The summer jazz camp at Wynnefield always ends with a performance on Friday afternoon by all of the camp ensembles. The charts are generally familiar, the solos are applauded warmly, and every student gets their moment in the spotlight.
Rather than starting out with a crowd-pleasing tune, Scott Coulter’s middle-school-aged ensemble kicked off this summer’s final concert with something daring: a free-jazz performance. It was completely improvised, starting from nothing, and building up to thrillingly chaotic heights.
Why break the mold – and surprise an audience of parents and family members – this way? It was just the right group of musicians and the right time, he says. “They were really listening, responding to each other, and adjusting their volume.”
To teach jazz is really to teach improvisation, and while Coulter is an active performer, both on piano and organ, he still recognizes the difficulty in practicing something that’s meant to be spontaneous. “You’re teaching someone how to make something up in the moment. It’s a little contradictory.”
He can suggest ideas and guidelines, though, and make recommendations on different ways that pianists can voice chords. “I try to get them away from thinking about right notes and wrong notes, and to get rid of other crutches in their playing.”
He also draws on examples from great jazz players. He cites Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Smith as ones he likes to hold up as models, adding that he had all three lined up for a morning of jazz history instruction during the summer jazz camp. He got hung up on Herbie, though, and never got around to the others.
“To me, there’s a before-Herbie period and an after-Herbie period in jazz. No one could voice a chord in the same way after him,” he says. “He’s really fearless.”
The Wynnefield branch is the hotbed of jazz activity at Settlement, with at least half a dozen ensembles rehearsing weekly. Coulter checks in with the other ensemble coaches regularly, seeing where their respective groups strengths are and, of course, finding out what repertoire they’re working on.
This last item is especially important in light of a performance from a few years featuring several of the Wynnefield jazz ensembles. The instructors hadn’t been in touch beforehand, and the concert ended up being a little, well, one-note.
“All the bands played ‘Blue Bossa’ and ‘Tune Up,’” he says, laughing.