The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
By Peter Leggett, Walker West Music Academy
On Saturday, December 15th Walker West Music Academy welcomed the University of Manitoba Jazz Studies faculty for a jazz master class. Led by renowned jazz bassist Steve Kirby, the group featured Anna-Lisa Kirby on vocals, Quincy Davis on drums, Will Bonness on piano, Derrick Gardner on trumpet, and Craig Bailey on saxophone. Hosting these musicians was a great opportunity for the Academy as members of the faculty have collaborated with jazz icons like the Count Basie Orchestra, Frank Foster, John Hicks, Cyrus Chestnut, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and Elvin Jones just to name a few. More than 25 students attended with their instruments ready to play and were accompanied by friends and families who came to support them. In all, more than 50 people packed into the Academy's parlor space.
The clinic started off with an incredible performance from the faculty members playing an original tune composed by faculty member Craig Bailey. It gave each performer a chance to showcase their talents as improvisors and set the stage for the rest of the clinic by the energizing students and audience members alike.
Following the breathtaking tune, jazz faculty head Steve Kirby opened up the room for questions about jazz, working as a musician and learning to improvise. In particular, he made sure to focus on student questions especially those who were young and up and coming musicians stating, “ the only dumb questions are the ones you don't ask. “
Next, the faculty invited the young musicians in the audience who had brought their instruments to get on the stage and play a blues tune. This was a great moment for students as every single young musician who attended was given the chance to solo in front of everyone. It demonstrated perfectly the true democratic nature of jazz music as well as jazz music's capacity to provide musicians an opportunity to share their voice within a collective.
What followed was a nearly 90 minute interactive dialog not only between the Manitoba faculty and students but amongst students themselves. Students continued to play and discuss topics which ranged from what musicians are thinking about when there soloing to the importance of visual communication and connectivity when improvising in a group. Steve Kirby and the faculty led the conversation with expertise and a straight forward approach. A comical example of this came when Steve asked in a joking but supportive manner,”Do you guys like playing your instruments? Then tell your faces!” The point Steve was trying to make was that the musicians didn't “look” like they were enjoying improvising. This he noted was critical to an audience because audiences also “listen” with their eyes.
The master class wrapped up with a final performance from the full group. The full faculty then stayed around for nearly 45 minutes after to talk with every student who had more questions. It was a fitting end to a great afternoon of jazz music. Special thanks to Solomon Parham for helping to organize this great opportunity for the Academy!