What a difference a mentor makes
Jazz confidence grows when visitors join forces with faculty.
Renowned jazz trumpeter Terell Stafford was slated to visit MSU for a week in March, but his residency was postponed because of state- and nationwide emergency shutdowns related COVID-19.
Although Stafford’s residency will be rescheduled, the 2019-20 MSUFCU Jazz Artist in Residence visits included trumpeter Tanya Darby in October, drummer Kenny Washington in December, and pianist Bruce Barth in February. The three artists brought their skills to MSU through the program that has provided a venue for contemporary jazz masters to mentor aspiring jazz musicians since 2013
Like previous jazz artists in residence, Darby, Washington and Barth also toured with MSU jazz orchestras and ensembles to schools across Michigan, delivering an exceptional opportunity for students to learn from virtuosos who are equally accomplished as educators, composers and arrangers.
We asked three Jazz Studies students to take a bit of time to reflect on what their time with these guest artists gave them. Here are their stories.
Darby and Davis
MSU jazz bassist and composer Jordyn Davis first heard about trumpeter Tanya Darby from Mimi Jones, a prominent jazz bassist and one of the MSUFCU Jazz Artists in Residence (JAR) in 2018. Jones told her Darby was doing great things in the jazz world and thought she would be a good person for Davis know. As it turns out, Ms. Jones was right. The week Davis spent with Darby brought a new-found excitement for playing jazz.
“The most important thing Tanya taught me personally about playing jazz is that you have to put your entire being into the music and use your life experiences to create and tell your story through music,” Davis said. “Most importantly, she taught me to prioritize having fun every single time you play.”
Davis said it was amazing to travel to Detroit with Darby as a member of Jazz Orchestra I, and to perform and teach alongside her at visits to schools and academies.
“Tanya is a natural educator,” Davis remarked. “She really understands how to connect with people no matter who they are. She’s incredibly kind, understanding, and has the most positively infectious energy I’ve ever encountered in a person.”
Washington and Reed
Michael J. Reed gave a lot of energy to his jazz drumming as a master’s student graduating this year. Despite shuttered studios, practice rooms and recital halls brought about by COVID-19, he feels intrinsically motivated to continue to work on the licks and solos that add texture to jazz.
His lead instructor, Randy "Uncle G" Gelispie, and the rest of the MSU jazz faculty are all major influences, but in December 2019 he had a pivotal experience that he said will shape his life for years to come.
Reed was a member of MSU’s Jazz Orchestra I that toured with Kenny Washington, a hard-bop revivalist, session drummer, and jazz historian. He said he found inspiration both before and after Michigan’s stay-at-home orders changed daily life.
“Kenny Washington was great to be around,” said Reed. “He was very knowledgeable about music and the drums and very accessible. You didn’t have to be a certain way to talk to him. He never criticized if you didn’t know something, and always took time to explain.”
Reed recalled the tour bus ride with Washington, en route to one of the school visits integral to the JAR program. He said Washington pulled from his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, asking if students had checked out certain records or albums, and even cueing up cuts on a first generation iPod he carries with him.
“I know if he could have, he would have brought along his own record player and albums,” said Reed. “It was amazing to see the depth of his knowledge, and to benefit from the time he took to expound on that knowledge and show us things.”
Reed recently bought some new practice sticks and pads and is going through the stack of music that Washington passed along to him. He remembers the impromptu lesson that Washington held with him in a school hallway in between sessions, and mentioned how Washington said he could call him if he ever had a question.
“I had a question about a rudiment and technique last week, so I called him,” he said. “He took the time to explain things to me over the phone. It was remarkable.”
Bruce and Bijan
Bijan Taghavi lived in New York for a few years and always wanted to check out the acts at the Smoke Jazz and Supper Club. But it wasn’t until he moved to East Lansing that he met the jazz pianist whose name he frequently saw on the marquee.
In February, Taghavi was among Jazz Studies students and members of the Jazz Octets I who toured and performed with Bruce Barth. Taghavi said he will always remember the 90-minute conversation he had with Barth after a long day of touring schools, and the anecdotes Barth shared about living the jazz life.
“He was always looking to get to know students better as people,” said Taghavi, a master’s student in jazz piano performance. “He wouldn’t let anyone call him Mr. Barth or Professor Barth. ‘Call me Bruce,’ he would say. I think that allowed his insights to get through to students more effectively because it showed he didn’t care about hierarchy, and that we’re all learning this music together.”
Taghavi said Barth boosted his confidence by mentioning the positives in his playing, and offering pointers. Taghavi also reflected that Barth’s visit—despite being only a week-long—profoundly enhanced his MSU experience, and left him with solid ideas for approaching and practicing the art of jazz.
Taghavi occasionally draws on the inspiration of Barth’s nuanced and beautiful compositions while he stays and studies at home because of COVID-19. And while he is limited to a home keyboard and can’t perform live with other musicians, he has managed to devise creative methods to learn, practice and make music.
“I still make sure to interact with friends by playing music virtually, and FaceTime daily with my circle of friends and close mentors,” he said. “Fortunately, as musicians, not only is music our career, but it also functions as an escape during these troubling times.”