In 2001, Ben Medler was out of a job. For the past seven years, the young trombone titan had been running jazz programs at what was then called Wilson High School, now Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School. He was a fill-in for the Portland school’s suddenly departed band director, and he knew it couldn’t last, because when he was offered the job, fresh out of Boston’s famed jazz incubator, the Berklee College of Music, Medler lacked the required teaching certification and was allowed to teach only because of a temporary emergency certification.
Now the school, which for many years had been “the band to beat if you were in jazz,” Ben says, had found a certified permanent replacement. And he and his wife Michelle, who had joined him at the school a year into his tenure there, needed to find another job.
THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series
Their positive experience at Wilson, where they’d overseen several bands of different sizes, had convinced them that they wanted to continue teaching. Despite their youth, both twenty-something Medlers had ample experience at both playing and teaching jazz. He had run a big band at Berklee and started another 16-piece band when he moved back to Portland. The couple — both accomplished multi-instrumentalists — had even met at a jazz workshop while he was in college and she was still in high school. While teaching at Wilson, they were also taking classes at Portland State University (whose business classes would later prove handy), “playing low-paid gigs as rock and funk musicians in Seattle and Eugene.”
One of their Wilson bands, which featured drummer Chris Brown, now a Portland mainstay, won a prestigious Downbeat award. Under the Medlers, the Wilson program was so respected that when legendary bandleader Mercer Ellington came to town and wanted to perform with a student ensemble, the Jazz Society of Oregon asked them to put together a citywide student all-star band, which wound up including later Portland jazz stalwarts such as Blue Crane Reed Wallsmith.
“That was the seed for PYJO,” Michelle recalls, “the fact that we could put these people together” into a cohesive young unit. Besides their own experience, they had role models: Portland Youth Philharmonic and Metropolitan Youth Symphony (on the classical side); a jazz school in Seattle that Michelle had checked out when she lived there. And they knew there was a need to supplement the music offerings provided by Portland public schools, staggered by years of budget cuts. As much as the Medlers needed new jobs, Portland jazz needed the Medlers even more. So they decided to found their own private jazz school for young Portland-area jazz (and jazz-curious) musicians.
Two decades on, Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra “is a unique and a wonderful asset for students and for the entire jazz community,” says Dan Davey, who heads the Mt. Hood Community College jazz studies. “PYJO is regarded one of the top-notch jazz education schools in the city,” says PYJO alum Corey Foster, who went on to study at the Berklee School and now performs and teaches drumming in Portland. “Their program is incomparable to any other, from introductory jazz ensemble to college level ensembles.” And at 7 p.m. Monday, March 14, you can hear the youth orchestra in concert in a gig with the Shanghai Woolies at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theatre.
Like so many other private music organizations, PYJO arose in the wake of two generations of cutbacks to Oregon education, which followed in the wake of property tax limitation measures and especially hammered arts education. Some schools reduced or eliminated jazz.
Most high schools in the area now boast some kind of jazz band, Ben says, but even so, “jazz doesn’t get enough attention in high schools,” says Steve Mohr, whose children Spy and Ken both participate in PYJO. “For the majority of kids, even good musicians, jazz band is secondary to marching band.” With large classes and limited time, most high school music teachers simply can’t devote adequate time to teach young musicians — and the best tend to gravitate toward jazz – the special skills needed to play in settings outside classical or marching band.
That deprives some of Oregon’s most promising young musicians of opportunities to develop their art. One of them is Corey Foster. “In the public school system, there are too many students and not enough time” to teach advanced or even fundamental jazz skills, he says. “There were very limited opportunities to perform and get instruction on [drums]. Basically the only setting where you can play that instrument in public school system is jazz band, and there are only a couple of chairs open.” And at age 15, “I wasn’t at the caliber I needed to be” to fill one at Aloha High School.
“Where the public school system fell short for me and people trying to learn jazz [was] improvisation,” Foster says. “Typically in the public school system, you get sheet music to learn, and no time to learn the skills of improvisation, and I needed experience in it.”
Catch 22: without being in the band, where would he get the chance to develop the skills needed to qualify for it?
His school band director recommended PYJO. “Immediately I was challenged much more than at Aloha,” he remembers. “PYJO was absolutely at the college ensemble level.”
Getting into the Groove
From the outset, the Medlers envisioned PYJO as a supplement to, not a replacement for, basic high school music classes, which tended to follow basic classical music precepts that underlie most Western music, but can neglect the elements essential to jazz.
“We both kept hearing that jazz people couldn’t play classical and vice versa, but we didn’t buy into it,” Ben says. “It’s more about learning the language of the instruments. That’s the one thing that band directors tend not to do. They tend to use formulas that work for [classical] wind ensemble.”
But playing jazz poses different demands. For example, “the articulations for jazz winds are different from classical,” Michelle says. “It’s like coming from England to America and speaking English — it’s the same language, but the accent is very different.”
“In PYJO, Ben and Michelle Medler do a fantastic job of integrating jazz vocabulary into the ensemble experience and rehearsals,” says Foster. “They don’t ever just rehearse a chart. They’re teaching repertoire and improv techniques in each of these pieces. It’s such a seamless integration of working through written music and how to apply that vocabulary immediately to soloing.”
Naturally, PYJO focuses on the main difference between playing classical scores and jazz: improvisation. (It was once a prominent part of classical education, too — Bach and Mozart are only two of the classical icons who were also renowned improvisers in their day — but its importance has receded there.)
Moreover, since the Medlers both sing and play at least a dozen instruments between them, “they’re able to demonstrate on each instrument in real time,” Foster marvels. “It’s amazing.” Michelle is well known for her sax work in Quadraphonnes and also plays flute and clarinets, while Ben excels on trombone, electric and acoustic bass, and trumpet.
And since they’re both composers as well, PYJO also emphasizes the creative elements of making jazz, not just instrumental technique, “so a student can stand in front of a jazz band and think compositionally,” Ben explains. You don’t get to play a [classic] piece unless you know a lot about it and the composer. Composition is integral to what we do.”
PYJO teaches other fundamental musical skills central to playing jazz — like listening. Since jazz depends on creative responses among players in real time, it places an even greater emphasis on listening than strictly notated musical forms. It can be hard to cultivate that kind of creative, focused listening in a large, 21st century public school band class.
“Listening has gone by the wayside,” Ben says, with exasperation. “It’s hard for students to listen to anything for more than 10 minutes, or more than a few times. That’s directly attributable to Spotify culture.”
Accordingly, PYJO devotes substantial attention to, well, attention. The aural kind. “As a young musician there, what I lacked was the listening skills to really lock in with other musicians and to simultaneously play my part well,” Foster recalls. “I remember vividly every class ensemble would be stopped by Ben and Michelle at some point, and we’d talk about listening and how to engage with other musicians — ‘you need to look at your bass player here’ — then play it again with the right eye contact and all the rest. It really opened my eyes to ensemble playing, my awareness of the rest of the ensemble and how to connect with other musicians.”
PYJO also emphasizes another crucial jazz musical element: groove. “What we do at PYJO is ignore the notes and rhythms side of the equation,” which schools tend to focus on, and concentrate on “the groove mechanics of the piece you’re playing, how everybody can ride along and be in that groove,” Ben explains.
Among many other things, groove involves the kind of rhythmic flexibility that gives good jazz that sense of propulsion and integration that feels so different from many other Western musical forms. “One of my biggest musical skills I got from PYJO was studying grooves,” Foster says. “When it comes to ‘time feel,’ it’s not just playing the correct rhythms and patterns and lining up with other players, but learning how rhythms felt in [classic jazz albums] and playing with good rhythmic feel and interpretation. That’s often skimmed over by other educators. Ben and Michelle take the time to get the music grooving with same authenticity” as on classic jazz albums they played in class for students. They’d even stop practices and get students to move their bodies “to recreate that rhythmic feel and style. They set an atmosphere open enough to get [self-conscious] middle schoolers out of their chairs to dance to a jazz tune.”
PYJO instruction doesn’t stop with the traditional grand masters. “Now, there’s more hip hop involved,” Michelle says. “Some want to know about producing and looping and laying down tracks.” Still, the school’s core principles rest on jazz’s historic foundation, and PYJO’s vitality dispels the myth that jazz is for old people. “It’s not that different than when I was a teenager,” Michelle remembers. “The best band geeks went down the path of jazz. Once they understand what they’re listening for, and start doing it themselves for a minute, they’ll lead themselves down the rabbit hole. Jazz keeps you engaged. It never gets boring. There’s always something new. I don’t think that’s changed for the teenagers I work with.”
Other educators appreciate the Medlers’ method. “They’re great musicians but also great educators who are able to inspire change and development in how they model and perform,” says Dan Davey. “They have a specific sequential way of explaining things to students that makes it really accessible to them. For students, it’s an after school augmentation of their school band program. They can participate in PYJO at various levels. As they develop in their skills there, they can learn and play with other students who also have those skills.”
Steve Mohr believes the exposure that PYJO provides students — many of whom are the best musicians in their respective schools — to top young players around the metro area boosts their music education by raising their standards. It allows them to interact musically with others whose skills match or exceed their own — an all-star team. “It broadens their map,” he says. And more: “It creates a sense of community among young jazz musicians over the whole city of Portland.” PYJO does more than just fill educational gaps created by Oregon’s defunding of arts education. It’s also doing more than any single school could realistically ever do: help knit a community of rising young creative musicians across the region.
Creating Community, Conversin’ with the Elders
PYJO students not only play with their peers: Many also get to perform with working jazz musicians. With fewer rehearsals available than a high school band would get, PYJO could never crank out “perfect performers,” Ben explains. But the school does equip students with the basic knowledge that enables them to learn by doing. The Medlers’ extensive connections in Portland’s jazz community open up opportunities for students to sit in with pros. “They do a lot of performances at local venues, with professional ensembles incorporated in the performance,” Foster says. “So they integrate people into the scene with their students, who get to play and get exposure to venues where they might get to play in the future.”
In fact, PYJO’s top band currently contains only one high school player, with the rest being college-age and right on up to one of Michelle’s own teachers. “They bring in these top players and my kids get a chance to play with them,” says Mohr, who also coaches youth baseball. “How many baseball players get to play with [Major League All Star second baseman and Oregon Sports Hall of Famer] Harold Reynolds?”
Mixing young and old players is a long tradition in jazz, as in the 1940s, when Miles Davis supplemented his Juilliard School classes with late-night trips to Manhattan’s 52nd Street jazz clubs, toting his trumpet and hoping to sit in with bebop masters like his eventual mentor Charlie Parker. Both Medlers early on sought out opportunities to play and study with older players, including some who’d played with pantheon jazzmen Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. Now they’re passing that wisdom down to the next generations.
“We’re all on the same road to being a musician, but on different spots,” Davey explains. “For a young musician to play on a bandstand with an elder farther down that road, they’re given an environment to listen and to mimic. When you’re doing it on the bandstand, you’re not just pressing play on your stereo, you’re in the middle of that environment and you have that model, so whether you sink or swim, that’s part of the education.”
Michelle says PYJO strives for inclusivity, welcoming students from lower income families. “We’ve given out need-based scholarships for 20-plus years,” with sliding scale tuition that enables students to pay what they can. As a result, even though PYJO doesn’t have official charitable status, “we call ourselves a for-profit nonprofit,” Ben cracks.
By the end of the school’s second decade, despite the ups and downs of Portland’s jazz scene, PYJO boasted 80 young musicians and seven bands, ranging in size from trio to 20-plus member big band, and employing four teachers.
Then came the coronavirus.
“We came close to losing the business during the pandemic,” Ben remembers. Grants from the U.S. Small Business Administration and Regional Arts & Culture Council kept the school afloat when it was forced to shut down and lay off faculty. Like many other schools, PYJO eventually pivoted to Zoom lessons. The Medlers figured out how to get the students to play along with recordings, with the multitalented co-directors recording all 15 parts (drums, bass, piano, trombone, saxophones, trumpet) in their home studio for students to practice at home in its “quarantine band.” The students then removed the recorded part they wanted to play, enabling them to practice karaoke style and “Michelle and I to avoid losing our chops,” Ben says. Eventually, they even found ways for students to play together via videoconferencing.
PYJO provided a sense of connection to fellow young jazz enthusiasts during a time of isolation. “This was really their only social outlet,” Mohr says of his children and the pandemic version of PYJO. “[Remote] band class wasn’t nearly the same. But PYJO online was a lot closer to PYJO. Ben and Michelle are more than just teachers to my kids. They take a lot more interest than regular teachers do. They’re like another uncle and aunt.”
Still, learning and playing remotely “wasn’t the same,” Michelle laments. “Some students got miffed about having to be online. Some psychologically shut down.” But most kept playing. And when they finally came back together for live rehearsals (at first with small combos, then larger ensembles), “all of us got a little teary. Being able to do anything in music together is healing.”
PYJO’s value extends beyond its students. It also constantly helps replenish Portland’s jazz scene with infusions of fresh blood, part of the wellspring that also includes Portland State University, Mt. Hood Community College and other colleges, and other private instructional programs like AJAM, led by the veteran drummer Alan Jones. “They’re one of these organizations that feed the scene,” Davey says. “They add the value of training new crops of musicians and [providing] a resource even for older musicians. Maybe you played sax in high school and now you’re middle-aged and want to return to that; you have a resource that can help, and then join a gig somewhere or join a community big band.”
Michelle says PYJO is a conduit that’s produced more than a thousand alumni over the years, many of whom continue to make music in Oregon. Mohr estimates that 90 percent of the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble circle of players come from PYJO.
The school doesn’t just turn out musicians. The Medlers teach a class at Portland State for music education majors to help train tomorrow’s school jazz teachers, who often email them for advice when they start running their own school programs, making PYJO a significant citywide resource for music education.
PYJO inspired Foster to become a teacher himself. “Through PYJO, I found a spark for jazz education. I remember it opening up my mind to what music education could be. That’s why I wanted to become both a performer and educator.” After living the itinerant life of a globe-touring jazz musician for half a decade, he now performs and teaches privately in Portland.
“I’ve studied with people all over the United States, toured with professional musicians around the world, trained with top teachers, and I can say they’re phenomenal, world class educators,” he says.
Back on Stage
PYJO seems to have weathered the pandemic tempest. Enrollment has now crept up to just about half of its pre-pandemic levels. The Medlers are writing grant proposals to fund compositions. (The school isn’t their only jam: They’re also involved in a baker’s dozen bands between them, not all active at once, of course.) A new spring class is coming up.
And on Monday, PYJO presents its first live concert in two years, at Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater. The show features two small combos and two big bands, and PYJO alums the Shanghai Woolies. Foster plays in that band too, and he hopes PYJO can continue to play its vital role in Oregon music and education.
“Jazz is one of the most challenging genres to play,” he says. “It’s so demanding in so many different ways. It takes a very educated musician to play it well. One of the missions of Ben and Michelle and PYJO’s other educators is to educate this next generation of musicians so this art form can continue to exist.”