Half the Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival’s all-star guest artists walked onto the stage of the music recital hall at the University of Montana Thursday afternoon to give a rhythm section master class.
Bassist Ashley Summers tuned to pianist Matt Harris’ key plinks while drummer Brian Claxton shifted toms and tapped his toe on the hi-hat pedal while students filed into the hall carrying their own basses, upright and electric.
They were quickly invited to sit onstage, clustered around the trio.
“Do you guys all know ‘Take the ‘A’ Train?’” pianist Matt Harris asked to a smattering of nods, before he sat, locked eyes with Summers and Claxton, and swung into the loose groove of the standard popularized by the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
The three musicians — all longtime professionals who have backgrounds in performance and education — had no trouble improvising the tune, playing off each other and stepping back to allow solos.
“That was fun!” Harris exclaimed after they wrapped up. “We rehearsed last night for the very first time.”
So began the master class, a lesson for rhythm musicians, who have a unique spot in jazz — sometimes relegated to keeping time in a big band, or a featured player in a small trio or quartet.
The class, one of four — each focused on a different instrument or section — was part of the two-day festival, which runs through Friday, with public performances in the evening featuring the best students and the guest sextet.
Around 50 students, ranging from seventh grade to college, asked questions on technique, style and communication, in groups big and small.
As one would expect, communication turns out to be one of the most important factors in jazz, a style based in improvisation.
A lot of young musicians develop a habit of closing their eyes or staring at the back of the concert hall while they play, Summers said. She quickly learned that eye contact is key; not only for improvisation, but paying attention to soloists in a jazz orchestra.
“I would keep my eyes closed, and meanwhile (bandmates would) try to tell me, ‘We’re going to trade fours,’” Summers said. “For you guys, when you’re in a big band setting … your intention and where you focus it, your energy is really important.”
You don’t want parents noticing you as the kid who didn’t pay attention to any of their daughter’s solo, Summers said.
Harris noted the importance of playing less, sometimes to the point of ignoring the sheet music, as a pianist. In the trio setting, Harris said he tried to give Summers and Claxton space to stretch out, even though he was leading.
He earned appreciative nods from students as he mentioned a band director’s tendency to forget the rhythm section, sometimes more focused on the horns or woodwinds who carry the melody.
“Speaking as a director, your hands can be full,” Harris said. But this can be an advantage to rhythm players, who get to play more loose and complementary parts.
“That’s one of the most fun things about playing jazz, especially being in the rhythm section,” he said. “It’s not right or wrong.”
“Keep in mind that you can change it, 'cause that’s what the music’s all about,” Summers added.
Near the end of the class, Harris asked students, “What’s the function of the rhythm section?”
The backbone, said one, the foundation, said another, with texture and harmony.
“I would say the groove,” he said. “We want to make it feel good.”
And with that, Harris, Summers and Claxton launched into another swinging 16 bars.