Clem DeRosa


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Dr. Lee Bash

My Random House Webster's College Dictionary defines a pioneer in its second definition as: "one who is first or among the earliest in any field of inquiry, enterprise, or progress" and in its eighth definition, it continues: "to lead the way for a group, guide." I believe it's essential to establish this perspective from the onset since this article takes its title from a recent CD that IAJE has become beneficiary to. The title of the CD is Clem DeRosa - Pioneer of Jazz Education. Now that the CD has been available for nearly a year, I was astonished to learn that the response among IAJE members has been rather lukewarm, until I realized that too much critical time has probably passed for a significant number of our membership to immediately recognize the value of this rich resource. It's similar to walking past a valuable gem and assuming it's only glass - you have to recognize the value of something before you can appreciate it and sometimes it's hard to imagine that anything that's so readily available could possibly have such incredible worth. So let's start with why every jazz educator should possess a copy of The Pioneer of Jazz Education.

For starters, this CD is almost certainly the most powerful example of early jazz education available to educators today. But it is so much more than merely an historical "document" - it is an impressive model which, while informing us about our roots, also demonstrates how the concepts of great time, balance, precision, overall sound, and fundamental mastery could exist even at this early stage of jazz education. In fact - and let's be candid - there may be some legitimate reluctance to place much of a premium on many of the early works of school jazz ensembles. The arrangements were often inferior or deficient when compared with what is currently available. The students (as well as many of the directors) might easily have often been overwhelmed by the task of playing in an ensemble with so few models to guide them. Therefore, one might assume that their efforts may have been deficient when compared with some of today's brilliant performances. But mark my words, this recording is the exception to the rule.

Soon after I was first knocked out by listening to this recording, I contacted Clem DeRosa to get more information. For those of you unfamiliar with Clem's background, it is stellar. He is still the most active "retired" person I know, and his credentials are what we all would aspire towards (though few could achieve). He was one of the founders of IAJE, a past president a professional musician who has let practically every "ghost" band known to our culture. He continues to influence and inform jazz education today, contributing on a number of levels among an incredibly diverse range of educational missions and activities. Here's a little of our conversation.

LB: You were producing this music with kids when there weren't any other models for them to hear or see - other than professionals. What was the vision you were able to impart to them: your objectives and aspirations for them?

CD: From the beginning, through the music, I wanted them to develop self discipline, confidence, and patience. I also wanted them to be a part of a productive team, to have fun - in short, I wanted them excited and to feel good about what they were doing.

LB: Was there much resistance to jazz education at that time? How much did you encounter?

Anything particularly memorable?

CD: Well, perhaps not so much resistance as skepticism. I so remember early on that, at a county meeting a number of my fellow band directors questioned the approach I was using to build my band program. For me, it was just a pragmatic solution. I needed to develop a motivator for a young program while also adding visibility. I insisted that all students needed to be in concert band and marching band in order to participate in the jazz program. I think that helped establish credibility among my colleagues because eventually, some of the very individuals who had initially questioned me started adding jazz instruction to their programs as well.

LB: Tell us about your rehearsal schedule for these groups.

CD: Rehearsals took place outside the regular school day. For instance, the high school group met once per week in the evening, from 7:00 - 9:00. That made for a very long day for many of the kids who started with marching band rehearsals at 7:30 in the morning!

But probably what was more crucial was how we put that time to use. Every rehearsal was devoted to our primary focus: time, sound, and interpretation were perpetually emphasized. Let me explain how this worked.

We always started with "time" since I think this is the most important element in jazz. We would rehearse sections without the rhythm section playing (though they would be actively involved with their own tasks.) We would move players around a lot within sections. And during our improv class, we would ask soloists to perform with just piano or bass accompaniment in order to lock in the time (for both soloist and bass/piano). We also devoted special attention to the rhythm section to insure that they played as a team. Furthermore we focused on each member of the section understanding his or her role as well as recognizing how to fit in with the remainder of the section.

To address "sound," we started by carefully making adjustments for embouchures and choosing mouthpieces. For instance, every student who played saxophone played baritone sax for one semester. I felt like it was important for them to learn how to fill their horn and to play and listen at the bottom of the harmonic structure. We also constantly emphasized articulation, blend, balance, dynamics, and we coordinated these elements through a series of exercises. For the "interpretation," I was fortunate to be able to draw from my professional experience. We used syllables with legato/staccato applications extensively. Students learned to sing parts as well as apply various articulation syllables in their scales and exercises. And by the way, any student who said they wanted to major in music in college had to enroll in at least one semester of choir as well. All this really seemed to make a big difference. We also had sight reading take place in every rehearsal...and we finished each rehearsal with a swing chart just because we were always thinking about maintaining a groove.

LB: Clem, I can assure you that anyone who listens to this CD will immediately understand how much of a foundation this provided for your students. It seems like you did extensive performing - often outside your school district. Was that very unusual at that time and how difficult was it for your overall program?

CD: For me, performance is the essential element - these students had sacrificed a great deal of their time and efforts - and performances were their payoffs. This also helped develop pride and ability all at the same time. Our elementary school ensembles played in the district as often as possible. Because they were so involved in helping transport these kids around, we got parents involved in selecting the performance schedule as well. For me, the culmination of all this took place when these youngsters played before more than 5,000 people at the national Kiwanis Club Convention. Not one of the students showed the least bit of fear - they were just poised and attentive to the task.

At the middle school level, one of the highlights came when we played in a jazz festival with various professional groups. We were reviewed in Metronome Magazine and the caption read "Big Band Makes Comeback but Sidemen Smaller Than Ever."

And at the high school level, we were incredibly busy. We played at dances and proms to help pay for our travel expenses. We played the first coast-to-coast TV half-time show for a professional football game. We recorded for Voice of America. We played at the Newport Jazz Festival. We played on the Johnny Carson Show. We played at Leonard Bernstein's home with Dr. Billy Taylor and Dizzy Gillespie. We did concerts with Marian McPartland, Clark Terry, Rex Stewart and so many others.

After all the rehearsals, hard work, and dedication, I feel performing becomes the moment of truth. Performance will prove if the band can implement their skills under fire before an audience or group of adjudicators. Are they as good as they think? Can they and the director accept the criticisms of the judges? It is important to discuss, analyze, and digest the judge's criticisms and make whatever adjustments are necessary. This kind of introspection helps maintain the quality of your performances. It also controls the surfacing of egos which tend to interfere with the need to keep learning. It is important to have this balance between confidence and humility maintained by the director.

LB: Why should today's jazz educators want to listen to THIS CD? How will they benefit directly? How might their program benefit from being exposed to this CD?

CD: It seems clear that the CD could be used as a motivational tool to dispel myths about limitations. It does illustrate what levels can be achieved. Both students and teachers must feel that with hard work, dedication, patience, and strong determination, this level of performance can be accomplished. But they must possess all of the previously mentioned qualities plus good playing and the understanding of these materials in order to be effective. And directors need to encourage and continually evaluate the efforts of the students in a positive, honest, and realistic manner if they're going to maximize their impact.I also think this CD demonstrates that students of any age can participate in jazz performance and that, on many levels, high school students can actually play professional-level material. Of course, the director still needs to be particularly attentive to brass range and good breath support, but there are few limitations with the right circumstances.

Finally, this CD proves that improvisation can be achieved among youngsters as long as there is a well-planned program which moves carefully and continues to emphasize simple harmonies, with students playing sound time and swing feels. I've always contended that our goal should not be to have great improvisers but to increase knowledge and help students gain confidence so that they will eventually reach out and grow on their own.

LB: Some of the music is probably now thought of as "jazz standards" but some pieces may not be as familiar to today's jazz educators. What can you tell us about the jazz literature available to you at that time?

CD: Well, you're right. I was forced to write and arrange all the charts that the elementary and junior high school groups played. Although I'm now a drummer, I played sax and clarinet for four years before I started drums. And I played trumpet and trombone for one year each in college so I was very sensitive to the kids' needs. But it was still pretty labor-intensive.

At the high school level, 1962 was an important moment because we began getting publisher's "onion skins" (this is the stage just prior to publishing) for us to read down and make certain that they worked well and that they were accurate. And then, in 1963, Billy Byers sent us 17 charts he had recorded with Count Basie. By that time, I also had some extremely talented students who were busy writing as well and that helped too. Finally, throughout that period, there were many of the professional bands who were providing us with copies of their charts - Thad Jones, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, etc. - long before they were commercially available.

LB: It seems that whenever anyone thinks about early jazz education, they inevitably think "big band" and yet Clem, you were working with combos even then. Can you talk a bit about your work in this area.

CD: In both junior high school and high school, I quickly developed the improv class as a means to encourage all students to form their own combos. They could choose any members they wanted, but the guidelines applied regardless. They had to select new music that we weren't rehearsing in ensembles. They had to select music from instruments other than their own. Their improv was never to be written out. The emphasis was on learning to stretch out and develop their own ideas. And the main thing we discouraged was students who employed "rambling" ideas so that we were (once again) reinforcing the notion of developing full ideas and musicality. Combo playing is essential to develop jazz players. They brought energy and creativity to the large ensemble.

LB: Tell us about your sense of how assembling this material to share with IAJE members has affected your thoughts since I'm certain you can't just revisit such a powerful set of memories without being profoundly moved.

CD: I want you to know that the accomplishments and growth of jazz education have been a source of tremendous pride for me, and I want to thank all the directors and students who made the sacrifices to help make my dream a reality. I only hope students and directors can make good use of this CD.

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