About Allan Chase – Jazz Pedagogy, History & Improvisation

I’m planning to use this blog as a place to share materials and thoughts on teaching jazz and improvised music, including the history, theory, and practice of the music. I hope these are useful to other teachers or future teachers.

I have another blog at allanchase.com that I’ll use for more personal or autobiographical writing, opinions, discussion of music school administration, cultural and political issues, etc.

About my background and the topics I hope to cover in this blog:

I’ve been playing jazz and improvised music with professional musicians since 1975, and teaching it in colleges since 1981 at Berklee, Tufts, and New England Conservatory.

Also, for 25 years from 1996 to 2021, while continuing to teach and play, I was also a music college administrator: NEC’s chair of Jazz Studies and Improvisation (1996-2001), Dean of Faculty (supervising classroom curriculum including Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation) (2000-2006), co-chair and then chair of Contemporary Improvisation (2005-8), acting chair of Liberal Arts (2007-8), and Berklee’s chair of Ear Training (2008-2021).

You can find my bio, discography, CV, list of courses taught, samples of my music, etc. at allanchase.com.

My undergraduate degree is in music theory and composition (Arizona State, 1978; my composition teacher was Ronald LoPresti, and I studied with Grant Fletcher, Amy Holbrook, Glenn Hackbarth, and others) and I did all of the requirements for the saxophone performance major (with Joseph Wytko) and all but one of the requirements for jazz studies (Dan Haerle, Bob Miller, Wallace Rave) there as well. After two summers at the Creative Music Studio, I attended New England Conservatory for a year of graduate study (1980-81) and studied jazz arranging (with Pat Hollenbeck), ensembles (George Russell), and analysis of music since 1945 (Shirish Korde and Gerald Zaritzky). I finally earned an MA in ethnomusicology at Tufts University in 1992, after teaching at Berklee for seven years. My studies there were mostly in West African music (with David Locke), some in Latin American and Caribbean music and anthropology (with Marina Roseman), and my MA thesis was a book-length study of Sun Ra’s music and life.

My teaching has tended to focus on:

• Descriptive theories of jazz harmony, melody, rhythm, and form with the aim of helping students develop their musicianship and understand past practice as a creative tool (to use, change, or avoid). I taught in Berklee’s Harmony department and served as a Department Associate (working on testing and placement and developing curriculum and materials) with chairs Alex Ulanowsky and Barrie Nettles in the 1980s. Since 2008, I’ve worked closely with Berklee Harmony department leaders Joe Mulholland, Tom Hojnacki, and George W. Russell, Jr. to coordinate Berklee’s Ear Training program, which I chaired, with the Harmony curriculum.

• Teaching free improvisation in an ensemble setting, starting in 1983-1988 at Berklee, and continuing at New England Conservatory from 1995-2009. I drew on wide listening to free jazz, free improvisation, new music, and world musics; my studies at the Creative Music Studio (summers 1978 and ’79) with Roscoe Mitchell, Karl Berger, George Lewis, Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, Jerome Cooper, Jack DeJohnette, Frederic Rzewski, Garrett List, Eugene Chadbourne, Julius Hemphill, and others; and my rehearsal and playing experience with the Lewis Nash-Allan Chase Duo (1979-80). Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet (1980 to present), Rashied Ali and Prima Materia (1992-2000), the Walter Thompson Orchestra (1990-2001), and groups with Steve Lantner, Joe Morris, and Luther Gray (2000-present) and occasional or one-time projects, concerts, and ensembles with Leroy Jenkins, Steve Lacy, John Zorn, Tom Cora, Anthony Braxton, the Boston Braxton Project (with Taylor Ho Bynum, Matana Roberts, etc.), and many others.

• Teaching the history of jazz improvisation and composition through listening, transcription, and analysis while trying to also teach the cultural and historical context, reception, and meaning of the music, using primary sources when possible. I did some of this first in Berklee’s Listening and Analysis classes in the 1980s, then at Tufts’ Experimental College with a course on John Coltrane, in other courses at Tufts University on Coltrane and Jazz & Freedom in the 1960s, then at New England Conservatory in Jazz Styles: Improvisation, Jazz Styles: Composition, Jazz Styles: Free Jazz and the Avant Garde, Jazz Improvisation 1917-56, Form & Freedom in Jazz: 1956-74, and seminars on the music of Sun Ra and of Charlie Parker & Lennie Tristano, all courses I designed and taught between 1997 and 2012. I’ve taught three similar courses at Berklee since 2009. Currently, I teach a graduate elective seminar for Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute master’s students, Topics in Improvisation: Jazz, which is similar to my NEC course Jazz Styles: Improvisation.

Ear Training and general musicianship. I’ve been involved with this since 1981, and it’s been my main focus as chair of the Ear Training department at Berklee (2008-2021), where I supervised the curriculum and a team of 35 faculty members teaching as many as 140 ear training course sections, taken by up to 2400 students each semester. I’ve designed and revised courses; written materials; created and taught online courses; hired, trained, and evaluated faculty members; and observed each teacher in the classroom several times, amounting to hundreds of hours of learning from colleagues. Berklee’s is probably the world’s largest ear training program outside of China; it’s a tremendous laboratory for pedagogical experimentation. We give teachers quite a bit of flexibility to reach standard learning outcomes in their own ways, so there is a lot of variety of teaching practice and materials to observe.

Jazz performance and improvisation in ensembles and lessons. In addition to the free improvisation ensembles I’ve taught, I’ve also spent a larger amount of time teaching ensembles that play jazz standards and traditional forms, from jazz quartets to voice and rhythm section ensembles to big bands. I conducted the Tufts Big Band (1993-7) and NEC Jazz Orchestra (1996-2001), working with guest composers, arrangers, and performers including Sam Rivers, Chico and Arturo O’Farrill, Maria Schneider, Gunther Schuller, Ron Horton, Ingrid Jensen, and Marty Ehrlich. I taught a Duo Workshop ensemble at NEC for several years that proved to be influential for some of the students. I’ll post something about how that worked and what I learned from it.

Saxophone technique. I’ve been playing saxophone since 1965. I’ve only taught private saxophone lessons sporadically — a few high school students when I was starting college, then NEC undergrad and grad students from 1994 to 2010 (many focusing more on improvisation than technique), and an occasional lesson since then. Saxophone technique is not one of my main areas of teaching, but it is one of my main daily pursuits as a musician. My most influential saxophone teachers were Joseph Wytko at Arizona State University (I did classical saxophone quartets on all four saxophones during my four years, 1974-78, and gave junior and senior classical recitals, although I was a music theory and composition major, and was also playing in jazz ensembles) and Joe Allard at NEC, who changed my life. I’ll try to share some of what I learned from those two teachers here.

• I’m also interested in contemporary classical composition; big band arranging; the history of music theory; musical acoustics; music cognition, psychology of music, and the brain; and anthropology and cultural history. These are not subjects I’m qualified to teach at an advanced level, but I dabble in reading about them and/or doing them, and think a lot about how they relate to the things I do teach.

Thanks for checking this out!