Thursday night in the Green
Jazz School: Three generations of HSPVA grads show working students that themusic can last
Back in January of this year, pianist, former Houston resident and High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) grad Jason Moran presented “713 to 212: Houstonians in NYC,” a two-night concert series at the 92nd Street Y. Several of the participating musicians were alums of HSPVA enjoying careers in New York City, Los Angeles, Nashville and beyond.
The New York Times described the shows as "sophisticated and totally joyous concerts."
This Thursday at 7 p.m., Discovery Green presents a similar event: "Three Tenors with a Jazz Twist," featuring three generations of HSPVA grads in saxophonists Geof Bradfield, Shelley Carrol and Walter Smith III. Bradfield, Carrol and Smith will each perform on their own and with the current HSPVA Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Dr. Robert “Doc” Morgan, with Warren Sneed as emcee.
No word whether, like Moran's New York shows, this free concert will include arrangements of tunes by Houston artists Johnny "Guitar" Watson and the Geto Boys, but no doubt it’ll be an exciting night of music.
The direct correlation between arts in the classroom and academic achievement is well documented, and yet fewer and fewer schools in our country are able to offer much if any exposure to the arts, let alone any kind of artistic or musical training. Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, with roots going back to 1971, remains an example of “what works” when rigorous artistic training is combined with academic programming.
“Houston is way behind in getting the credit for its accomplishments," says Discovery Green programming director Susanne Theis. "But hopefully it's catching up.”
Dance, Instrumental and Vocal Music, Theatre Arts, and Visual Arts are all offered for study at HSPVA.
“HSPVA provides an environment in which students can explore their passion,” says saxophonist Warren Sneed, director of the school’s Jazz Studies program. “Jazz is taken as seriously at our school as classical music.”
Big band, combo and ancillary classes that address improvisation and other fundamentals of jazz are a crucial part of its instrumental program. As former HSPVA Jazz Studies director Dr. Robert “Doc” Morgan explains, "Students emerge with a great deal of harmonic sophistication, and this is a direct result of the Jazz Fundamentals and Improvisation classes.”
They may even find themselves playing weddings, so long as the initial request is to play jazz, not Toto’s greatest hits.
There are also opportunities for Jazz Studies students to perform in public, including events at Miller Outdoor Theatre and Discovery Green. They may even find themselves playing weddings, so long as the initial request is to play jazz, not Toto’s greatest hits.
Regarding such performance opportunities (i.e. "gigs"), Morgan says, “Any young musician is scared to death when first performing in public, and this can affect the musical result. But, like anything, the more one does it, the more one relaxes and enjoys it. So, when our students arrive in NYC and begin getting calls for gigs, there’s no panic.
"They’ve 'been there, done that,' and I think this has a lot to do with the many, many successes our students have enjoyed after moving on.”
Nice Work If You Can Get It
But how does one create and sustain a career playing jazz? Once the students playing on this Thursday’s bill graduate, what can they expect?
“I do believe that anyone who has a deep love for this music as well as the dedication to work relentlessly at it will find a home in the music," Bradfield says. “There is certainly struggle ahead for any serious young musician, and the rewards are often intangible. But they are significant and, for me, outweigh any obstacles along the way.”
“The short answer is that you can get out of it what you put into it,” Smith says. “HSPVA provides a great foundation that gives its graduates a huge head start over students in the rest of the country, and those that keep that work ethic can expect to do well going into college and beyond.”
“I do believe that anyone who has a deep love for this music as well as the dedication to work relentlessly at it will find a home in the music," Bradfield says.
Both Bradfield and Carrol acknowledge the professional musician can expect to wear many hats, including that of a bandleader, band member, composer, educator and grant writer.
However, theater and studio work, as well as residuals from commercial work, is no longer the reliable and fecund field it was 20 years or more ago. And changes in technology have impacted the music business in ways both positive and negative that no one anticipated.
But some things haven’t changed. “The truth is that individuals that go on to enjoy successful careers in jazz, or really in any of the art areas, are not only in possession of great talent, creativity and self-discipline, but also have the knack of being able to create their own opportunities,” Sneed says. “And that's really the case for just about every artist pursuing or enjoying 'successful' careers on a local level or at the national level.”
In spite of music’s aforementioned shifting economy, Bradfield points out, “The musician who is 18 or 19 right now is poised on the brink of their career at this time of flux, and is potentially better equipped to adapt to whatever the new models are, so long as they are smart and open to change as well as dedicated to their art and craft.”
Thursday's show, besides being a great night of music, will provide evidence that for the young dedicated musician, there is music after graduation.