Big Drum/Small World: The Long JazzReach of Hans Schuman
Metta Quintet begin their Spring Tour on April 9 in Los Angeles, followed by a series of dates, including one at the Harlem Stage on April 17. The band has hit the road in support of its internationally-flavored five-track record, Big Drum/Small World. Indeed, the vibrant and exhilarating new piece features commissioned contributions from composers from five different geographic regions of the world. It also contains some fairly remarkable musicianship, while exploring the expansive globalization of jazz.
Jambands.com sat down with the Quintet’s leader and drummer, Hans Schuman to discuss the exciting new work, but to also explore the New York City-based nonprofit organization, JazzReach. Schuman is the founder of that group, which features the Metta Quintet as its official resident ensemble. JazzReach is committed to national endeavors in art education, specifically in bringing an appreciation of the rich history of jazz to young audiences. Schuman is its Artistic Director, and in a world filled with self-centered solipsistic musicians, he humbly pursues his craft while finding a remarkable way to not only embrace the love of jazz, which is not only selfless, but also quite profound. JazzReach’s Metta Quintet, also features Marcus Strickland, tenor and soprano saxophones, Greg Ward, alto saxophone, David Bryant, piano, and Joshua Ginsburg.
RR: Tell me the story of the origins of JazzReach. Is the legend true that you inherited a Steinway piano, which you sold in order to create this organization?
HS: Yeah, right. It was my grandmother’s piano. She and my grandfather were pretty esteemed classical musicians. They both went to Curtis Institute of Music, and Curtis, I think they still do this, they used to give pianos to their piano majors. Subsequently, after she finished up there, she ended up teaching there. She taught Supplementary Piano to non-piano majors for about 55 years, and that was the piano she kept at home for basically all her life. So when she passed away, she left it to me. I was very reluctant to sell it because it obviously had sentimental value. If it fits in my apartment, I may not sell it, but if it doesn’t fit in my apartment, it is justification to sell it. And, so, it didn’t fit in my apartment, so I ended up selling it. It sort of had a rebirth because we sold it to a family that had a young boy who was really, really, really gifted young pianist. He was only about 9 or 10 years old, but he really was getting very very serious, and his family wanted to get him a really high quality instrument for him to grow on.
That gave me the startup dollars to get JazzReach off the ground, which essentially meant getting our 501©(3) not-for-profit status with the IRS and the articles of incorporation.
RR: Many musicians in any genre at that age would not be thinking of that angle. They would be thinking of their own career, and letting their own voice be heard through their instrument, or getting the right fit within the right band. What drove you to this goal, specifically helping children?
HS: I think it was just the observation…living in Brooklyn—I guess I had lived in Brooklyn for three or four years before I started the organization—and I was doing just as you mentioned, I was fresh out of Berklee College of Music, and I was really immersed into my own career and development as a musician.
But, then, I started to look around me, and at that time, it was when gangsta rap was really at its peak, and [the Notorious] B.I.G. was getting shot and killed, and Tupac was getting shot and killed. I was so passionate about jazz music, and recognized its capacity to reflect the very highest levels of human artistic achievement. In contrast to gangsta rap and popular music at that time, I just felt that jazz offered so much more in terms of having the capacity of reflecting better values. The value system of a jazz musician is to become as virtuosic as possible, and to fulfill their artistic potential and their artistic vision, and that requires a great deal of dedication and practice and tenacity.
The artform had produced so many icons, cultural icons, beyond musical icons. Jazz music had produced Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and so many more. It occurred to me that young people were not learning about these artists. The genre, jazz music, in general, was not something that was being taught in most U.S. schools. It wasn’t included in Social Studies class, or U.S. History class, unless you had direct contact with somebody who was a fan, who really loved the music, I was concerned that young people had no access whatsoever. I guess with some degree of foresight, I felt that these legacies may get lost.
Again, the mission of our organization is to foster new audiences for the artform, and not necessarily to preserve the artform. I don’t think the artform needs to be preserved. I don’t think of the art form as being like this museum piece. I do think that the contributions of all of those artists I mentioned are so deeply profound that they should be carried on. I hope that Miles Davis will continue to have an audience in the same way that Beethoven still has an audience, even though those audiences are aging themselves. The legacy of all those artists—the music is so great that it deserves to be upheld, but I don’t consider that our job, or our mission. I very much embrace the art form as a living, breathing thing that is perpetually vital.
As an organization, and a founder and artistic director, I completely embrace everything that’s happening in the music now. We have a live educational program, which features compositions that we commission like the Big Drum/Small World project; that’s the music of the record, as well. That project’s objectives are to highlight and celebrate and emulate globalization of jazz—these great composers and artists who have come to the States from different countries with a great deal of passion for jazz, but also completely embrace their own cultural heritage. There are so many people from all over the world who are bringing their own vision, and their own artistic sensibilities to the music, and, as a result, the music continues to broaden and become a little bit more difficult to really define. I often say that jazz is as hard to define now as it is to define what America looks like now. In that respect, it continues to reflect our national character. I think that is obviously a quality that keeps the art form uniquely American.
RR: Jazz and improvisational music is a way of life and a way of thinking. At a very young age, I was someone that needed everything controlled and planned out, and when things didn’t work out, I’d get upset. As I got older, and more and more into the music that conveyed an improvisational attitude, I realized how much music opened up doorways on a philosophical level. Now, when you are dealing with young children, young musicians, who are learning about this music, is that way of life presented to them? Or, do you feel the music itself will provide the answers?
HS: Most of the time, and by most of the time, I mean maybe 85% of the time, our interactions with children are somewhat limited. We present these live multimedia programs that feature our ensemble, along with live narration and video projections, and those programs are typically presented at performing arts centers, and the school kids are bussed in. These are very specifically audience development programs. What we are trying to do is really get our young audiences an experience of live jazz because we feel like it’s really at its most vital when presented live. We also want to give kids the opportunity to leave school, and get on a school bus, and go on a field trip, and be in a really big, beautiful concert hall.
I don’t know if they have access…they aren’t really in touch with that—the demeanor of a jazz musician, which is to say that kind of ‘rolling with the punches, let’s see what happens, and life happens’. So, in other words, they’re not necessarily, they don’t have like an extensive time with our musicians to the extent that they can pick up on that kind of aesthetic, or that sort of improvisational value system, or the life and lifestyle of a professional improviser. Although, when we interact with student musicians, which is how we supplement those other programs, which means we are often taken into band rooms around the country, typically, our model is that we’ll offer up to three services a day, which means we can do two matinee performances at their theatre, and they can bring us to a school, or any other combination—one matinee and two clinics, or what have you. Depending on who the presenter is and what they want from us, we’re happy to go into the school and work with student bands.
I think when they are around us in that context, I often give our musicians an opportunity to speak and share some background on themselves, and let the kids know that we were once their age, and that we were in band rooms just like the one we were sitting in with them, and that everything at that age can seem really mysterious and a little overwhelming, so it really depends on the level of proficiency of each student band. Sometimes, we get kids who are far more advanced than their age. A lot of the time, it really depends on the band director and his or her degree of commitment and passion for, not only the students, but music itself.
If the kids are engaged, and they are really serious, and we have a sense that we can speak to them on a more mature level, we will. Oftentimes, we come across kids who are just sort of slouching in their seats, and holding instruments, and don’t really know what to make of us. But we do talk about improvisation and we try to make the concept of improvisation a little bit more accessible to them by saying that we improvise in our daily lives all the time. We just don’t know that we’re doing it. You’re driving down the street, and just remembered to go to the dry cleaners. Or, you just realized you are hungry, and you stop off at Burger King, or what have you, and you made a wrong turn, and you’ve got to turn around. Everything we do in our daily lives is improvised to a degree, so we try to introduce the concept of improvisation in a more universal or accessible way.
So, yeah, I think there’s a sensibility that I think musicians who improvise have where we’re constantly in the process of having to make lemonade from lemons. I think if they’re around us long enough they get a sense of…because, you know, it’s funny I’ve observed that a lot of musicians, a lot of my peers at least, we all have somewhat similar demeanors. We all sort of go through life…we just make do. We accept the fact that there will be good times and bad times and that life is often like weather systems. It may be cloudy for three days, it may feel like life sucks, and all of a sudden, the sun comes out and something good happens. It keeps us on an even keel.
I think those same scenarios present themselves on the bandstand, as well. You might have two or three really bad days where you feel like you sound like shit. You get through it and you realize, “This is just one day. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know why this is happening,” and then, the next week, you might have two or three gigs where you might feel great, and you might have arrived at some new artistic plateau, or something. You just never know what to expect. We only have so much control over how good we sound. We just have limited control.
I don’t know if you know that joke that says, “How do you make God laugh?” And the punch line is “Make a plan.” That’s kind of the way we all approach it. Mind you, due diligence—and by that I mean practicing every day, and being studious about your craft, and being disciplined—I think, obviously, better equips you to handle ups and downs because, they say, the devil is in the details.
RR: Absolutely. There is a lot of preparation and practice that goes into the essence of cool in jazz.
HS: Yeah, definitely.