It seems that when interviewed, each of the last few generations of jazz musicians claim to be the last to come up in the mentor system. There is obviously some truth to this sentiment considering the generational rift in the New York scene beginning in the 80s and 90s, the rise of formally institutionalized jazz, the near-disappearance of inner-city neighborhood clubs, and the perennially endangered state of Black arts organizations and community centers.
However, mentorship is alive and well in places like Detroit, Chicago, Philly, and New Orleans, and personally I am proud to say that I am NOT the last generation to be mentored because I mentor!
Although under certain circumstances—adopted outside interest, prolonged tutelage—a formal teacher can become a combination teacher/mentor, I define a mentor as something separate from a teacher because one receives categorically different information from a mentor than from a teacher. My true mentors are musicians who I’ve never taken a lesson with and in some cases never really sat down at the instrument together. Of course when I say my mentor (singular) I am always referring to the late Claude Black.
I would like to propose a few definitional characteristics of a mentor as defined by the jazz tradition as I know it:
1) The protégé must find and seek out their potential mentor, demonstrating an understanding of the mentor’s musical contributions, musical language, and historical context, and finding a way to display their own abilities and commitment to the music.
2) The mentor then decides at his or her own pace whether or not to adopt protégé and at what level of commitment.
3) The mentor (possibly while deciding to take on a protégé) decides what information to give out and when.
[N.B. I knew master guitarist Perry Hughes socially and played with him for over four years before he gave me any feedback, but when he did, it was a very small pointer that completely called into question—and ultimately transformed—my Hammond organ playing.]
4) The protégé must initiate the sharing of information and continues to bring in new topics. This cannot be overemphasized. In addition to testing the protégé's ability, it also ensures that information does not get into the wrong hands or taken out of context. The protégé inevitably must adapt his or her expectations and style of questioning to the mentor’s manner of disseminating information. Just as much can be learned from a non-answer as from an answer. Similarly, there can be much to learn about what music the mentor does not like and why.
[N.B. Claude Black once remarked to my mom and me that he had a lot of information he wanted to pass along; all I (or any other musician) had to do was ask. The next time I saw him I proceeded to ask about one of his signature pianistic flourishes, to which he smiled and responded "I can't give away all of my secrets!"]
5) There is often an emphasis on and inclusion of non-musical information, (eg character, relationships, spirituality, current events, career, business, etc.) which may extend to the mentor including the protégé in family activities, which may represent a different culture than that of the protégé.
6) The mentor decides when and in what contexts to observe the protégé’s progress. This can be done solely through conversation but usually also includes unannounced drop-in’s to the protégé’s performances.
[N.B. Jason Moran mentioned to me that drop-in's were a feature of Andrew Hill’s mentorship. In my experience, musicians past a certain age tend to show up to listen, but refuse to sit in when asked. Prof. Geri Allen told us that Cecil Taylor used to come hear her play with Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman, and Andrew Cyrille, and that she preferred not to know that he was in the house!]
7) Finally, the protégé may at some point hire the mentor as a sideman or as an equal co-collaborator. This marks a graduation from initial roles, a tacit endorsement of what the protégé is doing ‘on their own,’ and often an expansion or re-interpretation of the mentor’s musical language.
[eg Marcus Belgrave’s many appearances on recordings by Geri Allen, Robert Hurst, Regina Carter, etc.; Coleman Hawkins’ appearances on Monk’s and Max Roach’s recordings]
In contrast to the format of formal private lessons between a teacher and student, there is no burden or expectation for the mentor to give out information or feedback in regular intervals, nor are there concrete assignments. The protégé must be patient, self-motivated, self-critical, curious, and most importantly creative and disciplined with how (s)he applies the information.
The mentor thusly is not tied to the binary of “sounds good”/”needs work” feedback and can begin train the protégé’s discretion and intuition. Similarly there is no pressure of students comparing a shared teacher’s assignments and/or feedback. The drop-in’s ensure that there can be no single assignment to assess; the mentor is there to hear the lessons in action.
[N.B. It was a watershed moment in my development when master bebop saxophonist Larry Smith came to a gig where I was playing decidedly post-bebop originals; as he was leaving he told us that he felt refreshed and creative. At that point I learned that mentor instruction transcends the literal and addresses the very act of music-making.]
Furthermore, the inclusion of non-musical information moves the emphasis away from Eurocentric classical pedagogical values (eg technique, sight-reading, ensemble blend) and towards the ethics and morals of jazz: storytelling, life lessons, the etiquette of listening and interacting, responsibility to one’s community, tricksterism, honoring one’s ancestors, living history, tradition-as-innovation, and so forth and so on.
I hope that in the years to come, we can honor the legacy of Geri Allen by bridging the gap between academic rigor and the informal warmth of the oral tradition.
Personally, I hope to experience and write about mentorship practices in other musical cultures.
I will forever be indebted to (each deserving a post unto themselves) Claude Black, George Davidson, James Dapogny, Paul Keller, Chris Smith, Vincent Chandler, George “Sax” Benson, Ramona Collins, Clifford Murphy, Perry Hughes, Gerard Gibbs, Gene Dunlap, Wendell Harrison, Allan Barnes, Larry Smith, Charles Boles, Ralphe Armstrong, Marion Hayden, Dan Jordan, Dan Pliskow, Ron English, Leonard King, Barbara Morrison, and Philip Wright, as well as my teacher/mentors (all of whom taught more like a mentor than a pedagogue) Thomas Strode, Sean Dobbins, Paul Finkbeiner, Tad Weed, Vincent York, Geri Allen, Robert Hurst, Andrew Bishop, and Marilyn Mason.
And most importantly, a big shout out to some of the younger musicians whose growth I have been lucky enough to be a part of: Kayvon Gordon, Julian Allen, Jordan Otto, Stephen Grady, Nolan Young, Jon Taylor, Trunino Lowe, and Jeffrey Trent, and to all of the young musicians who have learned by example to approach their elders.