Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Kodak Hall, the Eastman Jazz Ensemble presents its final concert of the 2022 spring semester – which will also be the final concert for Bill Dobbins as its director. The occasion includes the first performance of Dobbins’ latest work (and an Eastman Centennial commission), Legacy. We asked Bill about this new piece, and also to reflect on his long teaching, performing, and composing career at Eastman.
You’ve been part of Eastman jazz programs through several decades and many developments. What was the academic attitude towards jazz when you arrived here, and how has it changed up to the present? What changes do you think are needed for the future? (at Eastman and maybe for jazz educators in general).
When I arrived the attitude toward jazz was not that respectful, although I understand it was much less respectful in the decades before. It’s more respectful now, of course. Through the years, I’ve grown to be less and less fond of categories and labels. In the long run I believe these are much more advantageous to people who are trying to sell things than to their potential clients. Duke Ellington said, “If music sounds good, it’s good music. If it doesn’t, it’s the other kind.” People who listen with their attitudes instead of their ears miss a lot of good music.
I would be curious to hear some particular, outstanding memories from your years here – working with special colleagues and special guests, notable concerts, even outstanding students who have gone on to great careers?
There have been so many highlights during my forty-one years at Eastman, that to list even twenty would be to slight fifty others. Suffice it to say that, living near the Eastman School of Music for forty-one years, I have never had to wait long for lifetime musical experiences to occur, both in music that I was personally involved in making and in music that I was experiencing as a member of the audience. I’m not aware of any city the size of Rochester where there’s a more vibrant musical and cultural scene. As for outstanding students and alumni, the same thing holds true. There wouldn’t be room here to include ten percent of the names of alumni whom I’ve heard mentioned by friends, relatives, or media of one kind or other, who probably didn’t know they were former students of mine, or of my colleagues here. They all make us very proud, and humbled, knowing we played some part in helping them on their way.
Do ESM jazz students often go into careers as jazz educators themselves? What kind of “scene” are JCM graduates entering now, and how has that changed over the years you’ve been teaching here?
We have alumni around the world who work in all levels of jazz studies departments, from department chairs to adjunct instructors. As with all areas of academia, there are fewer full-time positions and more adjunct positions due to the state of local and world economies.
How does working with students so closely inform your own work as a composer and arranger? Have you found it difficult to balance the two of them?
It has been relatively easy for me to work with students at any level because I clearly remember when I was where they are. The thing that is sometimes difficult for students to realize is that, because of the tremendous influence of Hollywood and the media, their understanding of what is needed to be a high-quality performer or writer is often quite different from what they have imagined or heard about. But students who are involved in music because they are totally in love with it always seem to find a successful path, especially if they are good at organizing their time, consistently follow a well-conceived daily work routine, and plan well enough to do their best work in ever project.
Can you describe Legacy, the piece that will be premiered on May 2?
Legacy relates both to the Eastman School of Music and to my experience here from 1973 to the present. The piece consists of several sections, played without pause, that refer to different aspects of the school and my personal experience. “Anticipation”, the opening section, reflects both the sense of anticipation I had about joining the Eastman faculty, and that of George Eastman, and those who helped to realize his vision of creating this institution. This leads to “Synergy”, a dynamic situation in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts, something I felt strongly from my first weeks here. I’m sure that Eastman has embodied this concept from its beginnings. “Gratitude” expresses what I feel deeply every day, reflecting on my many years here and imagining how faculty, administrators, students, and staff must have felt long before I arrived. “Passion” reflects the intensity and joy in being able to work professionally doing something I am truly passionate about, something I also witnessed all around me, as was surely the case with those who taught and learned here when the doors first opened to the public. Finally, we return to “Anticipation”, as all who continue here aspire to enable future generations to fully achieve their potential as creative musicians and human beings. The main themes of the different sections all begin with notes corresponding to the first three letters of the name Eastman (E-A-Eb: in German, the note Eb is called Ess). The three inner sections of the piece are introduced by melodic equivalents of the numbers 1922, 1972, and 2022, in relation to the keys of F, Db, and F, respectively (composers and theorists familiar with pitch set theory will get this). 1972 is roughly the time when the jazz writing curriculum was established by Rayburn Wright and the move toward formulating Eastman’s first degree program in jazz began. It was an honor to contribute this composition to the celebration of Eastman’s centennial year.
And finally – what are your post-retirement plans? Will you stay connected to Eastman in some way?
My wife, Daralene, and I plan to remain in the Rochester area, and I will certainly keep up with what’s happening at Eastman. For the immediate future, I hope to spend more time with Daralene and our extended family, work on a couple of books that are ongoing, and compose, arrange, and perform as opportunities arise.
Eastman Jazz Ensemble, Monday, May 2 at 7:30 p.m., Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. In addition to the premiere of Bill Dobbins’ Legacy, and concert includes guest artists Byron Stripling ’83E, trumpet; Reenah Golden, poet; and composer and conductor John Clayton, in the premiere of Clayton’s Keys are Black, Blacks are Key. Reenah Golden’s appearance is jointly sponsored by Eastman and The Avenue Blackbox Theatre.