NEW ALBANY —
Generations of bebop musicians in high school bands, basement bars and legendary sitcoms have started off their education in jazz with records and “Play-A-Long” books, beginning with a New Albany native’s signature count-off.
“One, two, one-two-three-four,” is Jamey Aebersold’s world-famous tempo count that budding jazz players have heard for more than 50 years.
Now, Aebersold’s efforts to pass jazz on to youth have been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts, awarding him with the 2014 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.
“I’m humbled by it, but I’m glad they finally recognized jazz education,” Aebersold said. “I think almost everyone else that has gotten [one of these NEA awards] is a player, and they make records, travel and perform. I do that, but that’s not my main focus.”
After the first Play-A-Long book came out in 1967, he said he never intended to make a second edition.
Now 132 volumes later and teaching in his annual Summer Jazz Workshops at the University of Louisville, Aebersold said he’s honored to see his life’s work in jazz education recognized, but even happier to see jazz persist in interest among young people.
MAKING IT UP
Over the course of two weeks, about 600 people from all over the world packed up their saxes, trumpets, guitars and drum kits to attend Aebersold’s Summer Jazz Workshop.
Running energetically from classroom to classroom, Aebersold checked in on students and instructors to make sure they had everything they needed and occasionally interjected on the session.
Pat Harbison, professor of Jazz Studies at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus, began helping with Aebersold’s workshops in 1976.
He said he’s enjoyed teaching alongside Aebersold, but he’s known him for much longer than that.
“I’ve probably got a longer relationship with Jamey than anyone else in our faculty,” Harbison said. “When I was at Scribner [Middle School in New Albany], I had a little band that was going to play in the talent show, and the guy playing sax was taking lessons from Jamey. I knew him from church, and on Saturday mornings, he started having the kids come over to try to play jazz.”
He said from the time he was about 12 or 13 years old, he took lessons from Aebersold in his basement.
“I was going there when I was in the middle of my seventh-grade year,” Harbison said. “So all through junior high and high school, I was over at Jamey’s house. That’s where I got the introduction to jazz as a business and what I wanted to do with my career.”
Aebersold said teaching was a profession he never intended to follow, but began to enjoy once he got into it during college.
He said he originally wanted to attend the Manhattan School of Music in New York, but when he learned they didn’t teach saxophone, he attended Indiana University.
But that choice didn’t work out the way he thought, either.
“So I went to IU and when I got there, I found out they didn’t allow sax, either,” Aebersold said. “So I took a woodwind degree, which had me studying clarinet, oboe, bassoon and they let me take sax lessons from a clarinet teacher.”
Throughout his undergraduate career, he told colleagues he’d never teach, partially because he thought the students who were working to become band directors didn’t sound very good on their instruments.
But an opportunity to teach came up and with a wedding on the horizon for him, he decided to take it up.
“Then I got to thinking, ‘Is teaching private lessons, is that really teaching?’ I’m trying to justify it to myself,” Aebersold said. “I said, ‘Nah, that’s not teaching, you’re not in a band room, go ahead and take the job.’ So I took the job and found out right away that I was very good at it.”
After beginning his master’s degree, he said he started teaching private lessons in Seymour, Ind., for half an hour every Saturday. After finding out one of his flute students could improvise on a whim, he learned a lot of the others could, too.
“If you told them what scale to play, their imagination just took off,” Aebersold said.
He said about five years later, some students in a camp where he taught asked him to record some background music to practice their improvisation. Instead, he made a record.
“And then I got to thinking, ‘Wow, this is fun to practice with, but what if somebody buys this record and expects a soloist to be playing with it? I better write a book.’ And boy, that took forever, it seemed like. How do you improvise?”
Harbison said Aebersold opened up a new way to learn jazz, especially since there were so few outlets available before he began publishing his books.
“Before Jamey came along, jazz was something somebody learned in a clandestine fashion,” Harbison said. “Jazz players were always kind of like this secret society and if you knew the handshake, they would share what they knew. He’s made the world of jazz available to all sorts of people, from amateurs, to hobbyists, to students and professionals.”
Aebersold’s students have gone on to teach, play professionally and reach various levels of stardom after learning from him.
He said one of his students, Jonathan Wolff, created the music for “Seinfeld,” which ran for 180 episodes from 1989 to 1998.
He said though it always feels good to see his students succeed, he’s gotten used to it over the last 50 years.
“If I give them good information and they apply it, who knows where they’re going to end up? I think at the same time, I almost expect it, I don’t know why I say that,” Aebersold said. “I guess I’ve just been around these people so long that I’m accustomed to that.”