By Merve Erdal
This interview was published in Turkish in the January – February – March 2011 issue of the quarterly Turkish jazz magazine, Jazz (Jazz dergisi, Ocak-Şubat-Mart 2011, Vol.61/01, pp. 65-67, Boyut Publishing House, İstanbul)
The jazz musician and jazz educator George “Skip” Gailes recently completed his teaching stint as a visiting professor, at the newly formed Jazz Degree Program in the Music Department of Hacettepe State Conservatory in Ankara. Skip had come to Hacettepe on a 10-week Fulbright scholarship for the Fall 2010 academic semester, to help set up the jazz program and curriculum with Emre Kartarı, a former student and the founding faculty member of the Jazz Degree Program. Back in the United States, Skip is a professor in the Jazz Studies Program at the Virginia Commonwealth University as well as a busily performing and recording artist. He plays the saxophone and the piano. This interview was conducted by Merve Erdal at the Hacettepe Conservatory in Ankara on December 9, 2010, shortly before Skip concluded his classes and went back to U.S. Merve, a faculty member at the Mechanical Engineering Dept. of Middle East Technical University, is also an Ankara-based jazz singer who participated in many of Skip’s classes in Hacettepe, with fellow musicians/students in Ankara. A biography of Skip Gailes can be found at the end of this interview.
Merve Erdal: Please tell us about your early musical experiences and your musical education.
George “Skip” Gailes: Music has been a part of my life since before I can remember. I was brought up in a very musical family where most family members played music. At age 5, I started learning classical piano which continued until I was 11. By then, I was confident enough to know I’ve had enough of this and that I was not happy. In junior high school, I switched to saxophone, taking saxophone lessons and playing in the school band. But even then, I would form these small groups with friends and play with them. I believe my first professional job (for which I got paid) was at the age of 13, when we played at a picnic. In those years (c. 1964-1965), jazz was still a popular form of music in the United States; people on the streets knew what Ella (Fitzgerald) or Oscar Peterson sounded like. So for the gigs, we played jazz music, which happened to be the popular music at the time. Throughout the years, I also played in dance bands (where the music was African-American influenced soul music) and in dinner theaters. A dinner theater is a combination of musical theater and restaurant, in which people watch shows while having dinner. Gigs at the dinner theater were a great experience because I learned a lot of American standards (which are what we call “standards” in jazz) in that musical theater environment that they originated in. This was powerful because in such an environment, one learns the humor; the roots of humor and dancing that are part of those American musical songs. While I was working those gigs, I was also in the high school band. I was practicing my music a lot and I didn’t have time for much else. In fact, I barely graduated from high school. I think they let me graduate so that I wouldn’t come back (!).
After high school, I decided to go to Berklee College of Music, which was one of the very few colleges in United States that had jazz degree programs, at the time. I stayed in Berklee for 2 years; I studied and learnt a lot during my stay. But at that point in time, it was possible for a young musician to work constantly so most of the students who had any skill would leave Berklee after a couple of years. In fact, at that time (not now), if you graduated Berklee, people would ask what was wrong with you. I eventually became part of a fusion jazz group. This was early 70’s and fusion music was new and fresh, combining elements of rhythm of blues, some rock and pop music, as well as jazz. It was really a hard time for some of the more traditional jazz musicians; especially the bebop era musicians. It was heart-breaking to see people look down on these unbelievably talented musicians, regard them as out-of-date. The same attitudes had been shown to Louis Armstrong, one of the true geniuses of modern era music, when bebop had become all the rage. This is one of the great tragedies of the American culture; we are so anxious to discard things that are even 10 years old, so anxious to get rid of them in order to make room for something new. It is a loss of our music and our culture.
Merve Erdal: How did you eventually become a jazz educator in addition to being a performing artist?
George “Skip” Gailes: At some point in time, I was playing in the Richmond area with a local band 5-6 nights a week. A student of Doug Richards came to see me play and later brought Doug to see me. Doug Richards was a brand new faculty in the music department in Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) at the time and they were considering adding some jazz courses – it was not a jazz program, yet. So I met Doug and he told me his plans about starting out a jazz program and asked me to teach saxophone and maybe one ensemble class at VCU. I agreed and started teaching the following year. This was around 1978 – 1979. I was a little apprehensive about teaching because I did not want to share the things I had learnt the hard way on my own (not in a formal environment) and create my competition. But I eventually did come to the conclusion – and I still feel this way – that if you get to the point where you really understand how to do something, you have a certain responsibility to teach. By teaching, I have created my competition a number of times but somehow, there was always still room for me to exist. I’ve been associated with VCU for about 30 years now, as well as several other universities. I’ve taught courses, conducted workshops and also worked with high schools, primarily in the east coast area.
Merve Erdal: Tell us about the circumstances through which you came to be in Hacettepe Conservatory, as a visiting professor during the inaugural semester of the Jazz Program.
George “Skip” Gailes: To explain this, I would first have to talk about what it meant to have Emre (Kartarı) as a student back in VCU. I’ve had a lot of students with amazing abilities but the thing that always struck us about Emre as a student was his deep sincerity. That’s something I have come to treasure, really, above talent, a lot of the times. With a sincere spirit, you will learn to do what you set out to do. With all the God-given talent and an insincere spirit, something will go astray; your music is going to become superficial, and in some ways, unpleasant. So it is the depth of one’s heart that will ultimately determine whether or not their music will be successful and meaningful. People sometimes confuse the depth of their desires with the depth of their sincerity. Sincerity is exhibited in your work. You can want something from the bottom of your heart but it is putting it into practice, tearing the music apart, finding what makes it work; now that’s sincerity. When Emre was a student in VCU, I would walk by the corridors and always see Emre practicing, studying music with his headphones on, always asking questions. So sincerity is not desire; it is the relentless pursuit of what you believe in. And that’s what drew me to Emre and that’s what drew us together as friends.
To jump forward in time, I didn’t see Emre for a long time while he was studying in New York (after graduating from VCU). When, through a number of favorable events, Emre came to Hacettepe and it became clear to him that there was going to be a degree-track jazz program for which his guidance was needed, he understood that he would be needing different kinds of expertise than his own which is primarily rhythm and percussions. So through the American Embassy in Ankara, Emre found out the possibility of using Fulbright scholarships to fund some American educators that were equipped with the necessary expertise to come and teach in Hacettepe.
Though Emre studied quite a bit after he left VCU, from our conversations I understand that he regards his time in VCU as the primary musical experience of his educational career. So he contacted me and Doug Richards at VCU - as the teachers he had the most contact with, in order to get this jazz program in Hacettepe start moving in what he considered the right direction. Doug’s expertise is in working with composition and arrangement, and mine is in improvisation. Thus, at this early stage in the jazz program, the students were not yet ready for what Doug could offer them; they needed what I could teach them first so I happened to be the right choice at this time. I must remark that I’ve met an awful lot of musicians in Turkey and I feel that Emre is the only one that could have set all this into motion in this way (the way he did), so Hacettepe is extremely lucky to have Emre in its jazz faculty.
Merve Erdal: In coming to Hacettepe as a visiting professor, what did you set out to accomplish? What did you expect and what did you find in Hacettepe? Tell us about your approach to teaching the new students in Hacettepe.
George “Skip” Gailes: My main objective was to set up a sustainable, ongoing program that could exist for years beyond what we started. What I found when I got to Hacettepe was a little different. I didn’t realize the extent to which I’d be teaching. I ended up interacting with the exact same group of people sometimes 5-6 hours a day. Really, there has been no precedent for that in my life so my first couple of days really terrified me. This is the first time this program has existed so the expectations on the students were really undefined. When I went to Berklee, I sort of knew what was expected of me. Kids came to Hacettepe from all kinds of backgrounds, sometimes with just marginal musical experience and some talent. And so what I found is that I had to go back to the very beginnings and the idea of separating classes to specific topics such as history, solfege, improvisation, ensembles, master classes and such, did not seem right for this group of students. I found that it actually worked better with the students, to broaden up the scope of each chunk of time and work with specific elements. For instance, one day we would work with the rhythms for 2-3 hours and the next day, we’d set to show how to apply them to something. Or sometimes, we would have to leap around: I would introduce the blues, then I would introduce something about tonality and I would introduce something about phrasing. This would take 4-5 days then we would go back and look at the blues and try drawing all these elements together. So I didn’t find that I was able to give a definable set of parameters for 7 different classes because the elements that were missing from the students were common. Like if there was a major problem with phrasing, that was going to affect everything I talked about. Or if there was a major misunderstanding about rhythm and jazz, it was going to affect everything. This was both a distraction and a fascination for me because it was a clean slate. We could look at the root of everything that makes jazz important, one thing at a time, and we would be developing these things into useable tools over 10 weeks. So I abandoned the idea of a curriculum and initiated the idea of starting out with talented young musicians and giving them a common culture.
Merve Erdal: Now that your time in Hacettepe is almost up, what do you think was accomplished during your stay?
George “Skip” Gailes: Probably the most impressive thing is that we’ve developed a group of students with a common aesthetic and so they have become a community. This is what the school needs – a community of musicians moving in a common direction. And as new students come, the older students can say “Don’t get too distracted, here’s what’s important”. The new students will come in and they will have role models. The role models will have been trained in this cooperative environment where they all supported one another, so they will support the incoming students and they will treat them with respect. So there won’t be a sense of “Oh, he’s new so he’s less”. They will treat the new students with respect because they were treated that way. And that was really important to me – to treat the students in the way I would hope they would treat the next group of students who came in, to treat them as adult, functioning human beings whose time was as valuable as mine.
Merve Erdal: How do your students back in the States and the students in Hacettepe differ?
George “Skip” Gailes: That’s a comparison I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time on. The students in the States have a cultural background that cannot exist here; they come in with certain advantages. But there are cultural elements in both societies that make certain types of success easily available. The culture of respect for elders in Turkey makes the learning sometimes easier because the students can come in with a respectful attitude of wanting to learn, whereas sometimes Americans are arrogant. On the other hand, American students come in with a wealth of cultural background and self-assuredness; they aren’t afraid of self-expression and they’re very comfortable with it. So both elements are helpful in different ways.
Merve Erdal: What prior education do the students in the States have before starting a jazz program on the college level?
George “Skip” Gailes: Nowadays, people start their jazz training in their teens - and not only at high school level. Generally, ones who will go on to become professional jazz musicians, will have had a really good teacher for a number of years, working with them independently on jazz, in addition to any ensemble/band activities in high school. So they come in sometimes with a lot of information.
Merve Erdal: What should be done, from this point on, to sustain the jazz program that took shape this semester, under the guidance and the instruction of you and Emre Kartarı?
George “Skip” Gailes: There is great support from the upper-level administration in Hacettepe, but the real grassroots work of making this happen day-to-day is resting on Emre’s (Kartarı) shoulders. In order to really sustain this program, they’re going to need to trust him to establish a jazz faculty. Without some unifying principles and aesthetics, the faculty will tear itself apart. So as their resident expert, Emre’s going to have to be the determining factor in who teaches here. Otherwise, the faculty will be at odds and nothing good can happen.
Merve Erdal: Please elaborate a little on the unifying or common principles and aesthetics that the jazz faculty should have.
George “Skip” Gailes: The Conservatory is well-equipped with classical training and has no need from us (the jazz musicians) in that (classical) department. What the school needs are educators with really strong jazz backgrounds. In other words, they’re going to need, for a period of time, some more influx of Americans because this is our culture; there is no way to separate us from our culture. If I were to study Turkish music, I would have to study it with a Turkish musician – I can’t learn it from an American unless he’s learnt it in Turkey. So you’re going to have to have teachers who have a cultural root in this music and they’re going to have to be people who are utterly sincere and just as dedicated to communicating through teaching as they are through playing. You can’t have people here just because they are players; they have to be actively concerned about the welfare of the students. But they must be active performers, too – you can’t learn music from a book. Moreover, music comes from its culture and in the case of jazz, it’s the Black culture. So I can’t teach this music without paying homage to this culture; I am the beneficiary of that culture when it comes to jazz music.
Merve Erdal: But you weren’t directly brought up in that culture.
George “Skip” Gailes: No, but I surrounded myself in my adult life with Black culture in many different ways - through which my music developed and from which it benefited.
Merve Erdal: During your stay in Turkey, you’ve had a chance to play with many Turkish musicians in various concerts/gigs. Please describe these experiences.
George “Skip” Gailes: My experiences with the Turkish jazz musicians are much too separated from the roots of jazz music. Most of them are not connected to the root of this music and somehow, they need to be.
Merve Erdal: Are there any musicians in Turkey that you feel connected to?
George “Skip” Gailes: Tuna Ötenel is a beautiful musician; beautiful spirit, beautiful player. İmer Demirer, the trumpet player – I love his playing though I have not met him. Oddly enough, I’ve listened to both through their recordings (not live), though I was priviliged to have met Tuna in person and played a little with him. Apart from these names, I have also enjoyed playing with Matt Hall and Jeff Giansily. I love Anıl’s spirit (Anıl Bilgen, a recent graduate of the Hacettepe Conservatory music dept., is currently enrolled in the Jazz Program), I think he’s going to be a fine jazz musician. I believe a number of the students in the Jazz Program will grow in to be very fine musicians. I have enjoyed the singers in the program – all of you have been working towards this music in the right way. The people in the Jazz Program are connected to me, connected to Emre (Kartarı) and connected to America in different ways. They are not musicians two generations removed from jazz; they are actually much more deeply connected to the culture now, than a lot of other practicing musicians in Turkey.
Merve Erdal: During your 10 weeks in Hacettepe, you and Emre Kartarı held regular gigs every Monday night at Lotis Café, right by the Conservatory and encouraged the students to come and listen as well as to play/sing with you from time to time. How important is this in jazz education?
George “Skip” Gailes: This was very important and if you’ve noticed, the students did not play very much until they had spent some time listening. They were eager to play well before they were ready to and as they became ready, we invited them more and more to play. It was the development of a proper spirit and a proper feeling and then, it was time to play.
Merve Erdal: And lastly, if you could single out one thing (more than others) that is crucial to a performing jazz musician, what would that be?
George “Skip” Gailes: It’s all about the actual act of what you are doing. If you are concerning yourself with impressing the audience or with the reaction that you get from the audience, everything is wrong. You must simply keep focusing on your love for the music, on what makes the music pure, beautiful and moving, and on telling the story and not worrying about whether or not the people stand up and cheer or whether people will come up and tell you you’re a great musician. Just telling the story, being true to what the music really means - that‘s the essence of being a real musician; being a performing musician.
(1) Doug Richards is a professor of music at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), specializing in jazz composition and arrangement. He joined the VCU faculty in 1979, founding its Jazz Studies program in 1980. He is also the founder and musical director of the Great American Music Ensemble, one of the leading professional repertory jazz orchestras in the nation that performed in such events as the Smithsonian Institution Jazz Festival, the International Duke Ellington Society Annual Convention, the National Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting Concert, as well as on on NPR and PBS. Martin Williams — the “dean of jazz critics” — has called Richards “the most original writer for big band since Gil Evans.”
(2) Skip did get a chance to meet and play with İmer Demirer, shortly after this interview was conducted.
George “Skip” Gailes Biography:
An alumnus of The Berklee College of Music, Skip Gailes has taught jazz improvisation, jazz master class, small jazz ensemble and private studio lessons for saxophone, flute and piano — plus coaching sessions for other instruments and voice — at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) snce 1979. He has led his own professional ensembles in virtually every jazz club in the region since 1973, as well as performing extensively in Washington, D.C., New York and Boston. Gailes also has had an ongoing performance engagement in Richmond’s famed Jefferson Hotel since 1989.
Gailes is a co-founder and member of the Great American Music Ensemble, which performed for nine seasons as the resident jazz ensemble at the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Through GAME he has been featured in concert with such artists as Branford Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster, Milt Hinton, Benny Carter, Barry Harris, Jon Faddis, Sarah Vaughan, Christian McBride and Larry Young. Via GAME and other engagements he has appeared as a soloist at the Kennedy Center, Smithsonian Institution’s Tribute to Charlie Parker, International Ellington Society, Hampton and Richmond Jazz Festivals, University of Maryland, Georgia State University, Old Dominion University, University of Richmond, University of Virginia, Christopher Newport University, the College of William and Mary and the International Association for Jazz Education Conference. Gailes has opened for Dianne Reeves, Kenny G., Al Jarreau, McCoy Tyner, Roy Ayers and The Crusaders. He tours with VCU’s Mary Morton Parsons Jazz Masters, a faculty ensemble that presents solo and group sessions at schools throughout Richmond and beyond to acquaint children with jazz, funded by a permanent endowment donated by patrons of jazz through a challenge grant from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation.
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