Making Jazz Taste Less Like Broccoli

Matt Penman i i

Behind Matt Penman, a jazz Chatroulette of sorts. John Rogers / johnrogersnyc.com hide caption

itoggle caption John Rogers / johnrogersnyc.com
Matt Penman

Behind Matt Penman, a jazz Chatroulette of sorts.

John Rogers / johnrogersnyc.com

What would you do if you were asked to chat with random strangers online for money (well, a little bit of money)?

I decided to say yes, just so long as I didn't have to do anything unseemly. No hanky panky, no Chatroulette. The request for my presence, after all, was for the NPR live chats accompanying the Live at the Village Vanguard online broadcast series. (Which is scarier: plain old Chatroulette or the prospect of jazz Chatroulette? That could touch off an entirely new "sound of surprise.")

I like the fact that I can hear live music from one of the premiere jazz clubs in the world for free — in this case, the Sam Yahel Trio was playing —- and not have to move off of my couch, a piece of furniture that keeps showing up in these posts. For this broadcast, however, my inner homebody was denied.

I was actually stationed in the Vanguard's kitchen to conduct a little educational experiment. We'd invited 170 students from an introductory jazz history course at the University of Virginia into the chat. I was supposed to moderate along with ABS' Patrick Jarenwattananon and WBGO's Josh Jackson.

It turned out to be insane. Fun, but insane.

There were over 1,100 comments over the course of an hour. Students posting from the stacks of the library, from little gatherings in lounges, from their dorm rooms in their pajamas. Students digging bass solos, trying to hear song form, whipping out freshly learned vocabulary like "trading fours" and "polyphony" and "rim shot." Any time an arrangement had any dissonance, someone would say it sounded like free jazz, probably because they had only just become aware of Ornette Coleman. Really, it was the chat that was like free jazz, an interconnected cacophony of comments. See for yourself — here's the saved chat:

I've taught college jazz history courses —- including the kind for non-majors that fulfill an arts requirement —- and it has its ups and downs. Some of the students really get into it; others act like you're trying to feed them musical broccoli.

I remember one especially painful class meeting when I decided to forego a lecture in favor of simply playing Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme from start to finish back-to-back. I thought it was a brilliant idea. The bored and even pained expressions on their faces told me otherwise.

The chat, by contrast, was invigorating. It didn't hurt that the professor, award-winning historian Scott DeVeaux, had offered the students extra credit for participating. (And if you're reading this, students, we'd still like to see those concert reports!)

Nonetheless, the interest felt genuine and the online forum yielded some surprising results. Not only did it instantly connect the students to a world outside the classroom — proof positive that there are real people who make jazz and care about it — the format made them all feel like they could say something about it.

Music can be a pretty slippery subject for people who don't have a lot of background. And it can be really hard to speak up in a big lecture class, or even a small one. Unleashed in the chat, the students seemed little concerned about what their peers might think — or their professor, who was present but only virtually. Much less intimidating.

Chatting online still feels a little bit strange to me while music is playing — like I'm talking over it, something you could never do out loud in an actual club. Especially not the hushed environs of the Vanguard. For the students, it seemed completely natural. And helpful, because they could make comments or ask questions in (almost) real time. Amazing — a benefit to a virtual setting that not even a live one could provide.

The shape of jazz education to come? I don't know, but I'd do it again. And the students said they would, too.

Jed Eisenman, a longtime member of the Vanguard's staff, kept coming in and out of the kitchen while Josh and I were struggling to keep up with the student comments. It was like watching corn pop.

He looked at us and said, "I wonder what Max" —- Max Gordon, the Vanguard's venerable late owner — "would have thought of this?"

After a minute of scratching his head, he concluded, "I bet he would have liked it."

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