When Delfeayo Marsalis arrived in town last week, one of his first stops was Folsom High, where he was treated to this performance by the school's award winning jazz band.
Folsom and a handful of other schools are taking part in a special project developed by Marsalis to reinforce what he believes are the roots of jazz. High calibre programs like Folsom's are training students to play challenging and sophisticated big band arrangements . But Marsalis thinks something might be getting lost in the process.
MARSALIS: "Now it's all about reading. And they have these arrangements and they may be impressive, and they're fast and the bands, like wow…"
MARSALIS: "But we want to make sure that the students understand something about the history of the music."
A big part of that history, says Marsalis, has more to do with the ears than the eyes. He wants students to hear the nuances of jazz, things like:
MARSALIS: "using vibrato, phrasing together, blues riffs, how to develop your solo, not just play something that's written out."
After the big band performs, Marsalis works through a simpler tune with a smaller combo. Students have learned the tune from a CD provided by Marsalis weeks before his arrival.
(music, eval, etc.) cross fade into Hodges CD
The CD at the center of Marsalis' project contains classic blues-based tunes recorded in the 1950's by legendary saxophonist Johnny Hodges.
When Marsalis mailed it to the band directors, his instructions were simple.
GLASER: "He just gave us a CD and said I'm not giving you any music, I'm not telling you how to do anything. Listen to the CD and learn these pieces. And that's what we did."
Kevin Glaser runs the music programs at El Camino High School. He got total buy-in from his students.
GLASER: "They actually thought it was kinda cool cause it's totally different from what we do on a normal basis. We pull out sheet music and we rehearse and learn a piece of music. So now they had to listen to it. We sang the parts. We analyzed the structure. And then learned it by ear, just imitating what was on the CD."
(El Camino playing at Mondavi to end of tune, and applause)
The El Camino band took part last Friday in a workshop with Marsalis at the Mondavi Center. Josh is a senior at El Camino. He says he learned a lot by studying the Johhny Hodges CD.
JOSH: "I play bass so I listen to the bass player, kinda listen to what he's doing, you know and figure out how to emulate what he's doing. And figure out how he's making that connection with the drummer."
Josh made his own connection with Marsalis when the trombonist suddenly broke into a spontaneous blues duet..
JOSH: "I was nervous. He kinda pointed at me, he just said you know play. So I started playing and we went a couple times through and one of the times I was kinda playing around, it sounded like he liked something I did so it was kinda cool to play with someone that incredible."
MARSALIS: "It's like that duet. In a big band generally when you're reading music, that communication doesn't actually happen. For the high school students at least, they're so focused on what these notes are, getting this crisp, brilliant sound, they don't have time to really work on the communication amongst themselves."
(music to end, then applause)
Whether it's by listening to fellow musicians or to a classic CD, Delfeayo Marsalis hopes his project will help students develop their ears. Along the way, he feels they might just develop of love for this music.
MARSALIS: "Jazz descends not only from the music that is entertaining, but a dance music. And I'm hoping that they'll get a sense of what that sound is that brings happiness and joy to people."