NORTHAMPTON—After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Elliot Ross Memorial Jazz Artists in the Schools program has returned to Northampton High School with five guest musicians teaching four sessions to students in the Jazz and Rock Improvisation Workshop.
The visiting musician teaching program is solely funded through donations from family and friends of the late Elliot Ross, a musician and graduate of the high school. Ross died at age 21 in November 2018. By request of the Ross family, the Northampton Jazz Festival established the Jazz Artists in the Schools program at Northampton High School the following year.
Donations to the program now top $15,000 and make it possible for students of music at the high school to gain insight, tips and techniques from professional, working musicians.
Led by band director Paul Kinsman, the program is a collaboration between Kinsman and Northampton Jazz Festival’s creative director and producer Paul Arslanian.
“I am so grateful for all the guest lecturers Paul Arslanian is bringing in, and the Ross family that has kept this program going,” said Kinsman. “It’s really important that we keep jazz in the schools, and this has really helped us come back strong after two years when we were silenced.”
This spring, five visiting musicians have visited the high school to teach four sessions each of Kinsman’s Jazz and Rock Improvisation Workshop, an elective scheduled during normal academic hours. Each guest musician has led a clinic and workshopped with the students on various topics around the art of improvisation to help hone their skills.
“Jazz as a genre of music is so diverse and so wide that having a different guest musician come in every week has really exposed me to different ideas that I can absorb and then incorporate into my improvisations,” said Ilan Bryant, a pianist and senior at the school. “I have also been surprised by how the diversity of the other student musicians around me has helped me grow in this class.”
The guest musicians have included Evan Arntzen, a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist who received his master’s from the Jazz Arts program at The Manhattan School of Music this spring; George Kaye, a lifelong professional jazz bassist; Gabe Childs, a guitarist and recent graduate of the Berklee School of Music; Justin Esiason, a professional trumpeter and a graduate in music at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Dave Haughey, a professional cellist, composer, teacher and improviser.
“For me, starting out improvising, listening to all of the greats play, it was really frustrating to me because it wasn’t as easy to play as they made it sound,” said Bryant. “So, to actually have seasoned musicians come in and break down improvising in all these different parts makes me appreciate how difficult, how complicated and how interesting it is, but it has also allowed me to take steps in the right direction to work on my own solo.”
The visiting musicians were given the opportunity to teach students different aspects of improvisation given their own professional experience. Topics included melodic variations in improvisation, harmonic considerations in improvisation, the role of guide tones and voicings in improvisation and the role of rhythm in improvisation.