I grew up about as far from jazz as possible, an Irish Catholic Philadelphia neighborhood in the late 1950s and early 60s. In the summertime Bobby Rydell’s “Volare” drifted across the driveway through kitchen window screens, Bing Crosby had himself a merry little Christmas each December, and Lawrence Welk set the tone on Saturday evenings after the dishes were done and the Sunday paper came home from the drug store. Later, it was Chubby Checker and the Orlons, and then the British invasion—vinyl 45’s spinning on the record changer in the cellar or spilling out of the tiny speaker of my transistor radio.
My friends and I memorized songs like we did the responses to the Latin mass, syllable by syllable. We sang backup with the Belmonts, mimicked the fuzz-box guitar that kicked off The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine,” and committed entire WIBG play lists to memory, note by note.
We came by this talent honestly. At St. William’s elementary school, we memorized everything—the capital of South Dakota, the 7 times table, the chief exports of Chile and Argentina, and the three things necessary to make a sin mortal.
It was inevitable, I guess, that I’d carry this reflex to the other side of the desk when, at 21, I started teaching high school English. So the first time I stumbled on a successful lesson—a 2nd period class one morning in mid-September—I figured I’d solved the problem, at least for that day. I’d just repeat the lesson verbatim—examples, asides, jokes and all—during fourth, seventh and eighth periods, and I’d be home free.
They were the deadest classes I think I ever taught. I even bored myself. But I didn’t blame myself—it was the kids. Why couldn’t they be more like their smarter, livelier friends early that morning? I was doing my part—why weren’t they?
Then one day I heard a story about Duke Ellington—probably apocryphal—how he fired a member of his orchestra who played the same solo two nights running. Little by little, the idea worked on me, until I realized that, had Ellington been my department head, had he observed any of my classes, he’d have fired me, too. I wasn’t playing my part after all—I was just imitating myself.
And teaching isn’t like that—it’s like jazz. You don’t script your classes—you don’t do lesson plans. You go in with an idea, a theme, a key, and then you improvise, you grab the rest out of the air. You read the room, the moment, and you riff on whatever your band serves up. It’s wildly exciting to teach this way—to see a text fresh three or four times a day and not know where your class is going to take it.
Teaching isn’t Mitch Miller, I discovered—you don’t follow the bouncing ball. It’s Miles. It’s not plain chant—it’s Coltrane. And you don’t work at teaching any more than you work at jazz.
You play it.
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