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Jazzed Scene

Leon AndersonFrom the halls of whorehouses to the halls of academe—such is the improbable story of jazz, the only form of music that America can truly claim as its own.

Its creators—those largely nameless, gifted souls whose red-hot music lit up the dark corners of New Orleans' vice-ridden Storyville district a century ago—could never have imagined that their art—once reviled as the very voice of Satan—would ever command serious study in the best music schools on the planet.

From cathouse to conservatory-pretty good progress, and in far less than a century, in fact. Jazz made the jump to higher ed in 1941, when New York City's New School for Social Research offered a jazz history course, the first of its kind.

Still, by 1972 only 15 colleges and universities offered degrees in jazz studies. Strangely enough, during what is perceived by most jazz buffs and historians as the most fallow period in the music's history—the 1970s—jazz's profile at the college level was on the rise, and by 1982 there were 72 degree programs offered on campuses from coast to coast.

Florida State University's School of Music played its part in that growth, launching its own jazz studies track in 1978.

Saxophonist William Kennedy got FSU's Jazz Studies Program up and running, and in 1980 students could earn an accredited certificate in jazz studies at FSU for the first time in the music school's long history. Enthusiasm for the program grew quickly, and in 1988 the school won approval to offer a master's degree in jazz studies.

Today, FSU's Jazz Studies Program is thumping along with the speed and vitality of a Charlie Parker chorus of "I Got Rhythm."

Consider: Since 1999, the number of jazz majors on campus has shot up a whopping 300 percent; the number of student-focused performance combos has increased from two to 12; FSU jazz has wowed 'em nationally in several high-profile, invitation-only venues, and a couple of very high-profile faculty have hopped aboard, giving the program a powerful shot of prestige and marquee value.

Bottom line: FSU jazz is smokin'.

Much of the recent fire under the program can be traced to a spark set in 1998, when a young drummer named Leon Anderson, Jr. joined the Jazz Studies staff as the drum-set teacher. Three years later, Anderson was named director of the Jazz Studies Program. In 2003, he earned tenure. This year, he turned 35.

"Leon came in and really started things going," says Scotty Barnhart, jazz trumpeter and one of FSU's new "star-power" faculty hires. "If it wasn't for him doing the right things, being approachable and getting out there, meeting people, the program wouldn't have taken off like it has.

"And the bottom line is he can play. He can walk onto anybody's bandstand anywhere in the world and just flat-out play."

The classically trained Anderson, a native of Hammond, LA., has a serious résumé that features jazz artists such as Art Farmer, Dianne Reeves, Marcus Roberts, and a number of Marsalises (Wynton, Ellis, Delfeayo and Jayson). He's also played gigs with the National Orchestre de France, the Czech National Symphony, and pop jobs with Judy Collins, Henry Mancini and the Temptations.

In fact, it was Anderson's busy performance schedule that nearly led him to decline FSU's first job offer.

"I like teaching a lot, but playing is my passion," Anderson explained. "And I was in New Orleans working as a full-time musician, so I wasn't really looking for something else."

Still, with some guidance from various friends and colleagues, including his mentor—New Orleans pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis—Anderson came around to the idea, with one important proviso.

"I really took the job based on their assurances that I would not have to curtail my outside activities," Anderson said. "And I haven't. I still go out and perform all over the place."


Anderson's immersion in music and performance began as it so often does, in childhood.

"My father was a musician and he played everything in the house from Miles (Davis) to Tchaikovsky and then topped that off with Stevie Wonder or Al Green," Anderson recalled. "For me, it was always music. I developed a great interest in jazz in my junior year in high school. I studied classical music in college, but I always played jazz."

Anderson earned his B.A. in music from Louisiana Tech, followed by a master's in percussion at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, just a stone's throw from New Orleans, where he spent the weekends performing in various combos.

"You play a few times and your name starts getting around," Anderson said of the process. "I started getting calls and very quickly started working my way into the higher end."

Ellis Marsalis, famed as a performer, educator and patriarch of the most influential family in jazz today, heard Anderson play, and took the young drummer under his wing. He invited him to sit in with the Marsalis group, which also included reedman Victor Goines. It was a seminal experience for Anderson, who saw the time as an extended period of "woodshedding," a musician's term for a time of intense learning and practicing.

"Just sitting down having coffee with those cats, that's 'shedding to me," he said. "The history, the times, the scene…all of that's a lesson. And then there's the bandstand."

After a few years, Anderson was one of New Orleans' premiere jazz drummers, playing constantly throughout the city.

"I was never one of those people who had to starve. I worked all the time, every day. I looked forward to a day off. Sometimes I'd do two or three day-a cruise ship in the afternoon, a convention at the Hyatt, and a club at night."

Tallahassee is hardly in the same galaxy as New Orleans when it comes to the jazz scene, but that didn't deter Anderson. When he arrived in Florida's capital city in 1998, along with his bags he unpacked a passion for live performance and an almost evangelical zeal to spread the jazz gospel. Those two qualities have paid off big for FSU jazz.

Pro-Style Mix

When he wasn't teaching drums or coaching student combos, once at FSU Anderson traveled relentlessly around the region, playing in clubs or doing college clinics or offering high-school workshops. His energy, enthusiasm and undeniable chops quickly drew attention.

"After three years here, based on my outside activities-performing, meeting students here and there, doing lots of gigs and clinics—I started to bring in students, and the program started to open up and grow from that," Anderson said. "So (Jon Piersol, FSU's music dean) thought I might have the capability to actually run the program."

Once he was handed the helm, Anderson immediately started advocating for more faculty. Bassist Rodney Jordan was brought in from Atlanta in 2001. Scotty Barnhart, lead trumpeter for the Count Basie Orchestra, was brought in as a guest artist in 2003, and hired on to the faculty in 2004.

Finally, the brilliant and internationally renowned pianist Marcus Roberts, who studied at FSU in the '70s, "came home," as one faculty member put it.

In 2003, Roberts, who just happens to be a Tallahassee resident, was named an FSU Housewright Scholar, a distinction that honors Wiley Housewright, the late and long-time dean of FSU's music school. Roberts joined the faculty this fall.

"It just seemed obvious what a terrible shame (it would be) to have such a resource in town and not use him," Anderson said.

Neither Roberts nor Barnhart are giving up their performance careers, seen (by Dean Piersol) as essential to keeping classroom instruction razor-sharp and in tune with what's playing in the real world. Barnhart plays nearly 100 dates a year with the Basie Orchestra, while Roberts is one of the most in-demand jazz pianists going.

Jordan, who left a busy career as a performer and educator at Georgia State University to come to FSU, cited that freedom (to perform professionally) as one of the chief reasons for his decision.

"Playing live is absolutely essential," he said. "Jazz is an improvisational music and you have to keep it sharp. It can get dull. To have the opportunity to go out and perform with other musicians gives you a lot you can bring to the classroom."

Barnhart, who has visited six continents and played with jazz legends from Clark Terry to Tony Bennett during his 13-year stint with the Basie Orchestra, was even more emphatic.

"The classroom is fine but it's different out here having to do it while you're traveling," Barnhart said, as he drove to a gig in New York City to celebrate Count Basie's 100th birthday.

"Let me put it this way—if you're flying somewhere, would you rather have a pilot who's read about flying in books but never actually flown a plane, or someone who's made a few flights before?"

Feedin' the Fire

It's hardly a secret: the best students follow the best teachers.

Florida is home to an astonishing number of excellent high-school jazz programs. In the past, a program at the University of Miami has, by all accounts, been tops in the state. Miami, and to a lesser extent, a program run by the University of North Florida, traditionally have enjoyed their pick of the pool. Anderson was determined to get on the prospective jazz player's A-list of colleges.

"We needed to get more quality students here, students who were players, students who came from quality high schools," Anderson said. "And we're lucky, in that sense, because there are so many quality high-school jazz programs all over Florida. Making those connections is vital. Faculty like Marcus and Scotty attract students to the university."

That's reflected not only in the number of jazz majors and combos, but also in the quality of the students. What he's experienced so far at his alma mater impresses Roberts.

"These kids are serious about the music, I have to say," Roberts said. "I went into combo rehearsal and they said, 'We're getting ready to play Monk's Dream in its entirety.' Whoa! They knew the music! That's my kind of environment."

That environment is getting noticed, too. Even in 2002, the U.S. News & World Report's Survey of American Colleges and Universities, ranked FSU's jazz graduate program ninth in the nation.

"We're getting better and better," Jordan said. "I just coached a combo last year that was invited to participate in the International Association of Jazz Educators convention. Our school hasn't been represented in that capacity for 10 years."

Anderson and Jordan are big on outreach—and by that they don't mean auditioning kids in New Orleans. Their first targets are only minutes from campus.

Under Jordan's direction, Jazz Studies now operates programs aimed directly at middle- and high-school students within Tallahassee's city limits.

"We'll take a group of middle-school students who know absolutely nothing about jazz and put them in a big-band setup and teach them about improvisation," Jordan explained. "They've only been in a concert band situation before, so it's all new to them. And they just love it."

The college players profit from the experience, as well.

"It gives our students at FSU some really valuable hands-on teaching experience," Jordan explained. "They have the ability to take a tune and work it up to performance level and that's a big help to them. When I went to college, I briefly got a chance to do some teaching my senior year. But at FSU we have freshmen who get this opportunity."

Upbeat Tempo

On the wider jazz scene, what FSU is bringing to the table these days is opening up opportunities for grads.

Martin Bejerano, a pianist and recent graduate, has been labeled by one critic as "one of the three most outstanding jazz talents on the scene today." Bejerano currently plays with jazz legend Roy Haynes, while another alum, pianist Manuel Valera, is recording with some of the biggest names in New York City. Several other jazz alums have landed teaching jobs at the college level in recent months, as well.

"We measure our success by those students who go out and get jobs teaching, and those students who go out and get professional careers," Anderson explains. "It's good for FSU and it's good for jazz."

With accolades, resources, faculty and students pouring in, Anderson says his goal of getting on that "A-list" of collegiate jazz programs is finally in sight.

"Right now, I think we can call ourselves as strong a jazz department as any in the state," he said. "And we're gaining on the rest of 'em."

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