Aspen Schools' Musician In-Residence Resurrects Jazz

May 5, 2014

Professor Ron Carter plays saxophone with middle and high school students in Aspen. He visited the Aspen School District this spring as the school's first ever musician in-residence.
Credit Marci Krivonen

The music department at the Aspen School District is growing, despite the odds. The budget for music is minimal compared to schools in other states. Last week though, the school welcomed its first ever musician in residence who taught middle and high school students jazz. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen visited band practice and filed this report.

Band practice is in full swing on a Wednesday afternoon. Students with saxophones, trumpets and drums tap their feet as the piece they’re playing reaches a crescendo.

Professor Ronald Carter sits at the head of the classroom, saxophone in hand. He’s a visiting jazz musician and educator from Illinois with a dynamic teaching style.

High school junior Margot Wagner plays percussion. She’s learning a lot from Carter.

"I’ve learned how to say a lot of articulation. That was helpful - the “du-dot’s” instead of the “flah-flah’s,” so it’s really sharp and I’ve learned to listen to the music around me," she says.

Carter visits schools across the world, teaching jazz.

"Kids aren’t used to doing it. I mean, you figure when jazz was the quote-unquote pop music, everyone was singing and dancing to it. Now that’s no longer the case. Kids don’t sing that much anymore and they definitely don’t dance that much anymore and so, we’re trying to indoctrinate them with something that’s totally foreign to the culture anymore."

As a musician, he’s shared the stage with the likes of Clark Terry and The Temptations. Now his mission is to spread what he says is a dying art form at many schools.

"I would say the weakest part of our music education is our jazz education. The jazz experience and the knowledge of how to teach jazz is really left out of the music education curriculum for the most part."

A young saxophone player looks on as Professor Ron Carter gives a lesson on playing jazz music.
Credit Marci Krivonen

Carter’s visit to Aspen is significant because it marks a change for the music department. Just a few years ago, it needed a boost. Just ten students were in the high school band and nearly every kid was a beginner.

"We’ve got about 240 kids in the program this year, up from about 160 last year and we’re shooting for over 300 next year. We’ve got about six or seven bands and two jazz bands, and my days are full," says Steve Heldt.

He's the Instrumental Music instructor for grades five through twelve. The growth of the program is largely thanks to his dedication. He recently moved his classes into a large band room and his students received a Division One Superior Rating last year - a distinction held by just 25 bands in the state. But many students continue to use sub-par instruments and Heldt’s budget is minimal.

"With a community that’s got such a rich music tradition, such as Aspen, with the Music Festival and Jazz-Aspen and everything that happens in town, the school should be a reflection of the community’s values. And, it is athletically and with skiing, but that music tradition is not there. And, that’s my goal is to make sure what the school has reflects the community’s values," he says.

The fundraising arm for the school district, the Aspen Education Foundation, has stepped in to help the program grow. The group has paid for things like new sheet music and visits by musicians such as Ronald Carter.

Back in the classroom Carter wraps up today’s lesson. Brittany McDermott carefully puts her trumpet away. She’s a high school junior.

"I’m really shy when I play my trumpet and I used to always play quiet and never play loud, and I think, playing with Professor Carter has gotten me to jump out of my shell a bit more."

Carter’s visit to the school wrapped up late last week and culminated with a concert where the students played on stage with him.