Jubilation Fellow Steve Swell

Steve Swell

New York NY
Fellowship: 2008 / 2012

“Everybody is teachable. I’m a student myself, always learning something new,” says Steve, master trombonist and improviser. He runs workshops around the world and is a teaching artist in the New York City public school system. He has an extraordinary capacity to translate skills to young people with little or no experience.

Concerned that even first and second graders are already socialized to ridicule mistakes, Steve creates a safe space for kids to play. “This is a free zone,” says Steve to his music students, “we’re not judgmental.” He encourages kids to explore the idea that there’s no right or wrong way to play music by giving them time to improvise. “It’s as important as practicing scales,” he says. “Beethoven and Bach were tremendous improvisers. Improvising is a natural human function. It applies to everything, and every art form. The younger we learn to improvise, the more natural it becomes. Even if the kids don’t become musicians, they can think on their feet and improvise easily and naturally in any situation.”

Steve also reminds his students not to compare themselves to others. “Improvising is about becoming yourself,” he says. “We had a band with four alto saxes – each had his own tone. ‘This is your personality,’ I said. You’re not supposed to sound like someone else. You’re supposed to sound like you.”

Steve has toured and recorded with many artists, from Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich to Anthony Braxton and William Parker. He has over 30 CDs as a leader or co-leader, and is a featured artist on more than 100 other releases. “I was so very lucky,” he says. “When I was ten, Al Schmidt was my teacher, a dead ringer for Jimmy Durante. He turned me on to the trombone, and taught me to improvise. He didn’t use that word, though, he’d just play the Batman theme on the piano, then leave a little break and say, ‘just play something here.'”

With his Jubilation grant, Steve produced a short film, What Teaching Is (videographer: Robert O’Hare).

Links: http://www.steveswell.com
Steve’s Facebook page
Jubilation 2012 retreat video

Silent Solos: improvisers speak (ed. Renate Da Rin, published by Buddy’s Knife)

Full-time teachers. 99% have their priorities straight, making sure kids are looked after and taught all that they are capable of imparting to them.

Steve is Reading:
Classic novels and anything about higher consciousness (Alan Watts, Suzuki)
Borges, Cortazar, Kenneth Patchen
Urban Blues by Charlie Keil

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