Category Archives: jazz education


Anne Farnsworth session

I came home from a Saturday night gig to hear that my beloved friend, Ndugu Chancler, had passed away from the illness he had been battling for several years. An immeasurable loss, not only for the industry, but for all the friends, loved ones, students and everyone he touched with his kindness, joy and positive outlook.

When people asked me about Ndugu’s work, my answer by way of description was, ‘He’s played with everyone from Miles to Michael Jackson.’ And pretty much everyone in between, to be honest. That’s Ndugu playing that iconic intro on Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on the Thriller album, the biggest selling pop album in history. For a deeper, yet still incomplete, outline of some of the people he recorded and toured with, see his obituary in the New York Times. Speaking of which, how many drummers get obituaries in the New York Times?

I went to NAMM with him once and it was like being with the President, we couldn’t walk more than five feet without being stopped by someone – colleagues, fans and swarms of pic-snapping Japanese who surrounded him at every turn. At a pre-JEN Jazz Educator’s Convention held during a frigid January in Manhattan, we’d be strolling to dinner with Ndugu wearing a full length white mink coat. Yes, he was fly.

I was his little buddy and he was my big, cool friend. We met when he came to the University of Southern California to advocate for the admission of one of his private students. I was finishing my masters degree and running the Jazz Studies office. We had a nice chat and I asked him if he would ever consider teaching in our department. He said yes and after he left I ran to my Chair’s office to give him the news.

Our chair at that time, Thom Mason, followed up with an official offer. There was a lot of excitement about this big of a get for the department and several of the male faculty were slapping each other on the back in celebration while I watched from my desk. To this day, I think they think they were the ones who thought of asking Ndugu to join us.


Ndugu never stopped giving his gifts to his students. Even toward the end,  he traveled the world to meet with them in workshops, clinics and one-on-one. He was a towering industry figure who still got together for weekly lunches with friends from his youth. As well as I knew him, I never learned about his accomplishments from him, only from other people. He was a beautiful soul who will be sorely missed and never forgotten.



Notes From The Sixth Grade



I taught sixth grade chorus for a year at Los Angeles Academy for Arts & Enterprise, a charter school in Echo Park. The school shared a building with a Korean Church and Hillary’s 2008 presidential campaign headquarters.

The mostly-latino kids were about a 50/50 mix of enthusiastic and well-mannered children and unrepentant wildlings. English wasn’t their second language, it was more like their third, as many of them had Mexican and Central American parents of native descent who spoke their indigenous languages at home.

The school’s culture required misbehaving kids to write letters describing the incident they were being punished for. The teacher could add a rebuttal or followup questions, the ‘Enterprise’ portion of the school’s philosophy.

These letters were cogent, evocative and dead honest.  I came upon a pile of them while cleaning out some file cabinets and have transcribed them here. If you’re acquainted with this age group, you will hear some familiar refrains.



                                                                       THE FLY

Dear Ms. Bow,

Ms. F sent me to the back to write a paragraph explaining why I was disrespectful.

That happened because a fly kept bothering me. It kept going to tables and then leaving. I tried to hit it but I kept missing. I tried to hit it with a book but still missed. When Ms. F asked me what I was doing I said “nothing” because if I talked about the fly everyone would burst out laughing.

Then a few kids noticed and softly giggled. I just looked at them and giggled. The fly was really annoying. Then Ms. F sent Hector to the back. A while later she sent Graciela to the back. Then when I and a few others laughed, she said to me “You’ll be next if you don’t pay attention.”

I tried to ignore the fly. But it kept landing. Then when Ms. F was talking it landed on my hand. I tried to hit it but it flew away. I turned around to see where it went. I saw Julio laughing at my failure and laughed a little. When I turned back around she thought I was talking.

I mean I had been talking before and she had heard me. I guess I should have explained it was Elmer. Later for example, when Ms. F authorized it. I admit it. Now I’m in trouble so I will take responsibility for my actions.

My apologies to Ms. F and you, Ms. Bow, for making me waste your time with my childish behavior. I am sincere.     Manuel


                                                      BUDDING BOOKWORM

 Dear Ms. Bow,

I was behaving badly because I was reading a book. Because I wanted to know what happened. I was reading it when Ms. F was talking and that’s why I got in trouble.

Response: Ms. F would like to know why the book was out when she asked at the beginning of class to put everything away.

I just wanted to know what the book was about and when you said to put it away I was going to and you came to my desk and told me to write a letter. And Ms. F said that we were supposed to put everything away at the beginning of class. I did and Manuel let me borrow the book and then I was reading it. She caught me with the book and I did not respect her to put everything away.       Hector


                                                BLAME TESTOSTERONE

I wish I had music with a different class. Because the boys are really rude. The boys shout instead of sing. I don’t like that. I wish boys would just follow directions and stay quiet. But they don’t. But I ♥♪♪.       Maria [Written on pink Hello Kitty paper]

 The thing that happens is that all boys don’t listen to the teacher and they always talk back. In every class. Almost all the boys except Jose, Darren and Alexander. The girls, we listen.   Jessica


                                    CIRCUMSTANCES BEYOND MY CONTROL

The only reason I laughed is because my friend sneezed like a girl. I started laughing and then Miss F told me to write this letter. Then she sent me to the back of the class.

Response – Miss F does not ask people to write something until they have been asked several times to not talk or fool around. Agree?

NO! I do not agree because sometimes you think I’m playing around but I’m not.     Ramon

Dear Ms. Bow,

Ms. F is maid at me. I was just looking at the girl that was laughing and she put me in the back and told me to write this letter.      Edgar

 I was good but people made jokes and I laughed. And people did funny things when we were singing.     Lesley

I wasn’t doing anything bad. I love music. My friends were behaving bad and goofing off. I don’t like to stop a lot. Ms. F doesn’t like to get mad.      Jose

I was trying to tell Ms. F that I didn’t have my songs. I was sharing with Josselin but I stopped because I wanted to tell Miss F the script didn’t have some of the songs.

I did get in trouble because I was being disrespectful because I was laughing and talking and making Johnny laugh and other people. I should think before I say something. Next time I’ll think before something comes out of my mouth.        David

 I was actually sick from the stomach and my head hurt but Brian was staring at me and he made a funny face and I laughed and then he laughed. But I am sorry to doing that. I wasn’t lying about being sick. I hope you accept my apology, Ms. F. I mean it!         Sergio


                                                 PERFORMANCE REVIEWS

 How I really feel about music is happy. Singing kinda expresses my feelings. But some people try to ruin it. People shout out, don’t participate and fool around.

Some people hate you because you are mean. I think you’re a pretty good teacher. I like this class. I think you should make the bad people go to detention and the good people don’t get punished. That way the bad people get jealous and do good.         Darien

I think I haven’t been bad cause I like music. When I grow up I want to be a singer but mostly a dancer. Also I like it cause Ms. F is a cool person.        Jacky

Why I don’t want to participate is because I get distracted. And also I was trying to talk to Brian R. I had my feet on Brian R’s chair and was moving him.

Also I don’t like the music that much. It’s boring. That’s why my behavior is bad. And I am bad each time it’s choral music. Then I wanted to talk to Brian R and Ms. F asked me what I was doing. She made me go to the back. That’s why I’m writing this essay!!!!

Ms. F is mean a lot. I don’t really like music class. I try to behave good so my Life Folder will be good and my mom can sign it. This is the only class I don’t like. Reader Theater is better than Music.       Miguel

I like music because I want to be a singer. I like my teacher called Ms F. I didn’t behave good with my teacher. The class was bad to get the teacher mad. But I like music and the teacher. I am sorry Ms. F that I got you mad. I will behave better on Thursday.          Johnny

I like music class because Ms. F is really the nicest teacher in the whole school and cares about us.        JuliaChaos-in-the-classroom1 


                                                      SIGNED CONFESSIONS

Dear Miss F,

I, Manuel Esperroza, got in trouble for talking and interrupting you. You said to stop and I was very close to going to Mr. Louis’s office. Well, I’ll resume to the end. Before you sent me to the back I was about to ask Mendez what the lyrics were.

I did not want to write the lyrics down so I was going to ask him if he knew the words I did not know. That way, if you asked me I would know them. Before that I must admit I had been talking about other stuff.

But I was trying to stay away from the office. I do not want to be there. I’ve been there a lot lately. And since you’re reading this I should add something else that you might want to know.

I refused to translate for Elmer because he has been giving me a lot of trouble. First, students come to me and ask me to control Elmer because he’s giving them trouble. Then Elmer hits me in the head with a lock. Outraged I was.

Then he hits me in the ribs with the lock. Mr Cooligan sent us to the office. Elmer gets in-school suspension and I get a call home. And my mom has to come to school to talk about it. Since then we were told to stay away from each other.

That’s my reason for not translating. Well, that’s it. I just have to apologize and take responsibility for my actions.           Sincerely, Manuel

Dear Ms. Bow,

I was talking with a boy and Ms. F warned me to stop talking but I didn’t stop talking, that’s why I got in trouble.           Sincerely, Siomara

 I think it’s disrespectful we kept talking and making jokes. Also, we weren’t singing we were yelling. It’s not good. Sorry, Ms. F. I will not do it again. Bryan R is the worst. Sorry Ms. F.      Anna

Dear Ms. Bow,

Ms.F sent me to the back because I said People’s Court. Then she told me to write this letter.

Response: Ms. F does not send people to the back the first time they misbehave. Agree?

Yes, because when I’m bad the first time she doesn’t send me to the back.       Anthony

 I was speaking when I wasn’t supposed to. I’m so sorry Ms. F. I’ll do better next time. I’ll sing and won’t be disrespectful. Sorry.        Lesley

                                                          UNFAIRLY ACCUSED

I feel like it is not fair that the kids that listen get in trouble. I feel like the kids that don’t listen more than twice should get sent to another class. I feel like Ms. F should not get disrespected. That’s how I feel.      Patty

I could not sign because I am sad and sick. I’m sleepy in music and I do not like signing. I went to a party and came back at 4AM. I like music but not a lot.      Brian

 Well, Miss, I was singing but if you think I wasn’t that’s your choice. But if you don’t think this is good enough, because I was singing, I really don’t have anything to talk about. I was picking up stuff that fell from my backpack. I really wanted to sing but I guess you think I was talking. You’re the teacher and it’s your decision.       Mimi (and Roxy says hi!)

                                                          POST-GAME ANALYSIS

 I think the class was bad because we were not in school yesterday and maybe we got used to having fun.          Mark

Most of the kids in the class were not participating. I like music, besides all the arguments. I think the class was too loud and hyper. Maybe some kids ate too much sugar today.      Maria

 Some people were disruptive to the class. Some people lied because they didn’t want to sing. Some people were probably bored.        Alexander

 Today the class was calling out a lot and I was part of that. I guess the class was tired with music because they wanted to go home.         Bryan

 Some people don’t want to participate because they might be tired or maybe because they don’t like it.        Marta

Dear Ms. F,

I think that some people think it might be uncool to sing. But I really like music because we get to sing. I think people want to argue because they want to be silly but they are not funny. I think that the song You Got A Friend is great.        Anita



Artists often struggle with confidence. We create from the deepest region of our souls, laying bare thoughts and emotions that most people are never forced to expose. Not only do we expose our inner selves, but we then present that exposure as a commodity on the open market where others are free to pan, pick apart or simply ignore. Is it any wonder that our confidence, our belief in ourselves waxes and wanes? Where do we get confidence in the first place? Is it formed or destroyed in childhood by our parents? Our peers? And how does the psychic pain that drives many artists to create in the first place affect our confidence? Does it strengthen it or tear it down?

Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve seen students whose confidence levels bear little relationship to their artistry and achievement. Most of them err on the side of too little, needing support and coaxing to bring out their innate talent. Stop whispering, I urge. You’re hiding your voice; let it out. Don’t be afraid.

Then there are the others. People who have an inflated, yet rock-solid sense of themselves and their gifts, despite all evidence to the contrary. Where did they get that unwavering self-assurance? Is it born or made?

I envy these people.

Years ago, one such person walked into my teaching studio. In her late 20’s and completely untrained, she was convinced that a career on the stage was her birthright. Instead of asking for my feedback, she told me what her future held. Frumpy and unattractive, with a high-pitched nasally speaking voice and a strong Brooklyn accent, I found her confidence breathtaking. Perhaps she did indeed have a unique talent, a once in a lifetime gift. A diamond in the rough who just needed some training and direction to realize her dreams.

And then she sang. And it was bad. It was stupendously, awe-inspiringly bad. So bad that, for a moment, I wondered if it was performance art or I was being punked. She sang with no inflection, no resonance, no vibrato and rarely in tune. But she was loud and proud. Confident. And boy, did I envy her.

I record my lessons to give my vocal students something to practice with and the chance to hear themselves as others do. I never keep the recordings but this one I did. Not to mock her at parties but as a reminder – confidence is mutable and self-directed. No one can give us confidence but ourselves.

So, here she is, in all her self-assured, imperturbable glory. And if you think she sounds a little bit like Miss Piggy (another example of self-possessed aplomb), well, she kind of looked like her too.


Jazz History As Students Remember It…


Some memorable test answers from college Jazz History exams and Concert Reports I’ve received:

Jazz was affected by the economy in WWII – people didn’t go out very often because there was a shortage of rubbers. (Actually, the demise of the Big Band era was hastened by a wartime shortage of rubber … for tires … for the buses.)

Q.  What’s the difference between a big band and a combo?
A. A big band performs with a male singer and a combo uses a female singer.

The instrument in Free Jazz most likely to be omitted is the drums, because with everybody doing their own thing there’s no use trying to keep the beat.

A stride pianist is a person who sits astride on the piano bench. Also, when the music is strident, it’s probably a stride pianist.

The difference between a rural Blues singer and a Classic Blues singer is the Rural Blues singer is shorter. (ED: The songs are shorter – not the singers.)
Not only did Bessie Smith record for Columbia, she also made videos for them. (Ah, MTV circa 1932.)
Louise Armstrong was the first great Jazz musician. No, it was Lois Armstrong. (Armstrong’s wife had no idea!)

A ‘hot Jazz’ band is on fire. A ‘Mickey Mouse’ band plays at Disney World.

From Concert Reports:

“The pianist used crescendos and archipelagos in his solo.”

“The trumpeter put a muzzle on his horn to keep it quiet while the bassist played with his hands around its neck.”

More brilliant concert reportage:

“The bass player didn’t do any walking because there wasn’t enough room on the stage.”

“The two soloists competed like an old fashioned carving contest.” (He means ‘cutting contest’)

And finally, my favorite:

“The piano and the bass started the tune silently.”