Dr. Robert Morgan: Jazz Educator Extraordinaire
The next person I want to write about in my Life Builders series is a man everyone I know calls “Doc.” Bob Morgan was my boss at HSPVA when I was teaching there in the 1990’s. As a jazz educator, Bob Morgan has been recognized for his achievements on so many different fronts that it would be impossible for me to list them all here. He was in the International Association for Jazz Education Hall of Fame, he holds an honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music, he played trumpet and trombone in the University of North Texas’ One O’Clock Lab Band, and received the University of Illinois Alumni Achievement Award…just to name a few.
I had the honor of working under Doc as a “consultant” teaching jazz improvisation as a class for five years. The reason I’m including him in my Life Builders series is because I learned so much while I was teaching at HSPVA that I often felt like a student myself. This Life Builders series is where I acknowledge those people who contributed to my success in life and Bob Morgan is most certainly a man who made a huge difference in my career.
One of the most important things I learned from Doc while I was teaching at HSPVA was the importance of creating a musical environment for the students. Now, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him use those words to describe it, but Doc placed a high priority on things like listening to recordings, doing transcriptions, attending local performances and exposing the students to as many accomplished living jazz musicians as possible. I believe these things, when considered as a whole, constitute the creation of a musical environment not unlike what a musical prodigy would have experienced growing up in a musical family. And I will go as far as to say that this musical environment was most likely the biggest contributor to the success of the jazz students at HSPVA. I believe this is what set’s Doc’s approach apart from most other jazz educators. It is not enough to teach scales and ii V I licks. For the students to thrive as jazz performers, they MUST be submerged in this sort of rich musical environment.
I have taken Bob Morgan’s example as a model that I use to teach my own students. As a private teacher, I have much less control over the musical environment of my students, but I strongly encourage the students to create their own. I keep tabs on them and do what I can to motivate them to spend more time being exposed to successful performers. I make my CD, DVD and book library open to the students, giving them weekly assignments that are intended to inspire them to do more of this environmental stuff on their own. For those who have submerged themselves in this way, the results have been very rewarding, not only to the students but to me as well as their teacher.
I have Bob Morgan to thank for this success. Even though I had been taught about the importance of listening before I started teaching at HSPVA, Doc helped me to see how to stimulate the students on a deeper level than just listening. He helped me learn how to create that musical environment for the students. Without his influence in that area of my teaching, I don’t believe I would have been nearly as successful as a teacher as I have been.
Recorded Examples of Contest Music
One very specific thing that Dr. Morgan used to do for his students is to have pros record the competition music for them to listen to as models. Now, this is something I had seen before, but I think Doc’s approach was different from most people. Instead of waiting and using the recorded examples as a last resort, and only if needed, Doc made it a regularly scheduled part of the school year.
This is something I do with all of my students today. It only makes sense. We all learn music faster and more efficiently when we know what it sounds like. Not only that, when the recordings are done by pros, there is also a great deal of interpretation communicated through that recording that could never be dictated verbally. Today, thanks to Bob Morgan’s influence, I record all of the contest music for all of my students, and I try to do it before they begin practicing.
Another wonderful thing about working with Doc in the 90’s was being introduced to so many successful jazz musicians. Not only did I have an opportunity to meet the people who were featured soloists at HSPVA, and the people who came to give clinics and masterclasses, but I also attended a few conventions with the jazz ensemble as a chaperone where Doc introduced me to a wide variety of jazz musicians and educators.
Do you think that matters? Do you think these connections make a difference in the lives of the students?
See, it’s not about hero worship. I’ve never been one of those hero worship types. People are people and we are all at different places on different roads in our very different lives. I have always said that my favorite quote from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is “I do not call one greater and one smaller, That which fills its period and place is equal to any.” That pretty much says it all about my attitude towards hero worship. But there is something to be said about rubbing elbows with people who already have the skills and experience of performing with the worlds greatest musicians. To me, it’s more of a transference of knowledge and wisdom. It’s about passing the torch (I recently wrote a blog post about Barry Lee Hall and his return to Houston to pass the torch).
Imagine what kind of education the students at HSPVA received when there were so many successful musicians passing the torch to them through Doc’s connections. Fortunately for me, I was right there with those students, soaking as much of it in as I could.
When people bring up Bob Morgan in conversations, I often tell them that I see Doc as a walking Who’s Who of jazz musicians. He knows so many great players and those he doesn’t know personally he has studied so well that he might as well have met them. I believe his wealth of associations greatly enhanced the education of his students.
It’s also worth mentioning that Bob Morgan was the inspiration behind one of the tunes I composed for (and recorded with) the Tom Borling Bebop Band. It’s a tune I call “No Lights” and was inspired by Doc when he came back to school after having had a heart attack. He told me, jokingly, that he was a little disappointed. He had died for a few minutes (I don’t remember how long exactly) but he said he didn’t see any lights!
Ha! He is a man with a very witty sense of humor.
The Ed Gerlach Orchestra
Another thing I give Bob Morgan credit for, in my career, is getting me started with the Ed Gerlach Orchestra. My first big band gigs in Houston were in the early 90’s with the Ricky Diaz Orchestra where I met two men who I consider very close friends today: Dennis Dotson and Buddy Siscoe. Both Dennis and Buddy were in the Gerlach band at the time, and both of them referred me to Mr. Gerlach for at least two years before I ever had a chance to work with the band. But it was Bob Morgan who gave me that opportunity at an HSPVA Gala, backing up Les Brown.
I enjoyed that performance because I grew up listening to a lot of Les Brown tunes with my father. If I had a cell phone back then, I would have called my father from the gig. But even more significant than having an opportunity to perform with Les Brown was having the chance to show Mr. Gerlach that I was a reliable and stylistically appropriate player.
Thanks to Bob Morgan, I worked with the Ed Gerlach Orchestra for about fifteen years after that first performance. AND, Bob Morgan was the pianist for the group for most of those gigs. When I look back at my career in Houston, that HSPVA Gala was a pivotal moment in establishing my reputation here as a jazz player.
I really could go on for hours talking about all of the different ways that Bob Morgan contributed to my successful career. The thing is, I don’t think I’ve ever really thanked him for it. That’s what this Life Builders series is for. It’s about recognizing those people who made a difference in my life.
I am not a very sociable person. I am a full fledged introvert and I find it very difficult to say what I want or need to say in a public setting (perhaps this is why my writing has gotten so much better over the years?). So it’s very important that I say it now:
Thank you Doc for all you have done for me. I truly appreciate you and all that you’ve done for me and indirectly for my own students.