TPMS Faculty Weigh In on the “Language of Jazz”

Left: Violin teaching artist and Learning and Teaching Associate Felipe Tobar Blanco and Saxophone teaching artist Sam Hight perform “Sweet Home Chicago” with SLAM Jazz Ensemble at Big Night 2023. Right: SLAM Jazz Ensemble conductor Felix Ponce conducts “Sweet Home Chicago.” 

April is Jazz Appreciation Month! We asked three of our teaching artists who are jazz musicians what inspires them about jazz and why musicians and non-musicians alike should appreciate the genre. Read what Felipe Tobar Blanco, Felix Ponce, and Sam Hight have to say below.

Q: What experience do you have learning, playing, or teaching jazz?

Felipe Tobar Blanco: I got interested in jazz after finishing college. I just started listening to a lot of jazz recordings and finding musicians who wanted to play with me. That was a great way to start learning since there were not many jazz violinists in Chile, where I’m from. Since then, I’ve had the chance to play with great musicians back in Chile and here in Chicago, and I have performed at different jazz clubs and events such as The Green Mill and the Chicago Jazz Festival.

Felipe plays violin with jazz combo at Big Night 2022.

Felix Ponce: I have always played jazz for as long as I have been playing trombone. In middle school, I played a lot of third trombone and then when I was in high school I was promoted to be the lead player. In college I played in several jazz combos and played lead in the Jazz Ensemble. I knew that jazz would be in my future as an educator so I made it my goal to always be in a jazz ensemble. Once I graduated, I was fortunate enough to play under Sam Hankins and the South Suburban College Jazz Orchestra that was accepted to play at the International Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in 2019. Over the Summer of 2022, I organized a jazz combo to play at the Jay Pritzker pavilion in downtown Chicago for The People’s Music School. As a teacher, my goal has been to help students become comfortable with helping students bring out the stylistic nuances that make jazz unique along with helping them feel comfortable soloing. At TPMS, I teach the SLAM Jazz Ensemble and one of my core focuses of the class is to give students as many opportunities to solo using as many guides and tools as they need to be successful. 

Felix leads SLAM Jazz Ensemble rehearsal at Uptown Academy in preparation for the 2022 Winter Concert.

Sam Hight: Jazz music has been embedded throughout my musical journey from my early days in elementary school, to my career. In one day, I may get to teach it, then go perform it somewhere afterwards, all while learning more about this truly American style of music.


Q: Who is your favorite jazz musician?

Felipe: One of my favorite jazz musicians is the French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. He is somebody that wasn’t afraid of trying new things with his music. He is a master of the instrument and at the same time has a vision, a sense of innovation and use of new technology that was key in his success.

Felix: My go to is actually a duo, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. I am a trombone player so I gravitate to that sound but also because of their smooth sound. Go listen to the introduction from Blues for Trombone or Blues In Twos from their album Jay and Kai if you have not!

Sam: Cannonball Adderley. He helped define the era of hard bop in American culture through his work on the alto saxophone and his collaborations with Miles Davis. Guy had a killer tone and knew how to lead a combo.  


Q: What do you like best about jazz?

Felipe: I definitely like the freedom and how deep it goes with the human experience of transforming feelings and ideas into sounds and rhythm, all through an organized form that allows improvisation.

Felix: I love the intentionality behind the choice of articulation markings and how they communicate musical phrases. 

Sam: Jazz allows us to develop a relationship with music that is both on and off the page. It demands traditional practice and performance routines, while also pushing the boundaries of creativity through communication and improvisation.

Felix, center, on trombone, and Sam, far right, on saxophone, open with jazz combo for Jeff Tweedy’s show with The People’s Music School at Pritzker Pavilion in July 2022.

Q: How can jazz help inform what we know and love about other genres of music?

Felipe: Jazz performance requires a deep understanding of music theory, form and many other aspects of music that are relevant to all styles; we can find jazz elements used in many modern albums from hip hop to contemporary classical music.

Felix: Jazz uses recognizable forms (such as the blues) that makes it easier to follow the music. Even though there is always unpredictability on how one plays over the form, it is a reliable structure that I think makes it easy to follow along to the music. For me, it’s fun to see how artists play with form in all genres and make creative choices.

Sam: Much of the language of jazz is communicated through individual expression, which often produces emotions and feelings. When we communicate this way, we speak about our culture, which can then connect us to the expressions of other people and music.

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