When Montavilla Jazz tasked Mary-Sue Tobin with teaching Vestal Elementary School students about jazz as part of the organization’s educational outreach, both the veteran Portland jazz saxophonist and her jazz newbie pupils were a little nonplussed. How could she reach children who likely had little or no exposure to jazz — and make it relevant to their lives and experiences?
“At first some were skeptical,” she remembers. “‘We don’t want an old white lady coming in here talking about jazz.’ That’s a valid complaint. But by the second or third week, they loved it. We won them over.”
How? “I changed it around from my point of view to their point of view,” Tobin explains. “A lot of these kids come from backgrounds of poverty and immigration and have had it pretty rough. When I would come in and talk about jazz in the 1920s, at first, they couldn’t care less. [I’d say] here’s why you should care. Women can’t go on those tours. Black and white people can’t play together in bands or tour together. They were very interested in that aspect of the curriculum.” And they were interested in learning about the immigration in the 1920s that fueled early jazz.
“They’re bringing their experience to the history, rather than vice versa. To these kids, it’s not history — it’s still going on in their lives. I’d assign them to write a paper, and a lot of them made notes on music as a means of expression and reflecting the world around them.”
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
The six-week program not only taught the students about American music and history, it also taught Tobin — a longtime educator herself — important lessons about teaching. And, reversing the process that brought her to Vestal, her teaching experience made its way into actual new music she composed for a concert at this weekend’s 10th Annual Montavilla Jazz Festival, September 1-3, 2023.
Montavilla Jazz builds a community through music
Montavilla Jazz (MJ), which draws its unique strength from its long connection to the Montavilla neighborhood through the annual weekend-long Festival, began investing in local schools nearly from the outset, encouraging neighborhood schools to apply for small grants. In 2018, it shifted to creating its own educational programming, sponsoring an artist residency at Vestal Elementary School and then two others, including Mt. Tabor Middle School’s jazz band program, before the pandemic struck.
A 2022 Community Placemaking grant from Metro allowed MJ Executive Director Neil Mattson to re-start those efforts, resulting in the festival partnering with Portland State University’s Artist as Citizen Initiative (led by revered jazz musician and educator Darrell Grant) to participate in Vestal School’s annual Social Justice Night each spring.
The 2022 event celebrated the neighborhood’s diversity by showcasing student-led social justice projects and exhibits, consisting of artistic responses drawn from interviews with students and community members. As part of the Vestal Storytelling Project, produced by Erica Thomas of Works Progress Agency and broadcast on Portland’s KBOO radio, PSU students produced a three-part documentary podcast that incorporated conversations with immigrant food cart owners, music teacher Evan Williams, and jazz musicians. It also included music performed by MJ-associated local jazz artists, including new music composed by Mary-Sue Tobin (inspired by her conversations with Somali food cart owner Samira Mohamed) and Machado Mijiga. Tobin’s sextet played some of the music live at last spring’s Vestal Social Justice Night, which also supported nearby BIPOC-owned food carts, which in turn served complimentary meals.
Building a curriculum of jazz
This year, Montavilla Jazz’s Vestal programming shifted again, with the school taking over the planning and MJ again hiring Tobin as artist in residence for six weeks, with a brief to develop a curriculum for the students there.
She’s an appropriate choice. “I’ve always gravitated toward a community approach,” she explains, having produced concert series that allowed music lovers to hang out and build relationships. “I always want to be a part of something bigger than just music.”
A highly respected, veteran Portland saxophonist (with the terrific Quadraphonnes and other ensembles) and music teacher, Tobin also lives in the neighborhood around the corner from MJ’s performance venue at Metro Arts. She’s also the sister of two fourth-grade teachers.
“I’m in awe of public schoolteachers,” she says, whose pupils, unlike her own music students, don’t come to them by choice. “These kids don’t necessarily care about what you have to teach, so I needed to think of ways to make it accessible, interesting, inclusive, just to keep their interest and have a copacetic learning environment.”
She admired other jazz-oriented education projects, such as those sponsored by PDX Jazz, which brings performances to the schools, and more. But Montavilla Jazz “wanted me to make it inclusive of the community, not just something dropped in,” Tobin recalls.
Her sisters, the teachers, urged her to give students experiences and information that would let them “go away with something cool they can tell people. You’re giving them information that other people don’t have and they’re gonna be the smart ones.”
Tobin eventually devised a course that would engage students more deeply with the music’s history and culture — and their own. Her philosophy: “I’m not here to preach at you or force this antiquated thing on you. You don’t have to play it or start a jazz festival. You can feel ownership of it and involvement in it. This is your community, and you’re part of the history of jazz whether you know it or not. It’s part of your neighborhood.”
Tobin also used her extensive connections in the local music world to bring in musicians of color and immigrant backgrounds to provide role models. Metropolitan Youth Symphony music director Raul Gomez showed how a Central American immigrant could lead a large orchestra that plays music the kids enjoyed. Machado Mijiga and others played music and instruments from their cultural traditions as well as electronic instruments. Visiting musicians and Tobin herself would bring instruments and play tunes for the students and “they’d sit bolt upright,” she remembers. “Everybody learns differently. They don’t want to just be yapped at. I did way less talking and [used] more physical playing examples. To have it right up close, whether they like the music or not, they’re super interested.”
She says reaching students in this way can also benefit jazz itself. “Jazz has this rep now as being elitist and ivory tower academic,” she explains. Many believe that “you have to go to a college program, move to New York, have parents who can pay for all that. It doesn’t seem inclusive and so people aren’t going to care about something that’s beyond their reach.
“[But] I truly believe jazz is a great American art form we can all participate in — it’s not this elitist thing. It is inclusive, it involves all of us even if you’re not some burning virtuoso or conservatory graduate. Jazz was popular music back in the day, and even now you can hear it in Arianna Grande, in ‘Sway,’ in Disney movies ‘[We Don’t Talk About] Bruno,’ Latin jazz hits — it is all around us.” She also views the program as a way to bring the jazz community, which can sometimes feel cliquish, together around shared values.
Tobin appreciates the support the program has received from teachers, principals, and parents, even those who aren’t necessarily jazz fans. She says the experience has made her a better teacher, even in her own private studio. “I feel such a responsibility as a teacher of an instrument to give students a proper foundation that I can sometimes get a little too rigid. [Vestal] made me access more of a leniency. ‘Okay, if you’re an adult and you just want to learn that solo off that Madness album, I will teach you that song.’” Teaching the techniques needed to play the songs they want then allows her to build fundamental skills useful in other music.
Bringing it all together at the 10th Annual Montavilla Jazz Festival
She’s also turning her educational experience into art. At 6 pm on Friday, September 1, the Montavilla Jazz Festival will present a free concert called Vestal Stories, in which Tobin and her band perform a six-song suite of her original compositions inspired by her teaching residency at Vestal and her bandmates’ experience as visiting guest artists there. Some of the students’ stories provided raw material for the music. “It’s a way to make them feel a little ownership and create an opportunity to work together,” Mattson explains, both with the musicians and with their other students. “We’re giving them a role to play in the creation of that work.”
Tobin structured one piece around the initial uncertainty both she and her new students felt at the program’s inception, which then gave way to joy as they all began to look forward to the sessions after getting to know each other and the other artists, and the music’s history. “I did try to make these compositions joyful,” she says. “It’s about how I’ve grown through the years as a musician and how these kids have changed me. These are styles I genuinely know and people I genuinely know and love or new people I want to introduce you to.”
The band, which consists of some of her oldest and most recent performing partners and friends from the Portland and Eugene jazz world, including keyboardist Kerry Politzer and bassist Bill Athens, premiered several songs at Vestal Social Justice Night last spring. They’ll play the full suite at Caldera Amphitheater in Mt. Tabor Park near the basketball courts and Visitors Center.
Students on the Festival stage
The Montavilla Jazz Festival sponsors other educational efforts, including bringing in artists to work with Mt. Tabor middle school band director Quinn Walker to teach fundamental jazz techniques to student band members.
The Festival has also long sponsored a student stage showcasing jazz students in the area’s outstanding high school and college programs. This year’s shows at the Portland wine bar In Vino Veritas feature students from Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra, Mt. Hood Community College’s acclaimed program, and Portland State University.
Many of those performers have been taught by respected Portland jazz drummer and educator Alan Jones, who grew up locally, left after high school to study at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music jazz conservatory, and, after living and playing in Europe for years, returned in 2009 and founded his acclaimed Alan Jones Academy of Music, AJAM, which has been involved with the Festival since its inception.
Jones believes showcases like the festival’s student stage are an essential part of jazz education. “It’s valuable for any musician to have a performance opportunity that’s high profile,” he says, “because it’s pressure. There’s fear involved. When we’re afraid, we go inside ourselves, asking ‘Do they like me? Am I playing well?’ Then you’re not doing your main job — which is listening to others. That’s the first thing that goes in a high-pressure situation — that ability to get outside yourself and hear what others are saying. These are opportunities that help train people how to do that under pressure.”
That ability to listen and respond in the moment is essential in jazz, more than any other musical form. “For jazz in particular, we have to play with others,” Jones explains.” It’s part of what the music is. We’re communicating with people at a high level. To do it in a high-profile live situation — you can’t beat it.”
He’s also leading a crack band at a Festival concert himself. “More than any musician I know, Alan Jones embodies the ethos of authentic individuality that defines Portland in my mind,” his friend Darrell Grant (who also leads a band at this year’s festival) wrote recently. “His music also always reflects the place it comes from.”
Teaching lessons that transcend jazz
Listening to others and communicating well with them are skills that transcend jazz and even music. “Training in communication in any arena is valuable and applicable to any other arena,” Jones says. “We tie music directly to verbal communication. It’s something we work on every day.” Learning to communicate clearly forces students to figure out what they’re trying to say. That’s valuable to anyone, not just a student who becomes a professional musician.
One of Jones’s former students exemplifies the value of jazz education. “Music in general, but especially jazz is so freeing, it’s a feeling like no other,” says drummer Domo Branch. A rising young star who’s performed or toured with stars such as Stefon Harris, Dianne Reeves, and Terence Blanchard, the 23-year-old Branch is returning from New York City to his hometown of Portland to play in this year’s Montavilla Jazz Festival. “Black and Brown kids grow up with so much stuff they hold in and never understand how to deal with. They don’t get the opportunity or learn how to express themselves. So working with other people [in jazz], learning to be free in the moment, is something I feel can help them express that. ”
Branch, who’s bringing his band Branchin’ Out to the Festival in a highly recommended show that also features the great Portland keyboard master George Colligan, credits his main teachers Jones and the late, legendary Thara Memory, along with his mentor Charlie Brown, who’s also performing at this year’s festival, with helping him to learn those lessons through music. And he wants all Portland students to have opportunities similar to those he feels fortunate to have received. He urges the State of Oregon to fund programs like Montavilla’s that bring older musicians into direct teaching situations with young students.
“The best thing I remember was musicians from the Portland scene coming into Beaumont [Middle School] and the high school,” he recalls. “It’s important to build the connections between musicians and students. One of my classes took a field trip to see the Jazz at Lincoln Center [Orchestra] do a sound check” before a Portland performance. “Stuff like that is so important. Professionals in this field want to come talk to us. That’s what Portland needs. And it needs to be diverse. There need to be more people of color. Sometimes kids understand people differently. If one teacher can’t get through to some students, maybe another one can. Young musicians who are Black or Brown [say] ‘Look, he’s doing that — I can do that.’”
Making music and art relevant to diverse communities
For Mattson, along with the benefits to the community that birthed the Montavilla Jazz Festival, the education outreach investments also help support the larger jazz ecosystem. “We only put on one festival per year, but the school program gives us the opportunity to pay artists, get them a different kind of work along with being artists,” he says. “We’re not trying to make our jazz artists into classroom teachers. We’re more trying to think of a school community and neighborhood in itself as an audience center.”
With jazz having fallen out of mainstream youth culture, MJ’s student programs provide “an opportunity for kids to get to know and bond and connect with a person who cares deeply about this music,” Mattson says. “If they care about that first, some of them are going to want to come to a show and learn more. So when you’re growing your audience, the school is a place to build a new generation of fans.”
He hopes the festival and others can expand their efforts in “making the music and art relevant to diverse communities and families. There’s a lot of work to be done over time. So far, we’ve focused mostly on this one school. This is just the beginning.”