As artistic director of the Juilliard Jazz department, drummer, record producer and entrepreneur Carl Allen leads a prominent group of instructors to teach the next generation of highly educated jazz instrumentalists. He balances his educational duties with work on the road, with artists such as bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Benny Golson and his own group, the Carl Allen-Rodney Whitaker Project.
After graduating from William Paterson University with a bachelor's degree in jazz studies and performance in 1983, Allen joined jazz-trumpet great Freddie Hubbard and served as his musical director for eight years. He's been a sideman on more than 200 recordings.
Juilliard Jazz — conceptualized jointly by Juilliard's president, Joseph Polisi, and Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center's artistic director — began in 2001. From the program's inception, Allen worked as coordinator of Small Ensembles and gave drumming instruction. He became interim artistic director for the 2007-2008 school year and accepted the permanent post in February 2008.
Today Juilliard Jazz celebrates its 10th anniversary with a concert hosted by Christian McBride and alto saxophonist David Sanborn.
Allen recently spoke to The Root about juggling teaching and touring, making students memorize music and why the maxim, "Those who can't do, teach" is a lie.
The Root: Why is this 10th-anniversary milestone important?
Carl Allen: This is a chance to celebrate the accomplishments of our alumni. That's why we're calling it a "Swingin' Alumni Reunion," as opposed to just a 10th-year anniversary. We have about a 100 percent rate where they're all working professionally, in various capacities. We have people out there playing with Pat Metheny, Terence Blanchard, Michael Bublé and many others.
They check in with us and say that a lot of this is because of the time they had with us. That's a reason to celebrate.
TR: When the program started, there were 17 students. Now there are 37 in the highly competitive environment of Juilliard. What's the graduation rate?
CA: I'd say probably 95 percent. Most people are there all the way through.
TR: You're a touring musician and the artistic director. How do you balance those roles?
CA: I'm trying to figure that out as we speak. I often say I'm at work from the time my feet hit the floor getting out of bed, until I lay down. And even then, I'm reading e-mails or speaking on the phone. It's tough. But I'm committed to doing both at the highest possible level.
I'm very fortunate and blessed that we have a great administrative team in the office, from Executive Director Laurie Carter to other staff and a couple of wonderful interns, who really keep the ball rolling on a day-to-day basis.
TR: What do you think about the saying, "Those who can't play, teach"?
CA: We're in a generation where that's no longer the case. With our faculty, we have stellar master musicians who are great educators as well. But it's also about modeling behavior. One of the things we faculty talk about, behind closed doors, is that there should never be a situation where your students outplay you.
The moment that happens, it's a wrap. I always say that when the faculty plays, the students should just be blown away by what we can do. Our students are so talented that it keeps you on your toes.
TR: You insist that the students who play in small ensembles memorize the music. Why?
CA: I tell them that you've got to memorize the music so you can begin to have a relationship with the music.
A couple of years ago, we were doing a concert of Christian McBride's music, and Pat Metheny was there. After the concert, Pat and I were talking, and he said, "Carl, man, I'm impressed by the presentation. Yes, they played well, but I noticed that nobody was reading any music! How did you do that?"
I said, first of all, I just require them to do that; it's non-negotiable. Everybody has to memorize the music. He said, "Man, I've got guys that I pay in the band, and they can't memorize the music." So I told him, Pat, maybe you should give them a grade, and maybe then they'll memorize the music!
That makes a big difference in terms of presentation.
TR: There's an expression that you use, which comes from our ancestors: Each one, teach one. Explain.
CA: The idea behind that is that we all have things that we fall short of, that we all have things in our personal experience that we can use to benefit others. And one of the great things that we're looking forward to, with this concert, with the alumni there, is our current students being able to sit in a section with them so they can really see and hear how they do what they do. 'Cause I really believe that sometimes the alumni can reach our students in ways better than even the faculty can, because of the closeness in their ages.
TR: Generally speaking, why is jazz education important?
CA: A friend of mine once said that "the classroom has become the new bandstand." Now, I don't think anything will replace the bandstand, but I understand the point he was trying to make. One, many of the jazz masters aren't around anymore. Two, there are not as many clubs or performance opportunities as there once were.
So the question becomes: How do the new, up-and-coming musicians cut their teeth and become ready to go to the next level? I can say, particularly at Juilliard — having artists like Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, Kenny Washington, Rodney Jones and Dr. Eddie Henderson — that we're now able to bring all those live performance experiences to the student in the classroom.
Greg Thomas is a regular contributor to The Root.