At The University of Delaware: a Jazz Vibes – Ragtime Xylophone Summit

I recently paid a visit to the University of Delaware where Harvey Price, the university’s head of percussion, played host to a pair of extraordinary, week-long series of workshops: the first ever University of Delaware Jazz Vibes Workshop, led by vibist Tony Miceli with guest David Friedman, and the Bob Becker Ragtime Xylophone Institute, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Both programs accommodated about ten to fifteen participants, all lured by the prospect of total immersion in the performance of their instrument (practising ended when the buildings were locked up at midnight; I imagine some of the participants were dragged out screaming and kicking). Under the guidance of the best performers/teachers around and taking place in a hip university town, it’s a dream scenario – a chance to “follow your bliss” far from the responsibilities that persistently thwart your efforts to do so at home.

On a personal note, the pilgrimage to Delaware provided me the opportunity to reconnect with David Friedman, my vibes teacher many years ago, who has had a major impact on my musical life and whom I hadn’t seen for over thirty years.

Now the head of the jazz department at Berlin’s Hochschule der Künste (University of the Arts), David is a masterful technician with a powerfully creative musical mind. His earlier recordings included Chet Baker’s Peace and Horace Silver’s In Pursuit of the 27th Man, but from the early ’90s on he has released a number of wonderful CDs under his own name (watch for my review of his latest, Rodney’s Parallel Universe) .

Having attended David’s Delaware workshops, I remain as awestruck as ever. Nothing is more energizing than watching a master perform on his or her instrument – and there was lots of that as David demonstrated points and played through entire tunes, dazzling both technically and musically. Then too, there were the tidbits that offer insights into a musical mind, as when David suggested the “emotional power” brought to a particular chord and scale by altering a note by a semitone (in this case, the 9th in a half-diminished chord/scale). Sure, I was familiar with the material, and was aware of the differences in sound. But never had I consciously considered it in terms of “emotional power”. Aha. . . (Here’s David playing with his band Tambour.)

Bob Becker, a founding member of the famed percussion ensemble Nexus, is a wizard on the xylophone. For the past ten years, his annual Ragtime Xylophone Institute has attracted students from all over North America and beyond (one student this year came from Japan). I wasn’t able to spend as much time at his classes, but heard some wonderful playing from the participants. You can get an idea of what it was like from this clip, filmed in an earlier season. Bob happens to be the soloist in this performance of George Hamilton Green’s Valse Brilliante. He may be the only xylophonist on the planet that can make the instrument sound sensual.

I didn’t get to see any of Tony Miceli’s classes; he was teaching before I arrived. But Tony is a masterful vibraphonist in his own right, and a dedicated and generous teacher to boot. His efforts in Delaware were tireless. When he wasn’t teaching, he was setting up, recording or broadcasting live Webcasts through his Vibes Workshop Website – an endeavour, by the way, that deserves the enthusiastic support of every aspiring or pro vibist. (A brief introduction to the site. . . With Vibesworkshop.com, Tony has succeeded brilliantly in developing an online community of vibraphonists that boasts hundreds of video and audio lessons on performance techniques and improvisation submitted by the likes of Tony, David Friedman, Joe Locke and others. I strongly recommend that every vibraphonist or aspiring vibraphonist go there immediately and join.)

Congratulations to Harvey, Tony and Bob for creating what amounts to a mallet player’s Shangri-La at the University of Delaware.