Visiting China/USC

There’s nothing quite like visiting a country to see first hand how things work. Interacting with the people is far more comprehensive than hearing about that country vis a vie the media, which can be highly politicized and biased.   On this recent visit to China (Shanghai and Beijing) with the Yellowjackets we had the opportunity to meet many lovely people and get a good  sense of what life in modern day China is like.

What was most readily apparent was the fact that despite the crowded conditions in the two largest Chinese cities we visited, people seemed generally relaxed, respectful, and orderly. You got the feeling that folks of all economic strata were generally comfortable and had a reasonably decent quality of life. Granted, there are sections of society in China that resemble the poor in our country, but there was no indication of a homeless population, at least in the areas of Shanghai and Beijing we visited.

I read an op-ed column in the local Shanghai english newspaper that commented on the United States blaming China for rigging the trade situation and devaluing the Chinese currency for their own benefit. From what I can see, China does nothing more or less than than the United States as far as  looking out for their best interests. It seems like the United States is deflecting focus on the fiscal mess we are in by blaming China for loss of jobs and the huge deficit in the U.S. This is an over-simplification and does not reflect the true nature of the problem.This finger-pointing at China seems quite rash to me, and resembles the lingering animosity we exhibit towards Cuba, insisting on maintaining an embargo that was initiated 50 years ago based on the supposed threat of the Soviet Union and China to American interests. Perhaps it is time to revamp our relationships with these countries and look for common ties and ways to cooperate. It seems silly not to. The fact is that the U.S. and China are already engaged in substantial commerce. I was driven from the concert venue to the hotel in a Buick that was manufactured in China!

While there are clear differences in the level of freedom between citizens in the U.S. and China, China has made great strides in the last 10 years towards democracy and freedom. We don’t hear about this at all, only about what a terribly oppressive and controlling  climate exists there.  Perhaps the one party system in China allows for efficient and expedient policy change to be instituted without the lovely bickering and politicization we experience in our country. That is why China is making huge strides in infrastructure, education, and their society in general while the U.S. languishes in governmental gridlock, inaction, cutting of services, and corruption.

While we walked from dinner to our last concert in Beijing we passed a large group of elderly women engaged in a group exercise session in the middle of a small street. These folks looked to be in good shape and had smiles on their face. This is an organized national activity that keeps Chinese society healthy , fit, and happy. Quite a contrast to the U.S. overweight population.

As far as the opportunity to play jazz in China, the feeling is similar to going to Japan in the early 70’s. Jazz represents a level of freedom and connection between cultures of the world, and is attracting attention on China right now with ever increasing popularity. I’m happy to be part of this movement, and sincerely hope that through the arts and science the U.S. and china can find peaceful channels of sharing music, all kinds of ideas, and culture.

It’s hard to believe that the semester at USC Thornton School of Music is three weeks away from ending.  The fall session has flown by in great part due to a rigorous schedule and the experience of learning how to chair a jazz department. I feel like I’m just scratching the surface, but off to a good start never the less.

This semester we had a series of faculty master classes that enabled our student body to work closely with illustrious faculty members. Russell Ferrante started off, and laid out his intricate rhythmical slant on things, as well as discussed his composing and practicing habits. Peter Erskine followed Russ, and shared his amazing musicianship with the student body. Alan Pasqua did the last one, and talked about his professional experiences, practicing, developing a style, and general playing concepts. To demonstrate “comping” he played trio and laid down a hypothetical comp without a soloist. It was extraordinary! Alan has such a vast vocabulary stemming from his work with Jackie Byard and George Russell in Boston, and all the other gigs he’s played. I think the students were not only inspired, but had many concrete devices to take home and consider. The next masterclass is January 29th with Vince Mendoza.

It seems like many of our students are out and about working in Los Angeles. There seems to be a good amount of work here, both in and out of jazz. Eric Hughes, senior trombonist, is currently working with Bill Holman’s Big Band (so is Jake Reed DMA drummer). Eric is also playing in my big band (I took him to Japan in June) as well as doing sessions and subbing on Gordon Goodwin’s band.

Jake Reed, drummer, is playing in Bruce Forman’srmans Cowbop band. I’ve used him on some gigs, and he is a swingin mo-fo!

The scene at USC is a great convergence of students and faculty in a relaxed environment, made ever more friendly by the great weather we experience in Los Angeles. Lots of sharing of good information. This is what jazz education should be about. Mentoring by working jazz musicians in a friendly environment where everyone gets to play while learning the language and all it’s inner working parts.

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