the medium. They guide you and show what can inspire you. They don’t say ‘This is what you need to learn.’ They allow you to do your own thing.”

The program also balances the artistic exploration of jazz with the practical realities of building a career. Vocal instructor Heather Bambrick (Mus Bac Per 1997) – a recent winner of two National Jazz Awards – says what she learned from singer and former U of T instructor Carol Welsman was invaluable. “I could pick her brain and say, ‘How do I do a demo? How do I organize my first band or my first record?’ The one-on-one time students have with the instructors is pretty amazing.”

Another U of T faculty member is Chase Sanborn, a veteran studio musician and former member of the Ray Charles Orchestra. Sanborn encourages young musicians to consider the business side of music and to develop a career strategy. At a clinic he gave for U of T students last fall, he offered advice on marketing, promotion, and finances and taxes. “The program should be about learning to do what you do, but you also need to keep your mind open to how to make a living,” says Sanborn.

What drives these young people to pursue the life of a musician? Not riches or superstardom. Although several U of T alumni have gone on to international prominence, not many musicians can devote their careers to playing only jazz. This might have been possible in the 1930s and ’40s during the Swing Era, when the bands of Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw were at the height of their popularity and Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday topped the charts. But in the 1950s, rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll came along and captured the minds and ears of a younger generation. Jazz continued to evolve, with the emergence of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and such new styles as bop and fusion, but it never regained its mainstream popularity. Although a vibrant jazz scene still exists around the world, most professional jazz musicians flesh out their incomes with composing and arranging, teaching, corporate Christmas parties and stage musicals.

Faculty member Phil Nimmons understands a musician’s passion for jazz and the drive to play, despite the financial difficulties that can come with it. For decades, his bands (Nimmons ‘N’ Nine and Nimmons ‘N’ Nine Plus Six) practically owned the Canadian jazz scene. But that’s not how his career started. While attending the University of British Columbia in the 1940s, Nimmons planned to become a doctor. As talented as he was in the sciences, however, he couldn’t let go of music. “I think this is something you can sense in our students. They have this desire. This is what they want to do.”

Like Nimmons, most musicians – pro and student alike – find it difficult to put their passion into words. Jazz piano virtuoso Bill Evans once described his interest in Zen Buddhism this way: “I don’t pretend to understand it. I just find it comforting – and very similar to jazz. Like jazz, you can’t explain it to anyone without losing the experience. That’s why it bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.”

Third-year student Fortin spends a lot of time in class talking about jazz, but he says the difficulty of explaining the music is part of its attraction. “Sometimes you can’t really explain what you love about jazz or why it affects you. And that makes it satisfying and mysterious.”

Paul Fraumeni is the editor of U of T’s research magazine, Edge.

The Players
Visit jazz clubs or festivals, or enrol in a jazz program at a North American school, and you’re likely to encounter a graduate of U of T’s jazz studies program. Among the most well-known U of T jazz alumni are:

Lina Allemano, trumpet
2005 CBC Galaxie Rising Star Award

David Braid, piano
2005 Juno Award winner for traditional jazz album of the year
Tara Davidson, saxophone
Winner of the 2005 Distillery Jazz Festival “Emerging Artist Award”

Andrew Downing, bass
Eaton Graduating Scholarship winner from the Faculty of Music (1996). His band, Great Uncles of the Revolution, won the 2004 Juno Award for contemporary jazz album for “Blow the House Down”

Mike Malone, trumpet
One of Canada’s leading jazz composers; member of the Dave McMurdo Jazz Orchestra; faculty member at Mohawk College

Mark McLean, drums
Jazz Report Post-Secondary School Musician of the Year in 1998; has since played with Oscar Peterson, Jane Bunnett and Molly Johnson, among others

Anthony Michelli, drums
Jazz Report Post-Secondary School Musician of the Year in 1995; winner (with the Nancy Walker Quartet) of the 2003 Grand Prix de Jazz General Motors at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal

Dariusz Terefenko, piano
Faculty member at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester

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