American saxophonist inspires Jamaican music students

Brent Birckhead's master class

Friday, February 25, 2011    

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Students and onlookers packed the auditorium of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts to hear rising jazz/blues saxophonist, Brent Birckhead.

The artiste Downbeat magazine named as 2010's best new blues/pop/rock soloist is in Jamaica to headline the US Embassy's Blues on the Green concert set for this evening at Emancipation Park starting at 6:00 pm.

The master class participants were drawn from members of the Jamaica Combined Cadet Force Band, the Sam Sharpe Community Band from Montego Bay, the St Patrick's Foundation of Seaview Gardens, the Edna Manley College, and other high schools from Clarendon, Kingston and St Catherine.

Birckhead began by quizzing students on fundamental musical terms; the students were initially reticent. Undaunted, he retreated from questions and shared words of inspiration talking passionately about jazz and its ability to make him "profoundly happy," and the interconnectedness of musical forms of jazz, blues and reggae. Lively and engaging, Birckhead's enthusiasm for both performing and teaching music was evident and his auditorium of students began to relax.

Asking all the musicians present to join him in playing scales and arpeggios, Birckhead noted that even he, an accomplished musician, still works through fundamentals as a part of his daily practice. With some degree of trepidation, all the music students ambled onto the stage to join him in an improvisational exercise. He taught them Duke Ellington's C Jam Blues, and they giggled with delight as they finished, many of them having improvised jazz for the first time ever.

Birckhead then turned his attention to the traditional master class interchange between single student and teacher. Edna Manley College student Ewing Miller was among the saxophonists invited to play a solo. As Miller played Bob Marley's Jammin', Birckhead sat akimbo in chair, listening intently to the student work through the melodic elements of the song. Eyes closed, head gently nodding and utterly absorbed in the music his pupil is making, Birckhead was, quite obviously, completely in his element. Miller muddled a passage and Birckhead leaned forward slightly saying "That's ok, there are no mistakes; play something else and make it right!" Miller repeated the passage - deftly this time, and Birckhead smiled and softly said "Yeah, that's it!"

Young trumpet player Sheldon Griffiths from St Patrick's Foundation played Bob Marley's No Woman Nuh Cry. After listening to Griffiths and explaining the harmonic structure of the melody, Birckhead eased into the tune with dexterity and tenderness. Eyes closed, saxophone cradled against his chest, Birckhead wove modal harmonies into the familiar melody until the song became something new.

Birckhead's accomplishments are impressive: he has performed throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas alongside some of the greatest contemporary jazz musicians. A veteran performer at the legendary Blues Alley, the Kennedy Centre Honours, the Nagano Jazz Festival, the Capitol Jazz Cruise and other prominent venues, Birckhead's mastery of music and command of his instruments belie his mere 25 years of age. His former instructor, Charlie Young, grew so impressed with his skills that he gave Birckhead the moniker "the musicians' musician" with which other veteran jazz artists agree.

Monique Jarrett, one of the few female musicians, volunteered to play a solo for Birckhead and, in giving the vote of thanks, said she was grateful for his positive comments and critiques. "I am inspired to practice and be better than him one day."





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