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Offering a bridge to success: Mark Gross on NJPAC’s TD Jazz for Teens program

Mark Gross with Jazz for Teens students
Mark Gross with Jazz for Teens students

The TD Jazz for Teens program at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) is now in its 25th year. Founded by bassist and educator Rufus Reid, the program provides teaching and mentoring to youth at all skill levels through a weekly series of sessions held 10 am to 5 pm every Saturday from Jan. 28 until May 13. Among its alumni are Tyshawn Sorey, Alex Wintz and Lucy Yeghiazaryan.

While on The Jazz Cruise, I spoke with saxophonist Mark Gross, NJPAC’s director of jazz instruction, about the program’s origins, goals and achievements. Gross was performing on the cruise as an All-Star and as a member of the cruise’s big band, but all throughout the week was preparing for the program’s coming season.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Lee Mergner: What are the origins of this program?

Mark Gross: We're at the Silver Anniversary of the program. Rufus Reid started the program 25 years ago with the realization that there needed to be some kind of educational component to serve students in and around the Newark area. He started Jazz for Teens before the construction of the building [NJPAC], believe or not. Rufus served as the director for that first year, and then after that, Don Braden came in as the director of the program. Don successfully ran the program for about 16 years or so. During those formative years, I was the saxophone instructor. I would kind of alternate for about 10 years with Bruce Williams, who was also a saxophone instructor. We had Michael LeDonne for piano and Ron Jackson for guitar. Just an amazing faculty. After Don left, after those many years, James Burton came in for one year and ran the program and then I came in around 2015. The program, serving the community of Newark and all of those wonderful schools that are in and around Newark, was comprised of a really comprehensive full scope jazz program.

Students got three different levels of theory: beginner, intermediate, advanced. They got private instruction, they got master classes, where over the years we've had people like Paquito [D’Rivera] come in. We've had Jon Faddis, we've had Delfeayo Marsalis. Annually, we'll always get Christian McBride to come in, as well as Stefon Harris, who's actually the advisor for me with the Jazz Routines Program, and just a plethora of a number of other guests. And a bunch of ensembles where we would have guests come in and do master classes and the ensembles, and also participate in concerts that we would do.

In terms of the evolution and of forwarding the program from the impetus of where Rufus started and where Don took it to, I evolved it beyond the scope of just serving the students on a high school level, because most of them would go on to different schools and universities. We partnered with a lot of universities and colleges, such as Berklee College of Music, Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, William Paterson, The New School, etc. We have been able to send students to these universities with a great percentage of them full tuition.

Wow, that's huge. For people who don't have kids, you're talking about somewhere between $30,000 and $50,000 a year.

Absolutely. At a minimum. When you talk about schools like Berklee and Manhattan, you’re talking about $60,000 to $75,000 a year. It's been wonderful. Especially Berklee. Berklee has another program, kind of an offshoot of the college. It's called the Berklee City Music Network. It's this cohort of educators from across the country, as well as in Latin America. They have these educators who have annual conferences and talk about best practices and what each other is doing, obstacles and how we can collectively continue to do what we do. Berklee has been really a key advancement in our program as well as being at NJPAC, particularly with John Schreiber, NJPAC’s president and CEO, who is a jazz guy.

Mark Gross with Jazz For Teens kids at the Newport Jazz Festival
Mark Gross with Jazz For Teens kids at the Newport Jazz Festival

We were able to create the George Wein Scholars inside the TD Jazz Routines program. The George Wein Scholars are sort of our elite students who would be the ones, in addition to all of the curriculum things on that Saturday, who would be able to not only go up to the Newport Jazz Festival, but also have lunch with Mr. Wein at his home in Manhattan, before his passing. They would be able to go on special occasions to the Institute of Jazz Studies with Wayne Winborne, look at a lot of the archives, do research, come back with the jazz program and explore what that means internally in the program. The program has evolved greatly and served a bunch of great students.

TD has been a major supporter of your program. Sponsors are important in our community.  Without sponsors, it's a real tough road no matter what you're doing.

TD has been a big supporter of NJPAC, the TD James Moody Festival and now TD Jazz for Teens. We're very grateful for them.

How do you measure success with the program?

Everyone measures success differently. For me, it's not so much about the student becoming that household name, such as the next Christian McBride, even for those who are that type of genius. I should also mention that the requirements to get in our program—it's just that you have to apply and are interested in learning about jazz music. Or want to become more proficient on [your] instrument. Great. You're in. From there it's just an assessment of what level you're on so we can place you. Once you're in the program, our model is really about the whole student; about the mental as well as the proficiency of the student. If you can come into the program, learn about the music and those pillars of what those principles represent and have them be reflected in your life—that's success. You come out of the program with a deeper appreciation for music.

Isn’t it also true that for many students studying music generally has a high correlation with academic success?

Absolutely. In fact, most of our students have high performance academic achievements. One student in particular—ironically enough, his name is Marcus Miller and plays saxophone—got a full scholarship to Harvard in aerospace engineering. He’s really a math wizard. He is a great alto player. I did a panel with him probably about four years ago where he was talking about that same thing, the correlation between math and music. A professor from Columbia University and I were on the panel, with me representing the jazz side of it. There were so many parallels between those two disciplines. In general, math is so closely related to what we do as musicians and improvisers.

We think of math as so purely analytical and scientific, when of course jazz is seen as the opposite.

Exactly. I remember Gary Bartz once said that he wanted to dispel the myth of people thinking improvisation is just making stuff up. You improvise, you embellish on things and the more able you are to do that then you can make a broader statement.

What do you look for in your teachers or instructors? Because some good musicians are not good instructors. And vice versa, some good instructors are not good on their instrument.

We're fortunate. I look for someone who understands how to serve young people, especially in the climate we're in now, coming out of COVID. As a whole, humanity is more conscious about being respectful of others and that the diversity that we all have. And we want to illuminate the greatness of what that represents. I want someone who is kind of sensitive to that and someone who understands how to teach and what to teach. Someone who is not only skilled on their instrument, but able to get to someone who can barely play a C major scale. If someone can explain to me how to get that done, then to me that's a great teacher.

Prior to this, we were talking about some of our successes. Some of the people who have come through the program have become big names now in the industry. I would brag to say we've had a little hand in their success.

Tyshawn Sorey, who received a MacArthur grant, comes to mind.

The funny thing about Tyshawn Sorey is that he’s just an overall musician. He's a composer. He's a percussionist. He's a pianist. He plays trombone. In 2000, Tyshawn had received the Star Ledger award and Don Braden said to me, “Tyshawn Sorey is going to be performing for this Star Ledger Award. I need you to work with him and mentor him.” I said, “Absolutely.” So I met him. He wanted to play a composition he did on piano. So we sat at the piano and I said, “Well, let me see what you have.” He had nothing. He said, “I forgot the score.” Immediately I'm thinking to myself, “Oh, geez, one of those, here we go.” He sat at the piano and, literally for the next 15 minutes, he played this thoroughly composed composition that was just mind blowing. Then the next time we met, he did bring in the score that was all handwritten calligraphy. It looked like something you wanted to put in a picture frame. This was with ink, a pen and scores of paper. It looked just as beautiful as it sounded.

But students like him are the exception. If you don't serve the rest, then you're just star makers.

I think that's kind of one of the prides of our program. We want to be that catalyst for all of the students—serve the whole student. A lot of them will not go on, maybe even beyond high school, to play music, but at the same time, if they can have an enjoyable time, a wonderful experience, and reflect on it, and carry that into whatever that next life is, that's success.

Don Braden, Rufus Reid and Mark Gross
Don Braden, Rufus Reid and Mark Gross with NJPAC's Jazz for Teens students

My wife talks about how this the pandemic was really traumatic, particularly for teenagers because they'd lost out on the sort of formative high school experience, because that's a transition into college.

During the pandemic, because of course no one could really meet in person, we were able to put the program online virtually and have all classes virtually. We started with Zoom and then we had to get rid of that because everyone was kind of bombing into the classrooms. We started using the Google Classroom platform and we were still able to continue our programs where they were still having theory classes, private instruction, master class and listening and history. We were still able to provide instruction to great success. Then of course once we were able to get back in person, everyone was so excited to be back.

Did you keep any of those platforms or interfaces? Sometimes organizations have kept some of the things they were doing. For instance, some presenters are now doing more streaming. Artists are sometimes hosting their own things. Have any of those continued?

We have. Not the full scope of the program, but some of the master classes and some of the things we were able to continue in a virtual model because we were having students from Houston, from California, even from Europe. One of the offshoots of what we offer is a mentoring program. We were able to continue that virtually because we recognized that we were able to have a wider net and we didn't want to necessarily have to completely support those students who were coming to us from the New York, New Jersey area and not able to be in person. It was like, “Okay, you won't get the full scope of the program, but we will have some things where we can still engage with you.”

The program’s title is Jazz for Teens. What is the exact age?

Well, obviously 13 to 18. It literally is Jazz for Teens. But we've had exceptions. We have a student who came to us when she was 11, a drummer, and I think she's now 12. So it’s mostly for teens and some pre-teens. But generally, the age is 13 to 18.

What have been the greatest challenges for you in the program?

That's a great question. I think coming out of COVID has been the greatest challenge in terms of reengaging with the kind of full student numbers that we've had. A lot of folks were still reluctant to be an in-person. And we graduate a lot of seniors each year. We're now in sort of a rebuilding phase where we're working with a lot of the schools in Newark. This year I'm creating a jazz residency program that hopefully working with Margaret L in New Jersey who does a lot of stuff for the new curriculums for the School Board New Jersey, so we will be able to get into schools and just be in front of students. The biggest challenge is recruitment for those who are in the program.

Well, I'm talking about more for you.

Being a professional musician where I have to tour, do Broadway, do all the other things outside of making sure what is necessary to run a successful program at NJPAC continues. Even on this cruise that we're on here, I'm checking emails and writing back, although the program doesn't start for another few weeks. I have a faculty of about 12 teachers. The program is from 10 am to 5 pm. It's going to be 14 weeks, on Saturdays, starting on the 28th of January, ending on May 13th or whatever that second week in May is, with a culminating event. Then all the things that we're going to be doing throughout the year, celebrating the International Jazz Day at the end of April, where we partner every year with Melissa Walker with Jazz House Kids.

We have a theme that we do each year. This year we're going to be celebrating the centennial of Thad Jones. We’re going to be looking at a lot of that music. I’ve scheduled off-campus sites for them to go and hear the Vanguard Orchestra playing that music, as well as with Dave Demsey [jazz educator and saxophonist]. They're going to be doing a concert at Dizzy's celebrating the music of Thad Jones.

What do students or their parents do to learn about and apply to the program?  

They should go to NJPAC.org. Once they get to the site, there's a bunch of visible links for jazz education. They just click on jazz education and scroll down to Jazz for Teens and the registration link will come up. There is a cost for the program, but we offer scholarships for the program. If it's on a financial need basis, all they have to do is let us know and we will make sure that they can attend the program.

The program started on Jan. 28, but you told me that if someone comes a little late, you'll consider it.

We will. Deadlines are meant to be extended and it happens every year. It's kind of an unwritten rule since some students are dealing with the college applications. And for those students, if you come in as a senior or you stay with us, we help students in that path as well. With the audition requirements, we will record and videotape them. In fact, I have to write a letter of recommendation today for a couple of students. We really want to be that bridge. Not only to serve them for where they are now, but to make sure they can get to that next path of where they want to go.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”