Monday, August 17, 2009

Growing Musicians, Feeding the Fire

© Andrea Canter

Saturday night I attended a true “house party,” where musicians gather for an organized presentation to an invited audience in a private home. No professional sound system, in fact no amplification at all. Just a grand piano, a full drumset, an upright bass. We dubbed it a Jazz Cram Session, given the tight space for performers and tighter space in adjacent rooms for folding chairs. The core musicians were three college students and former teen cohorts who play together as much as possible on school vacations; the party was organized by the bassist’s parents as a means of presenting their talents to an audience of not-necessarily-jazz fans but interested friends and neighbors.

These guys do get gigs on their own. Javier Santiago, pianist/arranger/composer, was on the bandstand at the Dakota last night filling in with Doug Little’s Seven Steps to Havana. A month ago, he and his trio had their own gig at the Dakota, and he just returned from a quick gig in California. After two years at the Brubeck Institute, he’s off to complete college studies at the New School in Manhattan. On bass, and host for the evening was Daniel Duke, student of jazz at the William Paterson University in New Jersey. Daniel and Javier were partners in the first edition of the Dakota Combo, the Twin Cities high school version of a Brubeck Institute ensemble. On drums was Miguel Hurtado, graduate of Minneapolis South High and heading back for his final year at the Manhattan School of Music, and long-time musical partner of Javier at South High and many other youth bands. On several tunes, the trio was joined by trombonist Ben Link, also an alum of the first Dakota Combo, Daniel’s classmate at St. Paul Central, and now a student at the McNally Smith College of Music. And on two tunes, a young woman named Berit added vocals like a pro. She's a new high school graduate headed to Brown. Like any small community in the arts, the young jazz musicians of the Twin Cities have been finding each other, and jamming together, for years.

Jamming together is not really accurate. They’ve been working, collectively and individually, when no one told them they had to practice. When it was not homework for band class. Before there even was a band class. What sets serious young musicians apart from the many band students enrolled in middle and high schools each year is their degree of commitment, a dedication that comes from within. It’s an internal hard drive loaded with RAM and memory chips, and its own energy source. And passion. They don’t need external rewards to play, to practice, to study. They might need to be told to stop and get some sleep!

Most remarkable isn’t how much they accomplish under the guidance of band directors, private instructors, jazz camp leaders, but what they accomplish outside of the organized learning and performing experiences. For the house party, these guys, age 20-21, had composed the music, written the charts, provided direction as need to their fellow musicians, rehearsed. They spend hours honing their chops. They are their own agents, they make their own contacts, find their own gigs.

Of course now they are young adults. But already they have years of experience with the tasks of professional musicians. They have been composing, practicing, gigging, listening, learning, promoting since their early teens. All this while completing school, now completing college programs.

And they are not alone in their singular pursuit of careers that allow them to explore their passions in full. The young musicians who have been part of the Dakota Combo program for the past three years, generally 16-17 year-olds when they audition, similarly show this precocious professionalism whether engaged in organized rehearsals under adult direction or in finding and following through on private or public gigs. They constantly listen to the music that inspires their own, compose, arrange and rearrange, seek out new partners who share that passion, look for new learning opportunities.

I was most impressed in the past year with a quintet dubbing themselves The Alternates. With the exception of the bassist, who was selected for a second year with the Dakota Combo, these guys were all “alternates” for the Combo, and honor with no new opportunities. So they formed their own band, organized their own weekly rehearsals, sought their own gigs, wrote or arranged their own tunes. They were, in essence, “a band” –a group that developed its own sound, its own repertoire. Without adult guidance, without “assignments” or externally imposed rules or timelines. They just did it. And did it very well.

At the house party, we (the mostly-nonmusician, older-adults-in-awe) remarked about the level of passion and follow-through of these young men. But it’s really part of a bigger chain. Although not universal, supporting many of these bright talents is an equally strong commitment from families, from parents, to give them the green light, to give them permission, to give them wide berth to propel themselves into that musical universe. Parents somehow create those first opportunities, by directly introducing music and encouraging an instrument, or by affirming a youngster’s first expressions of interest, or simply by not blocking or deflecting the first spark. Then there’s transporting to lessons, paying for lessons, finding lessons, listening to hours of practice, providing space for the band. And cheering them on as if they were quarterbacks or goalies rather than saxophonists or drummers. And later? Refinancing the house, putting off vacations, whatever it takes to be sure that an acceptance at Juilliard or Manhattan or Berklee is more than an honor, but also a reality. And knowing that in the end, that music degree won’t likely translate into a lucrative job to pay back the loans.

The internal flame that fuels artistic passion burns on its own, and among the most gifted, it burns early. But having a support system to fan those flames makes a huge difference.

Thanks to the young artists who share their gifts. And thanks to the families who share their young artists.
Photos: (Top -bottom), Javier Santiago (at the Artists Quarter in 2008); Daniel Duke; Miguel Hurtado (Daniel and Miguel at the Dakota in July 2009). (Photos by Andrea Canter)