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Holderness School's Director of Music Receives Rutgers University Jazz Fellowship
Greg Kwasnik

For nine months out of every year, Dave Cosby, Holderness School’s director of music, lives his life immersed in sound. This summer, he’ll turn the volume down (temporarily) to study the history of jazz education at the Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies at their Newark campus, where he is a recipient of a prestigious Morroe Berger – Benny Carter – Ed Berger Jazz Research Fellowship. 

For one week this summer, Cosby will explore the Institute’s archives and holdings to research  first-hand accounts of how jazz musicians learned, taught, and shared knowledge before the advent of formal jazz education in colleges and universities. This research will form the basis of Cosby’s dissertation at Boston University, where he is pursuing his doctorate in music education. 

We recently sat down with Cosby - a professional guitarist and band leader in his own right - to talk about the history of jazz education, his own musical influences, and how the both have informed his 25-year career as a music educator.

First of all, congratulations on your fellowship! What will you be researching? 
My research is primarily centered around trying to find first-person discussions, accounts, thoughts, and conversations - essentially anything about how people from the 1930s through the 1950s learned to play jazz before it became institutionalized. Before you could go to get a degree in jazz studies, how was it learned? My dissertation advisor at Boston University said there's really not enough African-American voices in music education. He wanted me to find a way to bring in some of my own culture as an African-American, and how I think about music, and how that influences the way I teach. For this study, it's really looking at how did I learn, and how did that influence how I teach?

So what were some of your early musical influences?
I grew up in a middle class home where food and safety were never an issue. A lot of people have these really tragic stories of things they've overcome to get to where they are. And I was like, “My story doesn’t really matter.” But my dissertation advisor said “No, it matters.” And I think he really liked the way I’m carrying forward things that my father instilled in me. My father was a music lover. He wasn't a musician - I mean, he played through college - but that was his thing outside of school, outside of his own work as a sociologist. He just loved jazz. It was the stories he would tell when we were driving around and I just became fascinated with that whole era - the era before, during, and a little bit after the Civil Rights movement and the integration movement happened.

How has the teaching of jazz changed since that era?
I’m researching the period from 1940 to about 1965. When segregation became outlawed by the Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, jazz was still mostly a music of communities and neighborhoods and clubs. It wasn’t really in the universities yet. The University of Texas had a program and there were a couple other schools that had what were called ‘dance band’ programs, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that jazz really started to enter the universities and colleges. At the time, a lot of people felt that in order for jazz to fit into a model of higher education where you actually had to have a sequentially ordered curriculum where you could grade things, they had to systematize how it was taught. Of course, at the time, it was great. Everyone enjoyed it. And then in the nineties, a lot of social critics started to say, you know, it was great when it happened, but at the same time a lot of these special qualities that were unique to the way the music was learned before it went into colleges was lost. 

So how did musicians learn to play jazz before it was taught in colleges and universities?
Jazz was really viewed as a music of community. It was taught through social engagement, just hanging out through mentorship and listening to records. We call it oral learning – orally and aurally – through singing and spoken word and peer mentoring. It was people getting together and going “Ok, you figure out bar five, and I’ll figure out bar six.” It was really this communal effort to learn music. There are people who are trying to replicate that now. It seems to give students a deeper meaning, and connection to the music, which I find really interesting. 

How have you incorporated some of these older methods into your teaching at Holderness?
Singing as a method of learning is really a big part of it. The idea is you can conceptually  understand it if you can sing the idea. And then your job is to figure out how to play that idea on your various instruments. You give them a melody and they all can play it, but every instrument is different. It’s a beautiful way of teaching. If some people aren’t really good readers, they can play things that they can hear and technically have the ability to play, even though they can't read it yet. Or if they read it, it would take weeks just to learn it that way. But if you go and you break it down working in small groups, you can learn something in a class that would usually take months to learn. I'm a big proponent of that.

It seems like you’re fostering that old-school ‘music of community’ idea here at Holderness.
Quite a few times, kids who have free periods will come by and sit in on a class. They’re like, “Hey Mr. Cosby, I have a free period. Can I just sit in?” It was the same thing with Art in the Afternoon. By the end of the semester, there were usually two times the number of people there than were registered, because all these students who were injured would come by and just sit and jam with us. When people come just because they want to, it's very gratifying - to see that they love or enjoy what you love. Outside of my family, music is the greatest passion of my life. So it's nice when I see others having that same appreciation.

You can listen to some of Dave Cosby's original music at or on Spotify.

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