Portland Columbia Symphony A Very Brassy Holiday First Presbyterian Church Portland Oregon

Young Jazz Composers: Jazz to the Future

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s education program helps young musicians create new music.

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Adriana Wagner has been creating music since she was a little kid. “I would write the corniest songs and try to sing them all the time,” the Portland State University senior remembers. But even though she played trombone in her middle- and high-school bands, and won national competitions as a member of Portland’s famous American Music Program, founded by the late Thara Memory for high school students, “I could never get anyone to show me how to write music until I was in college.” 

By then, after years of sexist resistance to “the girl trombonist,” she was “too scared, too vulnerable” to push hard for help until her sophomore year. Fortunately, sympathetic professors at the University of Oregon and PSU welcomed her early efforts. And last year her college mentor George Colligan pointed Wagner to an organization that could help her fully realize her ambition to write original jazz music.

For the past six years, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s Young Jazz Composers program has been giving aspiring teen and college-age musicians like Wagner the tools they need to create their own jazz-based music. And after a two-year pandemic pause in public performances, the program returns to the stage at Portland’s The 1905 this Monday night, with a program of six brand new, home-grown jazz creations by young Portland composers — including Wagner’s new quintet. 

Investing in the Future

When PJCE started YJC, “we were really wanting to grow our pool of composers,” remembers Mieke Bruggeman, education coordinator. The ensemble was dedicated to performing music by local composers, ”so in order to grow that pool, it made a lot of sense to offer that mentorship composition opportunity, and, hopefully, down the road some of those students might be interested in composing for us. For students who are performing and want to compose, it’s a way to get some of that experience under their belts and do it under professional mentors who are also in the jazz community. That helps to build that community.”

PJCE education coordinator and saxophonist, Mieke Bruggeman. Photo credit, Douglas Detrick.

The pool was shallow because schools don’t generally prepare students to compose jazz — or any other music. “It’s just not something they’re able to easily offer because there’s so much other material they have to cover,” says Bruggeman, such as marching, symphonic, and jazz band performance courses. 

Beyond high schools’ lack of general music theory and composition classes, learning jazz differs from classically oriented college composition courses, which must devote considerable time to historical surveys of forms from the medieval era to the present, and to instruments in the classical orchestra, says Michelle Medler, who teaches in the YJC program and also co-founded and co-runs Portland Youth Jazz Orchestra.

“The harmonic rules are very different, and it’s hard enough having to understand the differences between the classical language and jazz language of composition,” explains Medler, who studied both jazz and classical composition in college. In her classical composition classes, “I didn’t feel like I had a lot of guidance in the theory I was lacking in order to compose a song” in jazz style.

Enter PJCE. The educational program, originally named Grasshoppers, might have been a little too ambitious at the outset, when they required young composers to write for their 11-piece big band — a daunting challenge. “We were winging it,” Bruggeman admits — a very jazz thing to do, after all. To avoid scaring away students, they reduced the YJC performing ensemble size to a quintet. 

Adriana Wagner, center, works with the YJC ensemble. Photo credit, Douglas Detrick.

Mentors and Players

YJC accepts 10 students per year, from advanced middle school through early college and emerging professionals, most recommended by band directors, private teachers or college professors. They’ve even had students trained in classical music who are interested in adding elements of jazz or other improvisation to their creative palettes. 

Each receives four one-on-one lessons with mentors, including some of the state’s finest jazz musicians/teachers. Education Coordinator Bruggeman assigns mentors based on what kind of guidance each student is seeking. For example, if they’re not sure how to write for drums, she’ll connect them with a drummer. 

Although YJC training focuses on developing a single piece for spring performance, in showing students different possibilities for developing their initial ideas, mentors can also broaden their general compositional knowledge. Students also learn how to properly notate notate parts for rhythm section and horns, as well as the basics of digital musical notation programs widely used today to create scores and chord charts. 

Two workshop/rehearsals at Portland State follow, the first consisting of a read-through of the basic melody and chord structure and then feedback from the players shared with the student and her mentor. The student revises the first draft based on that feedback, then brings the revision back for another rehearsal and more feedback, usually fairly minor by that point. 

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Portland Columbia Symphony A Very Brassy Holiday First Presbyterian Church Portland Oregon

The academic year culminates in a spring concert featuring the pieces developed during the program. The 2022 YJC band features Mary-Sue Tobin, Bruggeman’s colleague from her all-women saxophone quartet, Quadrophonnes, along with Pablo Rivarola on trumpet, Todd Marston on piano, Ben Medler on bass, and Tyson Stubelek on drums.

PJCE’s 2019 Young Composers Showcase. Photo credit, PJCE 

Students typically bring a tune or a series of chords to the first mentor meeting, but Adriana Wagner was struggling to come up with usable material. Lacking advanced technical composition knowledge, “I was relying on intuition, and I didn’t want to force it,” she remembers. While attending PSU, playing gigs (in a salsa band), teaching lessons herself, and working two jobs, she somehow squeezed in some time each to go to her keyboard or trombone and write down or record promising ideas, sometimes using an emotion or some chords as prompts, until the music started to feel forced. “It gives your brain time to process it,” she explains.

It worked. One night the whole chart just came to her in a flash, and when she brought it to her mentor, the superb Portland trumpeter Thomas Barber, he was happy enough with it that no major changes ensued. Instead, he would help her figure out how to notate passages she wanted to happen, but lacked the technical knowledge to clearly write out. 

Barber also “helped me expand my horizon,” Wagner says, offering possible directions and expansions based on where she seemed to want the music to go. For example, Wagner might have written a certain chord and Barber would notice other notes from her melody line that she could include to make a richer harmony. “He guided me further in how to express myself in the piece,” she says, viewing his job as to “support what the student brings in and work with them where they’re at. It’s a very encouraging program. If you have that kind of mental blockade like I did, it will break that for you.”

Jazz composer Adriana Wagner. Photo credit, Adriana Wagner.

The rehearsal workshops gave Wagner the chance to ask the quintet members how well passages worked for their instruments and how to properly format the score to their needs. “I asked them how they thought I should notate it to make explicitly clear to them what I wanted,” she remembers. 

Some offered suggestions about structural elements like harmony, and she’d try them out before deciding whether to accept them. Since this is jazz, not classical composition, she learned how to navigate the line between being too vague and leaving the musicians enough room to improvise in ways that strengthened the piece. When she’d hear something she liked in a workshop, she’d write it down and include it in the final score.

“By the end, it had evolved to them knowing exactly what I wanted so they could interpret it correctly,” Wagner says. “When you’re composing for a [jazz] band, it’s what they bring to it that makes it a real composition,” she says. 

Lessons Learned

For Wagner, who was already writing music for her college combo, YCP has “honestly been an amazing learning experience,” she says. “All my composing has been rush jobs till then. We’d get to rehearse maybe once. Here, I get to write very detailed, multiple drafts. Since I’m not playing on the show, it gave me a chance to focus solely on the writing” instead of also learning a part to play. “It’s so nice to feel like I’m able to put all the work in that the piece needs.”

Beyond lessons in creativity itself, “I learned so much about the technical process,” she says, like learning the basic language of piano, bass, and drums to better communicate with those players, and “how to write a clear and detailed chart that’s easy for the musicians to read so they can interpret from there. That’s how you get the best music. It’s really opened up a new door.”

The new skills have given her a new attitude. Before PJCE, “I’d been too timid to take the lead in how to play my piece,” she says. “For this concert, I have to — that’s why I’m in the program. And since I have to fulfill that role, it gives me newfound confidence. It makes rehearsals and the composition process better because I’m not holding back.” 

Bruggeman sees such non-technical benefits in all the YJC students, especially coming out of the stress of pandemic isolation. “I think that it’s great for all our souls when we sit down and compose,” she says. “It’s therapy. “

She also recognizes YJC’s value to Oregon’s jazz scene and even the music’s future. “It’s giving these potential future composers a confident step in the right direction,” she says. Citing the example of a student on the last concert who was studying on a fellowship in Finland, “even if they are gallivanting around the world, I still consider them a part of our pool of composers. They’ve got their compositional roots here, and the experience they’re gaining being out in the world will only help enhance what we have to offer as a large ensemble to the Portland community. It’s building the art scene.”

She’s also looking forward to YJC’s new partnership with Young Audiences, which places teaching artists in school residencies. Bruggeman envisions extending YJC’s school programs beyond just band students, even as young as elementary school age, maybe weaving jazz into collaborative programming with other art forms and history.

Wagner wants to be part of that future. Inspired by her mentors, she’s teaching as an assistant in the band program at her old high school, Roosevelt in North Portland. And the program’s commitment to community and the confidence it gave her extended beyond the bandstand. After graduating, “I’d love to be involved in a nonprofit that works with communities that might not have the opportunities I’ve had,” she says. “Or start my own program.” 

Her piece on Monday’s program — the one that she’s worked on for the past few months with YJC — “has an overcoming, uplifting, confident feeling to it,” she says. “I’m about to graduate college, and I have to fully commit to being an adult woman who plays trombone. I’ve doubted myself too much, and I’ve learned to resolve that doubt. I’m about to reach this peak and I’m not going to give up.” She calls it “Purpose.”

Catch Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s 2022 Young Jazz Composers concert at 6 pm Monday, May 9. In person at The 1905, 830 N. Shaver St, or online. Purchase tickets.

Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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