Giving Notice

MacPhail exterior

Along with teaching trumpet and composition, I direct the jazz program at MacPhail Center for Music, one of the nation’s largest community music schools. MacPhail serves more than 7,500 students annually with 35 instruments taught by more than 165 teachers. The jazz program has over twenty faculty members and focuses primarily on small ensembles and private instruction.

MacPhail has partnered with the premier jazz venue in Minneapolis, the Dakota and the DFJE, to form an all-star high school jazz combo called the Dakota Combo. Each year, advanced high school students from around the state audition for participation in this group. They perform with a guest artist at the jazz club, tour metro area schools, and present additional concerts extending well into the summer. Guest artists have been (so far): Bobby Watson, Delfeayo Marsalis and Irvin Mayfield. Just this past year, the group recorded its first full length CD of original material. The success of this program is seen through the alumni’s scholarship and attendance at some of the most prestigious music schools in the country, including the Brubeck Institute, Berklee, Julliard, the New England Conservatory of Music, and many more.

MacPhail also presents Jazz Thursdays, a concert series focusing exclusively on small group jazz music. The list of musicians who have performed on this series in just the past three years reads like a who’s who of the Twin Cities jazz scene, and I’m not even counting the many years of running the stages at the regional jazz festivals.

Phew. That’s a lot. And there’s more, but you get the idea. Community music schools are becoming more and more important to our culture, especially during this economic crisis, and it’s a cause that I have given considerable energy to over the years. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let me fill in some history here…
As I began my DMA studies at the University of Minnesota, I was looking to earn some extra cash by teaching private lessons to younger students. Since I was more or less coming from Texas at the time, where almost all high schools hire private instructors for their students, I figured I would be able to find a similar job here in Minneapolis. Within a couple of months I heard of an opening downtown at some place called MacPhail Center for the Arts. I had no idea what this place was, and frankly, I didn’t really care, I just wanted to teach kids on the side.
I called them up and sent in my resume and they scheduled an interview and an audition for the following week. I was wondering why they wanted me to come downtown for the interview process because there wasn’t a large high school in the area. Upon arrival, the place was this old department store-looking building that was pretty quiet (it was 1:00 or so in the afternoon during the week, not prime lesson time). They told me to come up to the 3rd floor of the center and to wait out in the hallway. After seeing another University graduate student come out of the room, I was asked to come in.
First I played a couple of solos and excerpts that I had under my belt. Then I taught two sample lessons, one with a beginning adult and another one with a high school student. I was, of course, very relaxed and calm, yet engaging and polite throughout the lessons. Then there was a 40-minute interview by committee, comprised of both faculty and administration. This was when I began to be suspicious of what this “Center” really was. The interview went well. I basically just answered their questions and was clear about my DMA studies being my priority as compared to teaching. They seemed OK with that and I shook their hands and left.
On the way out of the building, I noticed a large rack of catalogs/brochures/schedules downstairs in the lobby by a service counter. THIS ENTIRE BUILDING IS A MUSIC SCHOOL!! Shit, what have I gotten myself into?!?!
They offered me the trumpet instructor job and I accepted. I would take over the current studio of SIX students. No problem! That would fit in perfectly – one evening a week during my graduate studies. Great! It was about a month later that I discovered that my grandmother took piano lessons at MacPhail in the 1920’s.
I’m ABD and digging deeper and deeper into a fascinating music scene here in Minneapolis. My studies were temporarily shelved and I began full time at the newly named MacPhail Center for Music. The trumpet studio was up to about 24 students and I was teaching all kinds of classes at MacPhail: music composition, general music, beginning theory, Jr. and Sr. High band, jazz combos, I even subbed as the teacher for a Choir rehearsal. I was at one point in time seeing around 75 students each week.

MacPhail is a community music school, I believe it’s the second or third largest in the country and a leading member of the National Guild. As public schools continue to cut their funding for the arts, these community schools are helping to fill the need for quality music education. Since I was coming from a University (read: Ivory Tower) mindset, it wasn’t obvious to me how important these community schools are to the public. It was around this time that I began to understand the mission of  “transforming lives and enriching our community through music education.”

Music is much larger than I had initially imagined. University music programs expose students to music that they can “learn” from; artistically excellent, flawless performances by the best and brightest musicians in the world. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Music is made every day in countless venues across the nation; in the trenches of music education, in the sanctuaries of churches, the basements of homeless shelters and yes, even in the showers of our homes. There’s a big gap of knowledge between knowing this fact from an intellectual perspective, and actually participating in the guidance and training of these community musicians. There is such beautiful intent behind amateur music-making, regardless of the students’ age or experience. That purity of intent is often missing from the ranks of professional musicians. This is a big deal. This is music at its most fundamental level as experienced throughout human history.
I started officially designing the Jazz Program at MacPhail. It was a perfect opportunity to bring this culturally rich music to MacPhail’s community.

“It is so disheartening to me that today our children have no idea of their country’s cultural heritage. For example, last fall while I was in Seattle during the opening ceremony of the performance arts center at my alma mater Garfield High School, a group of students gathered around me and one young man said that he was a musician and wanted advice on how to further his career. I told him “that first he had to really learn and master his craft.” Then I asked him, “Do you know who Louis Armstrong was?” He said, “I think I’ve heard of him.” I asked, “Do you know who Duke Ellington was?” He said, “No.” Again I asked, “Do you know who Dizzy Gillespie was?” Again he responded “No.” “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk?” I asked, and again he said “No.” It tore my heart apart that on this day that my alma mater was naming a building after me, that this young man had no idea who the men were that put me on their shoulders and helped shaped who I was as a young musician. Men who will forever stand at the foundation of popular music, and who I believe in years to come will be regarded as America’s Chopins, Griegs and Tchaikovskys.” – Quincy Jones, Huffington Post


After making the decision to move to New York, I knew I would have to leave MacPhail. The organization means so much to me; I was filled with butterflies when the moment had finally come. I was in a meeting with the Executive Vice President (my good friend and colleague Paul Babcock), discussing the New Year’s jazz events when I told him of my decision. His reaction was representative of almost everyone else’s – we’re going to miss you around here. Some people had been expecting the move for years and were wondering why it had taken so long, and other people were shocked to hear of the exciting new plans. Of course, the administration as a whole was very thankful for the 8-month notice! As I said at the time, and as I say now, “There is still much to do.”

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A couple of weeks ago, I received word that Adam Linz has accepted the Jazz Coordinator position at MacPhail. Congratulations Adam!

I know I’ll be following MacPhail closely in the future. The jazz program at MacPhail is like a jazz composition, once you’ve written it and played it a few times, it stands by itself. If you’re lucky, other musicians may choose to play your music while adding their own taste and style; this is when the composition takes on a life of its own. In this case, the composer is sincerely honored to have contributed something to this fine art form.

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