Op-ed: Coping with the loss of GW’s student jazz band

James Levy is an adjunct professor of music.

The cuts to GW’s music department, and the jazz program in particular, provide the opportunity to make a few interesting comparisons – namely, to one of last year’s Oscar-nominated movies, “Whiplash,” which centers on a jazz band at a fictional music conservatory.

At GW, I have the job that actor J.K Simmons portrays: director of the jazz band. Our GW groups is known as King James and the Serfs of Swing.

While I enjoyed watching the movie, my entire jazz-band-director soul recoiled in horror at how the character, Terence Fletcher, ran his band rehearsals. He humiliated and screamed at his students – a fierce approach that I haven’t even come close to taking.

Instead, I motivate my students by exposing them to the recordings and videos of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway.

The only way I even come close to Terence Fletcher is that students do not talk for the entire two-hour rehearsal. I tell them that while I hope they practice hard and become better musicians, my primary focus is to get them to be the best that they can be right now. Performers often refer to this as “being in the zone.” With no talking, all those portions of the brain that are normally waiting in the wings to joke and crack up the class instead get on the task of listening and playing music. It is a great lesson to learn and helps them give their best performances.

But my band has apparently been eliminated, at least for the fall 2015 semester.

Not only has our band been a big part of my students’ lives, but it’s been a big part of mine, as well. I’ve been teaching at GW for 30 years, and have been running the Serfs since the early 1990s. I’ve spent time outside of rehearsal preparing music, emailing band members feedback from the last rehearsal – without yelling at them – and looking at YouTube to find relevant videos for the band to watch.

The Serfs is made up of about 12 members, give or take a few brass players. Our students are a mix of music majors, minors, and non-majors or minors who participate for credit. We practice all year leading up to our big shows at celebrations like International Jazz Day.

Once upon a time, I was paid for four hours a week, which reflected the time I actually spent on the job directing the band. Then in 2006, right before the union election, that time was cut down to three hours. Now, the amount I’m paid doesn’t reflect the work I do.

Over the last 10 years, I have still spent at least four hours each week doing prep. I do it because I love the music and I consider the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s to be the most important music to teach college students. It is the ancestor of all the popular music they listen to today.

I did make a few attempts to get my fourth hour back. Our hourly pay for giving music lessons is mandated in our union contracts. We get paid by the hour for other duties, like directing an ensemble. The department typically included extra time for responsibilities like preparing for rehearsal, but since those hours aren’t contractually defined, GW has been able to cut my pay. And bless their hearts, in the Southern sense: They’re doing it again.

Some of the jazz combos were originally funded for three hours a week, and then were cut down to two hours in 2006. Now, directors are paid for an hour and a half of rehearsal each week. Who rehearses for just 90 minutes? Not Terence Fletcher, I bet.

In contrast to the action portrayed in “Whiplash,” I can assure you my own drummer won’t attack me on stage. And my brass section will also act friendly, but sadly, I’m not sure I can say the same for GW’s top brass.

Next week, you can come support the Serfs and hear us perform as part of Jazz Appreciation Month, either Tuesday, April 21 at 5 p.m. in Pershing Park or Sunday, April 26 at 7:30 p.m. in the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre. We’ll be swinging as best we can.

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