By Roy Kasten
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As a graduate of Boston's Berklee College of Music, Esperanza Spalding had the benefit of attending one of the world's most prestigious schools for jazz musicians. However, when the 23-year-old bassist, singer and composer works with local music students during her visit to St. Louis this week, she'll be relying not so much on her classroom training as on the lessons she's gleaned on the bandstand and on the road with veteran jazz artists including saxophonist Joe Lovano and singer Patti Austin.
"I never really got into the academic part of the learning," Spalding says. "I wasn't a very good student in that sense. It was hard to me to get into that approach for jazz. I could never really agree with a lot of the methods of being taught when I was in the jazz program. My teachers used to say, 'You never do what we ask you to do.'"
Spalding's week-long residency will culminate in performances Friday and Saturday at Jazz at the Bistro, where she and her bandmates, pianist Leo Genovese and drummer Lyndon Rochelle, will offer original tunes incorporating influences from jazz, hip-hop, Brazilian music and free improvisation. But first, the three musicians have a full schedule of education-related activities on behalf of Jazz St. Louis. There are several concerts at elementary and middle schools, plus master classes and one-on-one lessons with the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars (a select ensemble of student musicians), and those students in the organization's weekly "Jazz U" workshop program.
Instead of teaching specific tunes, musical exercises or practice routines, Spalding's approach to working with students is both philosophical and practical. "I have an objective of trying to impart certain types of skills that don't necessarily have to do with music, but how they learn," she says. "I try to teach them how to find information, and how to use every situation as a learning situation."
Her own on-the-job training began at age sixteen in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, when she landed a gig in a local blues band just a couple of months after picking up a bass for the first time. Several other local bands followed, and while Spalding's academic record may have been spotty she dropped out of out high school, earned her GED, and studied briefly at another college before entering Berklee her success in music since moving east has left her confident of her abilities as a player and teacher.
"I just give people as much as they're willing to take," Spalding says. "I don't think anyone deserves having things watered down. Young people can process a lot more than they're given credit for."
Residencies like Spalding's are just one part of Jazz St. Louis' ongoing jazz-education efforts, explains Phil Dunlap, the organization's director of education. Sixteen of the eighteen groups that have been booked this year for Jazz at the Bistro's the subscription series will do at least one school performance while they're in town. Most of these performances are aimed at simply fostering music appreciation, while another school concert series dubbed "What Is Jazz?" takes a more explicit historical and instructional approach.
Those visiting musicians who are selected as resident artists, such as Spalding, trumpeter Terell Stafford and pianist Cyrus Chestnut, will get a more extended opportunity to mentor and bond with the student musicians in the All-Stars and Jazz U programs. "The musicians like connecting with kids," said Dunlap. "They know they're making a difference. It may only be a one-shot deal, but for some kids, that's all it takes." For more information on Jazz St. Louis' educational programs, visit www.jazzustl.org.