Monk Institute Increases West Coast Presence
A roving, moveable feast of an operation, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz has been making waves and introducing new young voices to jazz for a quarter century, more of an institution in motion than a physical locality. As of this fall, for instance, it has returned its Jazz Performance program to Los Angeles. The timing and institutional linkage is especially auspicious, as the Monk Institute lands within the UCLA music program, which has recently expanded its ambitions in recent years, thanks to the financial and moral support of Herb Alpert’s $30 million gift in 2007. The move follows a four-year, post-Katrina “Commitment to New Orleans” initiative at Loyola University New Orleans, from which two classes (2009 and 2011) have graduated.
Among the advantages of the Los Angeles area, and UCLA, is the proximity to artists based in the area or passing through, a point made clear on Dec. 6 when the Institute’s band was treated to a master class with legends Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, both L.A. residents who are invested in the Monk Institute (Hancock is its chairman). In a small room in what is now dubbed “the Herb Alpert School of Music” on campus, a group of onlookers, VIPs, press and musicians gathered, in a room blessed with the presence of Thelonious Monk’s longtime piano— replete with cigarette burns in the stool—and Shorter’s old piano—replete with marks and other evidence of creative fervor.
Clearly, the seven musicians chosen as the inaugural class of the Institute in its new west coast home are far along in their development, on every level. They are: trumpeter Mike Cottone, alto saxist Josh Johnson, trombonist Eric Miller, drummer Jonathan Pinson, bassist Dave Robaire, pianist Miro Sprague and Chilean vibraphonist Diego Urbano. This was an elite team chosen by, among other notables, UCLA teachers James Newton, longtime UCLA faculty member Kenny Barron and Jimmy Heath.
Chris Waterman, the Dean of Art and Architecture who, along with Monk Institute co-founder Tom Carter, helped facilitate the Institute’s westward move, offered an introduction to the master class. He mentioned that Alpert’s “support has been just terrific for us here at UCLA. It has allowed us to build on strengths that we’ve always had, traditionally. Among music programs in American higher education, we have had an ethnomusicology program here for 50 years, which is very unusual. And we have popular music scholars.
“We look at music as a whole thing here, not just one or two traditions or parts, so the fact that the Monk Institute is here now is so relevant to what we do. It has been a great experience since they arrived in the fall. The students are interacting. Classical musicians and jazz musicians are in classes together. It has turned out to be a really rich experience for us.”
Alpert introduced the special guests to the class of musicians. “You guys are two of the greatest musicians this planet has produced,” he said to Hancock and Shorter. “I know you both went to the Miles Davis university and graduated with honors.”
To kick off the musical proceedings, the band launched into drummer Pinson’s “Impervious Gent,” a cool medium swing tune in minor mode, with echoes of the kind of mid-’60s Blue Note sound that both Hancock and Shorter were pivotal in creating. Plainly impressed, Hancock and Shorter discussed the importance of being focused and finding true expression through the “chatter” of the brain and self-consciousness before an audience.
In one of his signature philosophical commentaries, Shorter commented that “if the brain does get in there, and you could say, ‘my brain is looking for my heart.’ It’s like, `Who do you think you are?’ The people talk about the heart: Where is the heart? Not this one (points to his chest). If you play with that, it’s like the Yellow Brick Road. The greatest line in Jurassic Park is ‘Life finds a way.’ Hold onto that.”
Hancock added, “One thing I heard Miles say was `Don’t ever finish nothing.’ It’s all about suggesting rather than completing. It’s like in movies. Wayne’s the expert on movies. If you go to a movie where every aspect is explained to you, five minutes after you walk out, you don’t remember the movie. But if everything is not clearly laid out on the table, there’s a lot to ponder. It also means that the next time you see that movie, you’re going to see something different.”
As Alpert pointed out, “Miles also said, “You’re always only a half a step away from the good note.” Laughter ensued in the room.
For an unusual exercise, Hancock had the band play a blues with the stipulation that each player could solo using only a single note. After a stiff and tentative first pass at the idea, he stopped the band and emphasized the importance of dynamics and “selling” the music, limitations aside. On the second time around, the one-note blues was surprisingly persuasive, and blessed with the stuff of swing.
Groupthink and the power of listening were recurring themes during the class, as Shorter told the players, “There’s something beyond just soloing. It’s possible that you can compose, solo, everything, all at once, in this new era of respect for one another, where all the cooks in the kitchen do not spoil the soup. That’s a lie. We’re going to create a new singularity in life, where all the respectful leaders respect one another with trust. It’s not a utopian thing, but a greater challenge than what we’re being subjected to now. We’re going onto becoming more and more human. It’s a great adventure, the ultimate adventure.”
Hancock expanded on the idea, noting “it’s like the 20th century was the century of ‘I am.’ The 21st century is the century of ‘We are.’ That’s where we need to be going. The individual can inspire the ‘we,’ but it’s what we do together rather than what we do apart.”
“Yeah,” Shorter continued, “it’s what we do together, based on ‘where are you?’ and not following with becoming something like what Art [Blakey] would say, ‘You play a whole lot of drums, but where are you? You got a lot of technique, but tell me your story. Tell me a story.”
Hancock laughed and added, “It’s not about playing the instrument. There are a lot of people who can play the instrument, but there only a few who, when they play, you don’t hear the instrument anymore, you hear them. When Wayne plays, I don’t hear the saxophone anymore. I hear him. I would think that’s what you want.”
At a lunch in the “green room” after the class, I mentioned to Hancock that he and Shorter approach the “master class” concept from creative and unorthodox angles. “As I was telling the students,” Hancock said. “It’s one thing to have good technique—and they’re all great players already. But you’ve got to find your voice and have something to say. It’s the same thing with teaching. Wayne and I can give them some ideas because of our experience.”
Experience meets emergence: Such is the way of the mentoring process, including in these now more jazz-fortified hallowed halls.