Tuesday, January 8, 2008

MacPhail: The Hub of Everything Music


The MacPhail Center for Music celebrated its centennial last year. It’s one of the nation’s few (and among the largest in terms of population served) community-based music education centers. Current MCM serves over 7500 students of all ages, from infants to seniors through a diverse array of programs, including study of 35 instruments and voice under the direction of 165+ instructors. You can learn to write as well as sing songs, play in a jazz ensemble or string quartet, learn how to listen to music or trace the history of jazz. There’s also a unique music therapy program that supports individuals with various developmental challenges. And for those outside the immediate reach of downtown Minneapolis, there are outreach sites through schools and community partnerships.

Music education doesn’t end in the classroom at MacPhail. Their mission to bring music to the entire community comes to life through several series of public performances—including master classes, faculty and student recitals, a jazz series, international music series, and a very enjoyable “Bach’s Lunch” series of noon concerts. And through a recent partnership with the Dakota Foundation for Jazz Education, MacPhail Jazz Director Kelly Rossum leads a selected high school ensemble, the Dakota Combo.

Last year I attended my first master class, a two-hour lesson and demonstration from Chicago-based jazz vocalist Janice Borla. I don’t sing. But I listen to vocalists. Sitting in on the master class (for a mere $5) was a golden opportunity to learn more about what I hear at vocal gigs and to see how vocal jazz can be taught. Personally I did not emerge with any singing skills, but my jazz listening has improved significantly. Those student vocalists who were brave enough to serve as demo subjects undoubtedly came away with much more.

This fall and early winter, along with a handful of “jazz buddies” from various related activities, I’ve enjoyed weekly sessions of Jazz 101, taught by Kelly Rossum. (Been reading Pamela’s blog? She has reported on our progress all along the way— http://www.bebopified.blogspot.com/ ). The content was a winner to start with—understanding various styles of jazz in an historical context; Kelly took us beyond the textbook through discussion (starting, and ending, with the inevitable “What Is Jazz?”) and guided listening to his personal choices for each era and style. We heard classics from the icons like Miles Davis but we also heard more obscure recordings from the likes of Gunther Schuller and even local gems such as the Slide Huxtable Quartet. There was only one course text but Kelly stimulated our thinking and soon I had acquired a half dozen more books and CDs. This spring we look forward to continuing our dialogue through Kelly’s new Jazz Book Club course, an in-depth consideration of four wide-ranging books and listening to related music. We’re also pushing him to develop Jazz 201, 301, 401 and beyond.

The Bach’s Lunch program is somewhat on the order of the Landmark Court Room series in St. Paul, hosted by the Schubert Club and featuring one or two often-young artists, usually of a classical bent, in a monthly noon concert at Landmark Center. At MacPhail, donors host an invitation-only box lunch an hour before the performance, a means of introducing the community to MacPhail and, in a very low key manner, promoting donations. No pressure, no donor cards, no follow-up pledge requests—just a pleasant hour learning about MacPhail’s programs, meeting nice people interested in music, and a very decent box lunch. The lunch group also has reserved seats for the Noon concert, which is open to the public at no charge. The music can be just about anything from classical to world to jazz, usually provided by MacPhail faculty. Last fall I attended an hour reliving the great partnership of Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass, interpreted by faculty instructors Vicky Mountain and James Allen.

This past week, MacPhail moved from its much-too-small downtown facility into a brand new, multi-million dollar modern complex near the river in what is becoming the city’s new arts corridor, with the new Guthrie Theater and Mill City Art Museum just down the street. Part of the grand opening events has been a week of “Bach’s Lunch” concerts. Today was jazz day, with Kelly Rossum and his quartet filling the main floor atrium/Gary Sipes Performance Space with swinging, quirky and elegant sound, from re-arranged classis of Strayhorn, Mingus and Monk to Kelly’s own soaring compositions. He dedicated the very lovely “Fly Away” to the recently departed Oscar Peterson, and OP would have no doubt approved. Young pianist Bryan Nichols delivered a knockout interpretation of Monk’s “Let’s Cool One,” as my friend Ruth pointed out, playing a lot more notes than Monk ever imagined. Still, it retained the playful unpredictability of Monk and the audience responded with spontaneous enthusiasm. And unique even in the smallest club venue, the instruments were truly acoustic—nothing was plugged in and there were no mikes on the scene. It was a glorious sound.

MacPhail is one of the significant cultural hubs of the Twin Cities because it promotes an essential art form—music—as an unalienable right of all citizens, regardless of background, resources, age or ability. “Music belongs to everyone,” reminds David O’Fallon, Executive Director of MacPhail. Tuition for classes is not cheap but MacPhail offers many avenues for support for those who can not afford it as well as for those for whom access is challenging. Community and corporate donations help expand their reach.

I quit flute lessons after four weeks when I was a fourth grader. I stuck with piano for five years but it was painful. Maybe if I lived in the Twin Cities 50 years ago….Still, I am here now. And MacPhail is part of my community.
Above photo: MacPhail faculty concert in spring 2007 featured vocal instructor Vicky Mountain with Chris Lomheim on piano, Kelly Rossum on trumpet, Jim Chenoweth on bass. (Photo by Andrea Canter). For information about MacPhail programs, visit their site at www.macphail.org