When students and faculty discuss The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, the same phrases recur. Creative collaboration. Artistic freedom. Mutual respect. These phrases could be taglines for the pedagogical approach of Dr. Keller Coker, who assumed the deanship of the school in March 2017. Eighteen months in, Coker has already helped the school manoeuver several shifts in direction, including the influx of many prestigious faculty members; the relocation of the experimental jazz club, The Stone, to the school’s campus; and the rollout of new academic opportunities for students both stateside and abroad.  These initiatives all facilitate Coker’s vision for the New School’s jazz program—to give students what they need to be leading-edge musicians in the 21st century.

The jazz school that Coker inherited was appreciably different from the school that his predecessor dean Martin Mueller helped to launch under the auspices of the Parsons School of Design in 1986. Most notably, in 2015, while Coker was serving as assistant dean, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music joined with The School of Drama at the New School, its theater arts school, and The Mannes School of Music, its classical music conservatory. The new entity, collectively called The College of Performing Arts at the New School (CoPA), concentrates most of the institution’s performance talent in one place, effectively creating a crucible for artistic exploration and experimentation.

Here’s how it works: In CoPA, new students encounter not only the basic core courses for their area of concentration, but opportunities to learn about other creative disciplines and to birth new works with like-minded student artists. A jazz student might be writing a score for a live theatrical production. Classical and jazz instrumentalists might be improvising together on a film score. Actors might be learning how to move on stage in a drumming class. And if CoPA students want to take classes outside of the performing arts—in science or business, say—they can do that, too, via any of The New School’s  four other colleges.

Most institutions of higher learning are not set up to handle the administrative and academic challenges that this type of inter-disciplinary learning presents, Coker asserts. For the most part these challenges are about who’s going to be responsible for what—the money, the communication, the paperwork. At The New School, though, the deans of the three CoPa schools—Coker, Richard Kessler at Mannes, and Pippin Parker at the School of Drama—address these challenges among themselves in an unusually cooperative manner. “The three schools are really tight and close at the leadership level,” said Coker in his office on the 5th floor of the New School’s Arnhold Hall in Greenwich Village. ”All we talk about is more ways that we can collaborate.”

Coker’s varied experience as a professional West Coast musician no doubt gives him insight not only into the value of artistic collaborations, but into how they might work. First, his academic credentials are impressive:  He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in jazz performance on the trombone and a doctorate in historical musicology, and he has completed coursework for another doctorate in historical performance, all from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. Before moving to the New School, he was a tenured music professor at Western Oregon University. In addition, outside of academia he’s produced recordings for various labels in different genres, including Sony Classical, and worked with manifold performing organizations in a wide array of capacities (the Los Angeles Master Chorale as a producer, The Temptations and The Four Tops as a player, and the American Metropole Orchestra as founder and music director, for example). His is an insider’s view into what jazz students need to have viable careers after graduation—and that isn’t simply a set number of hours in a practice room playing Charlie Parker licks in 12 keys.

What jazz students need is an understanding of how other artists work and a common vocabulary for working with them. The current pedagogical model, developed in the 1970s and 1980s according to conservative training guidelines for classical musicians, prepared jazz musicians for a performing world that doesn’t exist anymore, Coker explains. Back then, it was hard enough to convince major music institutions to develop curricula for jazz artists, and jazz educators made compromises just to get programs on their feet. Today, jazz musicians need training not only in music fundamentals, but in technology, business, media, social justice—all of the factors that artists must manage in a multi-cultural, increasingly integrated professional world. Schools whose programs fall into siloes—composers compose, players play, singers sing, producers produce, and so on—are perhaps less able to prepare students for the realities of a working musician’s life today. “I don’t talk to anybody from any other school who doesn’t realize that what we’re talking about is important. But how it gets done, that’s not easy,” says Coker.

This is where the New School approach to artistic preparation, with its emphasis on developing cross-disciplinary skills, can be especially valuable to young musicians. The necessary shift in pedagogical thinking, Coker explains, is to focus on learning outcomes rather than strict adherence to prescribed academic content. So, if the learning outcome is to have students develop a deep understanding of how music works, why not let them study the music that they already appreciate, he asks?

By way of example, Coker draws on his experience in teaching music history. To understand the medieval component of music history, a required class in most undergraduate music programs, students need to spend several weeks just learning to identify the era’s musical forms, sounds, and composers. But if you stop worrying about specific content, Coker argues, jazz students can build these same analytical skills through an equally rigorous study of the Miles Davis’ oeuvre, which would be more familiar and perhaps easier for them. The extent to which the content is easier is the extent to which you need to make the class harder, perhaps by delving into an exhaustive review of Davis’ contributions to music history. Whether students study the musical characteristics of three Guillaume de Machaud motets or 60 Miles Davis solos, they improve their comprehension and listening ability, skills which are then transferable to any genre of music. “The learning outcomes are the same in both classes,” Coker points out.  

When outcomes rather than content drive the curriculum, the rub for many academics is handing over a piece of the learning to the students themselves. Thus, for the approach to work teachers need to be able to interact with students as co-creators, and students need to be independent and self-motivating. This is not your usual student-teacher relationship.

Soprano saxophonist and composer Jane Ira Bloom, a full-time faculty member who joined The New School 20 years ago, is a strong proponent of the inter-disciplinary approach to jazz training and helped to develop its curriculum. “We treat [inter-disciplinary training] very seriously at an institutional level,” she reports. “And I’m ground zero because I’m in the classroom doing it.”

Two of Bloom’s regularly offered classes demonstrate how this training works in practice. Her “Improvisational Artists Lab,” the first of its kind at the New School, engages a small group of students culled from all three of the performing arts schools in an exploration of “spontaneous improvisation, dramatic text, music composition, and intuitive play,” according to the course catalog. The final project is an improvised concert at one of the school’s stages. Another of Bloom’s classes, “Shelf Life,” requires that students immerse themselves in a research topic of their choice at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and use their research to create a performance piece. The students then premiere that work at the Lincoln Center Library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium.

Violinist Zosha Warpeha, who just graduated with a BFA in Jazz from The School of Jazz and Contemporary Music and a BA in Interdisciplinary Science from Eugene Lang College this year, used her time in Bloom’s Shelf Life class to explore an interest the Norwegian hardingfele fiddle. She performed her final piece for the class last December, a composition that incorporated elements of the Norwegian folk music she found in the library archives. Her study with Bloom was “really eye-opening,” Warpeha remarked. “It made me realize that there is a greater cause to be working toward.”

Experiences like Warhepa’s speak to the type of mentorship that many of the students find in their New School professors—the chance to grow as artists through direct interaction with a high-profile musician who has the kind of career that the younger musicians aspire to.  For Coker, it’s important that his faculty lead active professional lives, complete with touring; jazz school professors are permitted five out of fourteen weeks to be on the road or attending to other professional obligations. In studying with players like Bloom, drummer Matt Wilson, trumpeter Chris Davis, guitarist Mary Halvorson, or bassist Linda Oh—just a few of the 80 part-time and four full-time professors on the jazz school’s roster—the students benefit not only from these players’ superior musicianship but from a close-up look into the life of a successful performing artist.

These students will also gain exposure to the many different musical skills that working musicians must employ daily. As part of their program, fully engaged students will train not only as performers, but as leaders, improvisers, and composers—invaluable experience for newcomers. “If you graduate and you haven’t had your hand in all four of those things, then you’re missing a big piece of what’s going to be very important to you immediately, on your first day out of school,” advises Coker.

Besides the 360-degree view of the life of a working musician, Coker takes care to present a diverse and inclusive faculty to upcoming students. Two years ago, when the school first looked into gender imbalance in its faculty, 21% of instructors were female. Today that number has risen to 26%, and Coker intends to do all he can to attain gender parity in the jazz department—admittedly, a goal that will take some time. But in Coker’s view, a diverse staff only supports the creative music that bridges divides. “Why don’t we send a message that if you want to do this, you can do this, that we’re going to create spaces where you’re going to be able to do this?” he asks.

If current enrollment trends continue, Coker might have a chance to meet his hiring goals sooner than expected. Last year enrollment in the jazz school beat its target of 65 students by 66%, with actual enrollments at 108 students. This uptick in student matriculation reverses the steady decline that the jazz school had seen over previous years—a decline that the school endorsed as a way to address a lack of space in the school.  Under Coker’s management, however, the school came up with a different solution: the school expanded its hours into evenings and weekends to meet the growing demand for classes in the department. This growth “gave us an incredible opportunity to hire new faculty,” Coker stated.

Another draw for prospective students—and a boon for jazz at The New School—is the relocation this past February of John Zorn’s experimental performance space, The Stone, from Avenue C in the East Village to the school’s Glass Box Theater. The curtain-draped room is nicer than the East Village digs—one of Zorn’s requests—but all else stays that same. Zorn retains curating rights in the new space, with an improvising artist in residence for five nights in a row, each night a different repertoire, as per The Stone’s standard routine.

Zorn, who curates a good 18 months in advance, has tapped some of jazz school’s faculty to play The Stone this October: drummer/percussionist Susie Ibarra will headline Oct. 2-6, with cellist Erik Friedlander following on Oct. 9-13. As yet the space is not a showcase for student work, but in an educational environment where the line between student and teacher can sometimes blur, students might end up performing alongside their mentors on The Stone bandstand.

Student Nick Dunston, slated to graduate in 2019, will be among the first when he plays with guitarist Marc Ribot at The Stone on Nov. 13. Dunston met Ribot when the guitarist led the “(Un)Silent Film Night: Improv Edition,” an evening of improvised music for silent film, at the school. Impressed with the young bassist, Ribot invited him to play the Saalfelden Jazz Festival in Austria this August as a lead-up to The Stone gig, which will feature music from Ribot’s September release, Songs of Resistance: 1942-2018 (ANTI-Records). “The school brings in a lot of guest artists, and I’ve gotten great opportunities to tour with great musicians,” Dunston observes, noting that because of The Stone, students get to participate in a “vast music scene” that would otherwise have remained elusive to them.

The Stone’s new location also invites locals to participate in this vast music scene and brings attention to the school’s role within the community—another of Coker’s goals. “Keller’s making community a priority,” says prolific drummer Matt Wilson, who joined the faculty in 2014. “The Stone—that move—was to show that we’re going to be part of the community with the music.”

Coker is well aware of the many advantages that The Stone will confer on the department. But he’s still figuring out exactly what this will mean for the students—perhaps concerts on off nights, commissioned works for resident Stone artists, or student compositions premiered in the space. Certainly more master classes by teachers like Halvorson and Oh. All possibilities exist, he claims, and the planning for the space is just beginning. Still, he marvels at the accomplishment: “We have a jazz club on the first floor.

Beyond The Stone, Coker is spearheading other advances for the department that promise to raise the school’s profile both within the U.S. and abroad. He just finished designing the school’s first master’s degree program and hopes to begin accepting applications in the fall of 2019; the proposed degree, an M.M. in contemporary improvisation, will be for any improvising musician regardless of genre. The school is also broadening its presence globally through joint performing organizations and exchange programs with music schools like Berklee College of Music, The Paris Conservatory, The Conservatory of Amsterdam, the Israel Conservatory, and the National Academy of Jazz in Siena, Italy. And as the New School continues to establish its international campuses—the latest is in China—the reach of the jazz school could extend even farther.  “We want to face outward a little bit more,” Coker says. “We’re looking to be good partners with people.”

Strong partnerships. Going forward, this is another phrase that is likely to recur when jazz students and faculty discuss what they appreciate about The New School.—Suzanne Lorge