Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Across the Miles, We Can Learn About Miles


© Andrea Canter

Having no formal music education save piano lessons as a kid, I’ve been trying to make up for all that lost time as an aging adult. I’ve enjoyed several “Senior College” classes at St. Thomas University, although I agree with my friend Pamela that it’s an atrocious title for those of us not yet accustomed to carrying an AARP card or getting offers of discounts at the movie theater. Actually what I have enjoyed through St. Thomas are opportunities to laugh and learn with Joan Griffith, via historical overviews of jazz and Latin music, and her most recent “Conversations About Jazz,” an engaging series of interviews and musical exchanges with local artists. She’s reprising this with a new set of “Conversations” starting in March, so if you’ve reached the magic age of 55, check it out at http://www.stthomas.edu/csce


Most of my recent jazz education has come from the MacPhail Center for Music. MacPhail serves students as young as toddlers to super seniors in their 80s and 90s, from those seriously pursuing instrumental and vocal music studies to those like me seeking to better understand and appreciate music to become more astute listeners. Before he left for New York, I had completed four such classes with Kelly Rossum. We were a relatively small group (6-8 per class) and the format was an informal seminar, the materials a variety of readings and recordings, the real core the interaction among students and instructor. One of the earlier classes included Miles Davis’ autobiography; later (in “Jazz Book Club”) we spent a good deal of time on Ashley Kahn’s Kind of Blue, zeroing in on the musical and social context surrounding what is generally considered Miles’ most significant work.

Kelly has left MacPhail, and we’re hoping new jazz coordinator Adam Linz will soon schedule some similar classes. But now MacPhail and Kelly Rossum have come up with a new twist on jazz education—an online class, again aimed at adult (high school and up) learners with or without a background in music. And the topic? Miles Davis! Kelly had mentioned a desire to teach a course specific to Miles, and perhaps his departure from MacPhail (and at least for now, a departure from teaching) prompted him to move ahead and develop course content while working with MacPhail on the technological challenges of online education. And it is an experiment—if this first online course proves successful, it opens the doors to a lot more ideas for bringing music education to a much wider universe than the Twin Cities. Already one of the largest community education schools in the country, MacPhail could bring its philosophy of “music for everyone” to, literally, everywhere with a high speed connection.

But first, Miles Davis. Starting February 1st, Kelly plans to post a weekly series of essays he has assembled about Miles and his music, along with recommended tracks from selected recordings (excerpts online, full tracks available via iTunes, full recordings recommended). From there students and “guide” (Kelly’s preferred title) interact online. Maybe it will not have the same impact as a live, in-real-time discussion. But it will have some compensating advantages—we don’t need to agree on a time to meet. If one week is too busy, I can double up my effort the following week. I can sit back, listen, and think and rethink my responses to questions and others’ comments. I can go back to something later and listen again, read again. If I need more than the 11 weeks of the official course schedule, I can take my time. Maybe I’ll finish the last segment in July instead of May. I’ve never taken an online class (I did do some online course design once, and it seemed like a lot more work of the instructor than a typical face-to-face class!), it will be a new experience.

And who knows who might be in a class taught online? Maybe a young trumpeter attending music school on the West coast? Maybe a PR agent from Miami? Maybe a music teacher from Buffalo? Maybe a jazz critic from Montana? Maybe another jazz fan from London? The classroom will be my home computer and internet connection; my classmates from the world of jazz enthusiasts who become part of the expanded MacPhail family.

And you can never learn too much about Miles Davis. This could be another “Birth of the Cool”!

You can still register for Jazz Giants: Miles Davis online at MacPhail—visit www.macphail.org for online registration; see more about this class at www.jazzink.com or http://www.jazzpolice.com/content/view/8786/79/

Image: A composite of a Miles Davis press photo and Andrea Canter’s shot of Kelly Rossum from August 2009.