November 12th, 2015
A good music teacher can infuse inspiration and instill a lifelong love of music. I couldn’t relate at all to my super straight, rigid piano teacher when I was seven or eight, plus there was simply no great music to be had in the Schnabel household, save for the 45 rpm 7″ R&B sides my older brother brought home. So I stopped taking lessons. I resumed piano lessons in the late 1960s but lost inspiration.
I bought a cheap flute in a pawn shop near USC where I was in school and had several teachers, but none worked out. One was classical only so I couldn’t relate. Another teacher later on just wanted to get high and blow. The next one left town. Four years ago, however, I found a great teacher, a multi-reed player who has taught me a lot and I’ve studied with him ever since.
So, here is my humble tribute to honor six great teachers who not only taught well but inspired many great musicians onto greatness:
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979):
Based in Paris and living a long and productive life, she taught such a wide range of young musicians: classic titans such as Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, but also young turks like Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein, and Astor Piazzolla, who studied with her and once told me “she taught me how to be Astor Piazzolla”. She also was a fine conductor, leading the Boston Symphony and New York Philharmonic Orchestras. She taught the basics to musicians and composers who were puzzled at first because they thought this was beneath their talents. Philip Glass told me that Boulanger told him to “play a C scale for the next week, and perfectly”. Her students came to realize that she knew what she was talking about.
Walter Dyett (1901-1969):
Many prominent jazz musicians I’ve interviewed credit this Chicago Public Schools music educator as starting their careers as musicians. His name was Walter Dyett, and they called him Captain Walter Dyett. He taught at DuSable High School, where he was known for being a strict disciplinarian but, more importantly, he encouraged his students to open their ears and minds to all kinds of music. Like other great teachers, he was a great motivator. He also helped students find private instructors at low cost. Among his students were Gene Ammons, Johnny Hartman, Milt Hinton, Richard Davis, Bo Diddley, Wilbur Ware, Pat Patrick, and Oscar Brashear. Quite a stable of greats, indeed.
Gerald Wilson (1918-2014):
Gerald Wilson was a jazz trumpeter and band leader, arranger, composer, host and teacher. He took over arranging duties for the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, replacing Sy Oliver when just out of his teens in 1939. He also arranged for Nancy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and many other top jazz stars.
He was host of an informative jazz radio show on KBCA in the early 1970s at 12 noon every weekday, and I listened and learned from him. He became the most popular teacher at Cal State Northridge, later duplicating this feat at UCLA. He taught thousands of students about jazz music and history, and mentored countless young musicians during his long career. He had a mind and memory like a steel trap, and could remember the set list of a Dunbar Hotel show on Central Avenue in the 1940s. He taught and inspired so many musicians who rose through his ranks and played in his orchestras: Buddy Collette, Eric Dolphy, Oscar Brashear, and many others. I would always attend his Pilgrimage Theater (now John Anson Ford Theater ) show back in the day. He lived a long and productive life teaching, arranging and conducting for Lou Rawls, Nancy Wilson, Lorez Alexandria, and others. He was truly one of my heroes. I helped arrange Mayor Garcetti’s tribute to him and presented a plaque and commendation to him at the Angel City Jazz Festival in September, 2014. He died just two days later at the ripe old age of 96.
Samuel Browne (1906-1991):
This great teacher and mentor taught many great jazz musicians during his long tenure at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles from 1936-1961, and a who’s who of great jazz musicians have sung his praises: Dexter Gordon, Don Cherry, Eric Dolphy, Wardell Gray, Hampton Hawes, Frank Morgan, Chico Hamilton, Buddy Collette, Charles Mingus and Horace Tapscott are just a few who got there chops and careers together at Jefferson High during his long tenure. Browne would scout around LA during Central Avenue’s heyday during the 1940s and early 1950′s recruiting talent from other local schools for his crack jazz orchestra. Everybody gave him the honorific title “Count” Browne à la Count Basie. Browne was one of only three black high school teachers in the LAUSD when he was hired at Jefferson in 1936, after earning a master’s degree in music from USC.
Joe Allard (1910-1991):
Joe Allard is probably the least-known of this sextet of music educators, but ask any professional saxophonist and you’ll hear plenty about him. Based in New York City, where he taught at the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music, he also taught at Boston’s New England Conservatory. He played sax and clarinet for the NBC Symphony Orchestra as well as doing radio and TV shows. HIs importance came not only in teaching technique but also in the range of styles he taught. Among his students were Michael Brecker, Eddie Daniels, Dave Liebman, Bob Berg, Eric Dolphy, and Dave Tofani. Again, a who’s who of great reed players were inspired by him.
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990):
Perhaps the greatest polymath of all, Bernstein did so many things well, and was obviously at home in both musicals (Westside Story, Candide, etc), the New York, Philharmonic, and jazz. He was a prolific writer and speaker (The Unanswered Question / The Harvard Lectures), and a champion of the new music of Charles Ives as well as Mahler’s great symphonies. His series Young People’s Concerts / Jazz in the Concert Hall brought jazz, classical, and music education to thousands of people young and old. Here is an excerpt where he is teaching the difference between classical music and jazz.
Tom Schnabel, M.A.