Jazz minor program at RIC provides essential keys to a complete learning experience

Greg Abate, above, and Joseph Foley, below, at rehearsals.
For nearly eight years, the minor in jazz studies program at Rhode Island College has provided a solid foundation of knowledge and experience for aspiring jazz musicians, performers and instructors. To fulfill the minor, students complete a total of 21 credit hours in theory and performance courses that help them develop unique stylized approaches and abilities.

Along with four semesters of Jazz Combo ensemble participation, the program also requires two semesters of Jazz Theory, a survey course on the History of Jazz, and vocal or instrumental Applied Jazz instruction. The curriculum is taught by an adjunct faculty of highly accomplished jazz professionals who have performed, arranged and recorded for audiences.

Among them are Greg Abate, reeds, Jazz Theory, Combo Workshop, and Applied Jazz Studies; Kevin Kane, trombone and History of Jazz; Shawnn Monteiro-Huelbig, voice; Greg Wardson, piano; Vinny Pagano, drums; James Seabra, drums and percussion; Eliot Porter, bass; George Leonard Jr., guitar; and Michael Kregler, piano. Joseph Foley is a full-time professor who directs the RIC Concert Jazz Band.

In 1999, Abate began teaching a jazz improvisation course at RIC. Abate, an acclaimed international jazz saxophonist, recording artist and clinician, credits former RIC professor and jazz fan Richard Keogh with introducing him to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Former chair Robert Elam and former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Richard Weiner were “instrumental in forming the jazz minor program,” Abate said.

He recognizes the need to maintain the American art form of jazz as an influential staple in popular music. “We have to preserve this music, and these courses are good at instilling some knowledge of the jazz art form in students,” he said.

Abate also emphasizes important elements such as the American Song Book jazz tunes, jazz bebop standards, and different styles in jazz composition in his small group jazz combos.

In many of the classes, the background methodology serves as an initial point of reference with which to inspire interpretational work. Along with discussing critical concepts and terminology in theory, students write actual compositions, experimenting with different styles and essential tools like jazz scales while doing so.

Jazz music comes into its own as an art through improvisation. While often misconstrued as being a random execution of notes on an instrument, improvisation is actually when musicians compose melodies in their head, Abate said. “There is no memorizing, but playing in the moment and composing on a tune’s harmonic structure,” he added.

This process is a complicated one, which is why many students play while looking at sheet music. Ultimately, Abate encourages them to play without reading, since it is all about taking chances artistically, he said. “Many times they are afraid of playing badly, but that’s why you are in class, to get the experience to work it out.”

Greg Abate
To play jazz successfully, one must remain in that middle ground between technique and innovation, which is why it is not unusual to see different levels of progress within a class. “When you grow and experience life, that will go into the music along with the practice of classical music,” Abate said.

Aside from his educational endeavors as a RIC professor and clinician who gives private lessons and conducts worldwide jazz workshops, Abate has had years of performance experience with the Ray Charles Orchestra and the revived Artie Shaw Orchestra. He has also recorded several full-length albums, one of which was Grammy-nominated.

Abate knows first-hand about the dedication and hard work it takes to reach what he calls the “Zen-like state in the mastery of an instrument.” He passes on that knowledge to his students at RIC so that they may share it with others, whether they go on to teach or perform.

Students in other disciplines are also welcome to take classes in the jazz program as electives, although there may be some basic prerequisites to fulfill before getting into the small ensembles and Applied Jazz course. The African and African American Studies Program at RIC offers a class that traces the history and origins of bebop music, which fulfills the Core 4 schoolwide general education degree requirement.

Abate co-teaches the course with history professor Ronald Dufour during the spring and summer, giving students an idea of the different music styles through his playing. “It means a lot to keep the art of jazz alive,” he said. “I teach what I love and what I do.”