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All that jazz

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Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2013 8:09 am | Updated: 4:16 pm, Wed Jul 30, 2014.

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.


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.”


Wayne Brown, director of music and opera for the National Endowment for the Arts, said Aebersold’s work in jazz education has helped the art form grow worldwide.

“I think the fact that a good part of his life had been devoted to taking on the role of the pied piper, if you will, for advocating the kind of interest in the art form is reflected in his demonstrated leadership,” Brown said. “I think it’s a pretty clear case that he’s out there doing his part to encourage the increasing awareness of the art form and helping Americans to recognize an important, significant art form that’s reflective of our country.”

Aebersold said he couldn’t believe it when he found out he won the award. He got a phone call and was skeptical when the voice on the other end said they were from the NEA.

“When the guy called me, I actually thought he was a salesman and he could tell that,” Aebersold said.

Brown said he remembered that conversation and said for such a big figure in jazz education, Aebersold is soft-spoken, but to-the-point.

“We spoke by telephone and it was quite a surprise,” Brown said. “He has a very quiet manner, he’s very focused on making sure his next generation of jazz must have an opportunity for good solid training and the ability to work with some of the best people out there.”

Harbison said Aebersold’s reach goes beyond his ability to play and the venues he’s performed in all over the world. He said his teaching has impacted jazz more than anything else.

“I think it's fantastic,” Harbison said. “Jamey really is a world-class sax player, but he’s really made his mark in the world in a big way with teaching and writing how the music works and how people learn to play.”

About to turn 74, Aebersold said he hopes the interest in learning jazz doesn’t subside, but he said he’s glad he’s had a role in spreading the gospel of what he calls “America’s music.”

“I think getting the award, and so many people know Jamey Aebersold from the book or the record and have never met me, it might help elevate jazz in general,” Aebersold said. “These people are out playing in their basement and their bedroom and so forth and they’re not thinking of themselves as being a musician. It might elevate their sense of worth and maybe help their creativity a little bit.”


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