Learning Through Music

The Arizona Jazz Academy offers kids the opportunity to play jazz, gain confidence and see the country.

Doug Tidaback can talk at length about how his Arizona Jazz Academy teaches kids to play idiomatically in all sorts of styles--"They learn not to play bebop solos in swing tunes, and they learn to approach Duke Ellington differently from Count Basie, and John Coltrane differently from Miles Davis. If we're going to consider jazz to be a credible art form, we've got to treat it with that kind of care."

But then he drops the bombshell: "We're not training the future musicians of America. And jazz is not really what this thing is all about."

Tidaback points out that even in college music programs, only a very small percentage of graduates can end up making a living playing concerts and club gigs. They become teachers or producers or promoters--or accountants or secretaries or lawyers. He won't pretend that any of the middle school and high school kids in his program will be the next Wynton Marsalis.

"We're teaching teamwork, self-esteem, finding a personal voice, knowing what it feels like to hit a home run--in our case, the acclaim you get for a solo. These are all experiences that will find their way back into the community, no matter what these kids wind up doing. Once you get an aesthetic experience of excellence, you learn to apply it to whatever you do in life.

"We encourage kids to take risks here--find out where your edge is, and then take a few steps beyond that to find out what it's like to live outside your edge. That gives you a big sense of personal responsibility."

But that doesn't mean these kids are building self-esteem by playing sloppy jazz. Chicago trumpeter Orbert Davis, who's heard on more than 30 albums and in a good 2,500 TV and radio commercials, spent the first weekend of this month playing big-band jazz with Arizona Jazz Academy ensembles. He was impressed by what he found.

"I got off the plane and went straight to a workshop with 50 or 60 kids, working on performance and jazz improvisation, and I could tell these kids were very serious about what they do, and the parental support was phenomenal," Davis says. "Then after dinner, we had a jam session, and the number of kids who were brave enough to hit the stage and play like that was mind-boggling."

Davis, with a master's in jazz pedagogy, works a lot with kids at jazz festivals and through his own MusicAlive! program for at-risk kids in Chicago, but he senses something unique happening at the Arizona Jazz Academy. "I don't think there's anything like it in the country," he says.

Tidabeck has covered a fair bit of territory himself. Raised in a farm town in central Illinois, he knew he wanted to be a musician just from seeing a band in the annual sweet corn parade. In his freshman year, his high school band toured Europe. "From that point on, I've always associated music education with travel," he says. So he hauls his student ensembles all over the place, too; this April, for example, he's taking his players to the Fullerton Jazz Festival in California.

Tidabeck graduated from the University of Illinois in 1982; there, the trombonist learned the importance of dynamic contrast, connection to the audience and a chamber-music approach to jazz playing. He settled for a while in California, got a master's degree and spent some time touring with big bands in the territory between Pittsburgh and Kansas City, and between Michigan and Louisville. He was lead trombonist with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra for nine years.

He settled back in central Illinois to start a music program almost from scratch at a Catholic school and ended up taking his students on a tour of European jazz festivals.

Tidaback wound up in Tucson 2 1/2 years ago and got a job as education director for the Tucson Jazz Society's elite JazzWerx program. There's no love lost between Tidaback and former Jazz Society director Sanda Schuldmann. Tidaback maintains that Schuldmann starved JazzWerx financially, and Schuldmann complains that Tidaback effectively absconded with the JazzWerx students when he started his Arizona Jazz Academy last March.

However contentious that transition may have been, Tidaback and his nine other instructors have already built the academy, which is based at Muse, into an 11-combo, 284-student program. Participants must already be active in their school music programs (unless they have no school music programs). Kids must audition to get in, but that's for placement in an appropriate combo; as long as they've been in school ensembles or private lessons for at least a year and have the basics down, they're not likely to be turned away.

Tuition for the big band costs $255 a year, and there are further fees for participation in smaller ensembles or the Monday-night music technology class, where kids learn their way around the recording studio and mixing board. "Nobody will be turned away because they don't have the money," Tidaback says. He offers scholarships and work-study programs to kids who, in the great jazz tradition, don't have much ready cash.

What students get for their money is weekly rehearsals, public concerts, participation in an annual CD and workshops with pros like Davis who advise on technique and talk about music careers. Tours cost extra, but they are partly subsidized by proceeds from the concerts.

And along the way, the students learn the differences between Monk, Mingus and Miles.

"These kids are performing," enthuses Orbert Davis, "and they're getting a good dose of the life skills they'll use in the future. Not everyone will be a musician, but I can guarantee that even the kids who will be accountants will draw upon their experience in the Arizona Jazz Academy."

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