The Lenox School of Jazz

by Michael Fitzgerald
November 1, 1993

The Lenox School of Jazz, a summer program in Lenox, Massachusetts that was held from 1957 to 1960, holds a special significance in the history of jazz education. It was one of the first instances where the world's greatest jazz musicians were enlisted as faculty and where jazz was taught to promising young musicians. The Berklee College of Music had been founded in 1945 by Lawrence Berk, but the quantity, quality and stature of the Lenox teachers has never been equaled. It is truly remarkable to examine the list of Lenox students and note the amazing number of highly influential musicians that participated in these summer programs. The program was started to counter a problem in learning jazz.

Too often the complaint has been voiced that younger musicians are either cut or discouraged by their elders who have position to protect. At Lenox, the School of Jazz showed that conscientious jazzmen who know their instruments, the working conditions of jazz, and who are intelligent and patient, can accomplish much in three short weeks to show the younger ones some of the paths to take and some of the pitfalls to avoid. (Down Beat, 10/3/57, p. 48)

Kenny Dorham, one of the greatest jazz trumpeters and Lenox faculty member in 1958 and 1959, elaborated on the distinction of this approach to learning jazz:

When I came to New York as a young boy to play, those fellows wouldn't tell me anything-even Bird, with whom I worked for over a year. If I had this kind of chance then, I'd have been poundin' at the gates to get in. I hope these kids realize what they're getting. (quoted in Brookmeyer, p. 18)

Hopeful musicians auditioned by tape. If selected by the faculty for admission, they traveled to Lenox, Massachusetts and stayed for three weeks. The actual location is very near to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1957, the classical program at Tanglewood ended on August eleventh and the jazz students moved in on the twelfth. Scholarships were established and musicians attended from many foreign nations including India, Rhodesia, Austria, Holland, Sweden and Turkey. In the first year, 24 musicians and 10 auditors were chosen. The enrollment increased for the duration of the School's existence. In the final summer, 45 students attended.

The School was an outgrowth of a lecture series that had been in existence in Lenox since 1950. These roundtables were started by Dr. Marshall Stearns, a professor of English at Hunter College. Stearns, who later was the founder of the Institute of Jazz Studies, now housed at Rutgers University, brought the greatest minds in music together to discuss jazz in all of its many aspects and intricacies. Their goal was to show that "Jazz is a significant contribution to American culture" (Niccoli p. 18). Attendees at these lectures included ragtime pianist Eubie Blake, composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, Julliard piano instructor John Mehegan, folk musicologist Willis James of Spelman College, composer Marc Blitzstein, and anthropologist Richard Waterman of Northwestern University. Musicians and dancers from Africa as well as Harlem were present to demonstrate techniques.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to drown you." These were the first words heard by the students of the 1957 session of the Lenox School of Jazz. They were spoken in a composition class headed by William Russo, a composer/arranger and alumnus of the Stan Kenton orchestra. Russo filled the three week semester as best he could with the intricacies of jazz writing and most students rose to the challenges he thrust at them. The School of Jazz was, for most students, their first meeting with "real live jazz musicians." Some observers put forth the idea that this would be intimidating for the students. Director John Lewis commented on the awesome stature of the instructors:

No one is attending the school to be tested. Even if they couldn't play at all, they could gain something from the imaginative men who are doing the teaching. After all, we are most interested in the approach to jazz. We're not teachers by profession, so it is the approach that we will emphasize. We are trying to stimulate their imaginations, and any creative person will benefit from this. (Metronome, 7/57, p. 5)

The difficulties encountered at Lenox were more often practical than idealistic. One major problem in the first year of the School was that the enrollment was very imbalanced instrumentally. The intended distribution was to be "four students each in the rhythm section instruments, six in the brass, eight in the reeds, two in vibes and two in composition." (Down Beat, 10/3/57, p. 23) However, in the first session, there were 19 pianists, out of 36 musicians.

Since this was the first attempt at an all-jazz curriculum, there were no traditions or ground rules and the faculty of the School was capable of wearing many hats. As 1957 pianist Ron Riddle (1958) describes, Dizzy Gillespie's ensemble class could change direction rather suddenly.

Once, in the middle of a chorus of "Indiana-in F," Mr. Gillespie suddenly stopped playing and gave me a piercing look. "NEVER play that chord!" he said. Then he parked his incredible horn and took a seat at the piano. What followed was an amazingly lucid 15-minute lecture-demonstration on the use of diminished chords, altered and unaltered. Originally, he had intended to show the virtue of using an E-flat augmented 11th chord in bar 24, but his remarks lengthened into an enlightening discourse on harmonic theory, with many illustrative examples (quite a pianist, Dizzy Gillespie). Surprises like this were by no means infrequent, and the students in this group (four of us) also received valuable suggestions from Percy Heath and Connie Kay, whose bass and drums comprised the ensemble's rhythm section. (p. 30-31)

By 1959, there were seven performing groups and nearly every member of the faculty had an ensemble to coach.

One very interesting aspect of the Lenox philosophy that came about from actual experience at the School was in the instruction of students, or rather, the instructors of students.

Besides courses in composition, history, and small-ensemble playing, each student was required to take at least two private instrumental lessons a week. The private lessons were given to the student by an instructor who plays a different instrument. This method has been used since Oscar Peterson pointed out at one of the early sessions of the school that there was a tendency on the part of piano students to concentrate too hard on an attempt to imitate the instructor's style. (Down Beat, 11/10/60, p. 13)

One might wonder if the 1957 ratio of piano students to piano teachers had anything to do with this decision.

All students were encourage to develop as composers and the term-end concerts were filled with their compositions. In addition to player/composers such as David Baker, Gary McFarland and Ornette Coleman, there were also dedicated composers present, such as Margo Guryan and Arif Mardin. All students were required to attend composition classes. These were taught by Bill Russo, Jimmy Giuffre, George Russell and Gunther Schuller. Russo's method of instruction-by-immersion was the preferred method and was cited by many students as a highlight of their stay.

Improvisation, an element critical to jazz was not approached in as systematic a manner. The importance of playing jazz was stressed by the directors, but this elusive topic was questioned, even by students such as Ron Riddle.

Where does one start, for instance, and who is to say what is right and wrong? Fortunately, most of the students had already a good start in this direction, and the teacher's job was largely one of encouraging students to give more critical thought to their work. (Riddle, p. 30)

In the first year, the teaching of theory was in the hands of Bill Russo and Jimmy Giuffre, the composition faculty, but as shown before, all of the faculty were qualified to, and did, expound upon the subject. In 1958, the composer and theorist George Russell was added to the staff roster. Russell, who was composing extended large-ensemble works for Dizzy Gillespie as early as 1947, had been working on his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation since 1953. It was at Lenox that he fine-tuned this work. A course entitled The Analytical History of Jazz was taught by Gunther Schuller during the 1960 session.

There were two methods used in teaching the history of jazz at Lenox. The first was classes: The History of Jazz, taught by Marshall Stearns from 1957-1959 and The History of Jazz Styles, taught by Gunther Schuller in 1959 and 1960. The second was as part of a lecture series, held every evening with the exception of Thursdays and Saturdays, at which time concerts took place. Stearns's course provided students with a broad view of the music's history and was based on recordings from his collection. Schuller took a more musical view and delved into a comparison of styles rather than simply an historical overview.

The lecture series covered nearly every aspect of music relating to jazz and the speakers were well-chosen. Faculty members spoke on The Relationship of Jazz to Classical Music, Modern Music and Jazz (both Gunther Schuller) or Jazz Frontiers (Bill Russo with Lennie Tristano). Guest speakers addressed topics such as: Problems in Jazz Recording (Atlantic Records president and Lenox trustee Nesuhi Ertegun); Management and Booking of Jazz (agents Monte Kay, Pete Kameron and Rudy Viola, ); Music of Africa (by Fela Sowande); Primitive Beginnings of Jazz (Willis James). There were also panel discussions on many other subjects including The Purpose of Jazz Criticism and Problems of Jazz Festival Organization.

Concerts were another major part of the Lenox education and were presented every Thursday and Saturday evening. They featured the stellar faculty as well as special guests. Wilbur DeParis and his New Orleans Jazz band, Mahalia Jackson, Chris Connor and the Boston Percussion Ensemble performed. The groups in residence also came together for these presentations. The Oscar Peterson Trio (Peterson, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis) performed with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, J. J. Johnson brought his working quintet featuring Freddie Hubbard, and, of course, the Modern Jazz Quartet (John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Connie Kay) played.

The School was canceled prior to the 1961 session. The previous session had been nearly canceled on July 12, 1960, but last-minute donations allowed for its continuance. Michael Bakwin, owner of the Avaloch Inn, near to Lenox and son of founders of the Museum of Modern Art, gave a grant of $5000. Other companies and individuals donated funds and the School was able to commence on schedule for its fourth and final year. The 1960 term was unique in that strings were added (as part of the Bakwin grant, $1000 was in the name of the Avaloch chair in string). John Garvey, professor of music at the University of Illinois was added to the faculty and brought six additional players with him. This was the important move in the development of what Schuller termed "third stream" music-the blending of jazz and western classical elements. Atlantic records recorded the third stream works performed at Lenox for an album entitled John Lewis Presents Jazz Abstractions. It remains a landmark in the idiom.

Today, the lecture as jazz education is not used as much as it should. Lectures are now used to show that jazz is a music worthy of "scholarly" research and the performing students are excluded from them. Younger students would benefit more from a series of lecture/demonstrations than just from concerts. While there have been some attempts at this (notably Wynton Marsalis at Lincoln Center), it has not moved into the actual education system. The integration of related disciplines (improvisation, composition, history, theory, etc.) achieved at Lenox is a model that should be emulated by all jazz education programs. Unfortunately, this remarkable achievement exists now as only an historical footnote.

View References

View detailed brochure from 1958

View concert programs from 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1960

View listings of evening events from 1957 and 1959

View listings of lectures and lecturers, Lenox students, Lenox faculty, Lenox founders and trustees

View photo scrapbook

Read Student Comments and Testimonials

View related recordings

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