Socially-distance jazz band rehearsal
Terell Stafford conducts the Temple University Jazz Band’s first post-COVID rehearsal
Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University Photography

In late August, members of the Temple University Jazz Band rehearsed on stage in Philadelphia for the first time since COVID-19 separated them in March. But they still weren't quite together. A series of giant plexiglass screens on rollers, spaced six feet apart, isolated the 21 musicians from each other and their leader, trumpeter Terell Stafford. Even before the music started, there were more reminders of the risks of playing in a group. Stafford, face mask firmly in place, checked with the horn section to ensure they had the proper bell coverings and filters needed to keep everyone safer during practice. He also explained that playing time would be limited to 30 minutes to allow the air in the school's performing arts center to recirculate, so they would take a short break at quarter past the hour. Then he raised his arms and, with the snap of his fingers, counted in Sonny Stitt's "The Eternal Triangle."

Stafford started and stopped the rhythm section several times, and did the same for the horns. Their timing was off because they were sitting so far apart from each other. "Usually when we set up for rehearsal or a concert, everybody in the section is directly next to each other," said saxophonist Adam Abrams, 22, a senior from Cherry Hill, New Jersey. "Maybe there's a foot of space, so it's much easier to hear and blend and listen to whoever is leading the section when we're close together." The safety measures affected more than the music, said Stafford, who also serves as director of jazz studies and chair of instrumental studies at Temple. "It felt at first a little sad, because we're huggers, we're family, you know," he said. "But after they played a few notes and we got used to the sound of the room, it was good."

Jazz educators across the country are grappling with how to teach jazz effectively and safely in the COVID-19 era. Some have been frustrated by having to rely on technology to teach an art form that traditionally thrives on close mentoring relationships. However, like all good improvisers, they regrouped and adjusted their teaching styles to fit the moment and address the needs of their students. While lamenting the remoteness that the pandemic imposes, they are heartened by the opportunities to interact with larger audiences. There is still considerable debate about the depth of those interactions, and the consequences for the genre going forward. 

Before COVID-19 disrupted all of life's familiar norms, Temple's jazz program was on track to have a spectacular year. The band took top honors at the inaugural Jack Rudin Jazz Championship, an invitational competition for university jazz programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) in New York. They were invited to perform at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago, and planned to do a recording to document and celebrate their success. "Then the pandemic hit, and it knocked the wind out of us for about a week and a half," Stafford said. But for Temple, this was more of a speed bump than a roadblock. John Harris, an engineer at Temple, created four mobile recording kits. One of them was designed for the band's rhythm section and the others, which used different mics, were for horn players. The kits were sent out in groups of four. After setting them up, students would plug into a computer and log in to Zoom. An engineer in Philadelphia or Los Angeles would run the session and later mix the tracks together. A few band members who lived closer to campus arranged to have their parts recorded at the university. The finished product, titled Covid Sessions: A Social Call, features seven tracks of big-band repertoire such as "Avenue C" by Count Basie.

Stafford was mentored by saxophonist Bobby Watson and pianist McCoy Tyner while playing in their bands, and he credits both men for influencing his personal and professional development. He recalled that, though Tyner was rather quiet, he conveyed invaluable lessons just by how he played. "He supported you by showing how to build a solo, how to build intensity into a solo, and how to interact in a solo. There was so much I got from him." Stafford in turn has tried to pass these lessons on to his students, along with perhaps the most important lesson of all: "The music made on the bandstand comes from relationships off the bandstand."

It's likely that most fledging musicians won't have the same opportunities to inhale the wisdom of a seasoned artist. This, in combination with the separation imposed by COVID-19, has moved Stafford to change his teaching approach. Influenced by his classical training and his own sensibilities on the importance of sound, he enlisted the aid of students to describe both the characteristics and the feeling of the sounds they produced while playing. 

This was necessary because the quality of recorded sound over Zoom never matches what's heard in live playing. During lessons with his students, he would ask a series of questions about their playing experience: How did it feel? How did it sound? Was it difficult to play? "I had to rely on the students to help teach, which I've never done before," he said. "It was more of a team teaching, and the students were more invested in what they did because they were my assistants."