Harwood Union is known for its award-winning jazz program, and the teacher behind it, Bruce Sklar, will retire later this year. Sklar agreed to an interview with The Valley Reporter ahead of a final jazz night at school on February 9 with his friends, colleagues and students.
VR: How many years have you worked at Harwood?
Bachelor: I started working full-time in 1999. But since 1994, I’ve been doing some jazz. Chris Rivers heard of me from a student of his who was also a student of mine. Chris brought me along and started a jazz band. At that time, it was from 7th grade to 12th grade. So the first big change was starting a middle school jazz band as well. I am not trained as a teacher. I was figuring it out when I went.
VR: Tell us about your background in education and how you came to Vermont.
Bachelor: I went to UMass Amherst and was actually the first person to get a degree in Performing Jazz from UMass Amherst. Until I started, there really wasn’t a jazz program I could major in. I went back and forth between a few schools, but started at UMass. However, at the time of the audition, the program had not yet started, so I had to enroll as a classical major. I started school in the fall of 1974.
I’ve always been to Vermont. I am originally from Newton. I have good friends who have a ski area in the Mad River Valley and have been attending 4th of July events in Warren since 1974. Eventually, I married someone from The Valley, bought a house in Moretown, and raised my family there. . I ended up joining a band called Pure Pressure. So I moved to Vermont. I also do private lessons. I had been at Harwood for about 5-6 years when Chris said the principal would create a position for me.
VR: Tell us how you became a musical kid.
Bachelor: Music was of high value to our family. There was my grandmother’s cousin, Lillian Rock, who was a major star in the 1930s and 1940s. There has always been a sense of family that we have these as family values. The idea of jazz theory fascinated me when I was 12 years old. I walked to the Newton Center and there was a record store called Kota Audio. It was a pretty progressive place in many ways. Then he met a teacher named Gene Ashton, now known as Cooper Moore, one of the jazz avant-gardes. He taught me from when I was 13 to 17 when I finally moved to New York. He gave me everything, and you know, at an age when everything was more visceral than intellectual in some ways, even though that was all. So that’s what got me into it.
VR: You’ve developed a really amazing program here. It has earned an incredible reputation across the state and beyond. How did that happen? Are you a student? was it a combination? Was it community support? Tell us a little bit about how that thing came to be.
Bachelor: Above all. I had a vision of what he wanted to happen there. He came in as a young teacher right after he got his master’s degree in education and really set things up. He knew jazz was part of the program he wanted to do at Harwood. He could see that I did really well in front of a group of kids who knew how to do it, even though I had never been hands on in any way, shape or form with what I was teaching at school.
VR: Did you just make it as you go?
Bachelor: Improvisation is a life skill. It’s more than just a way to approach music. That is, can you think on your feet, read people, read what they need, all the things I can do fairly easily? And it was recognized. When I was offered the job, it was half-time the first year, but they did it full-time. I also have expertise in music technology, and Chris and I started looking for ways to share kids because jazz bands and bands actually always met at the same time. There used to be a lot more horn players. We had an A band and a B band, both of which were almost like full-size big bands. When I was about 5 or 6 years old, I also started rehearsing on Monday nights. It was a curriculum. We just did that. And we got investment from the kids that they would show and rehearse for a few hours on Monday night. So a lot of our success has to do with how Chris and I have worked to share and collaborate on the same kids. They have had quite an intense experience in terms of the depth of what they are getting. Really the foundation of it is that we were able to work cooperatively and have as many play opportunities for as many children as possible. And certainly the community support continues to be amazing.
VR: Some of your students are very good friends with me. I find that you are passionate about jazz because of the extreme passion you have inspired in these children. I can tell. How did you do that? You made jazz come alive not only for children, but for their families and communities.
Bachelor: A lot of things happened like right off the bat when I started. First of all, they had a very jazz-minded teacher named Matt Clancy. I already got the kids exposed to the masters, but there was a culture that happened very quickly. Because there were already a lot of kids playing really well. So I was able to start right at a high level and it was really challenging. It’s just luck of the draw. I was there, I could serve them, they were there, they could take all I gave and run with it as hard as they could. They are more motivated than they would have been otherwise.
VR: You’ve mentored some amazing musicians and there are plenty of kids out there who haven’t risen to fame and fortune. There are many children whose lives are actually structured and informed by the structure of the Harwood music program. They went on to do completely different things, but they still play. The discipline of being a musician has value. Talk a little bit about it.
Bachelor: I met a former student at Waterbury who is now a lawyer several years ago. He was telling me something he had legitimately conceived and no one had thought of that way before. It was synthesized in his head for a moment. He has the ability to combine these ideas and synthesize something. What’s up? It’s an improvisation. It’s a human ability. We also apply it to jazz, but it’s bigger than that. There are many other kids who have done amazing things: engineering, rocket scientists, PhDs. It amazes me that people have that kind of ability and focus. But they were all into it and had a natural inclination to improvise.
VR: Yeah, that’s interesting. People tend to think of honest scholars as honest scholars. I think there’s often a missing link between the value of being able to improvise but being able to think in three dimensions. It’s a different way of thinking three-dimensionally.
Bachelor: Yes, yes, absolutely. I mean, when you actually sit down to figure these things out, a lot of it comes from a very intellectual point of view. But when I’m playing with a lot of people, this is what I talk to all the groups about. Synchronization, rhythmic synchronization, is something humans can do. And for a long, long time by scientists on this, they put people into MRI machines and measured their brains as they sang alone or with other people and watched what happened. But definitely when synchronization happens, something feels different when the group hits. It’s really hard to explain what it is, but once it does, I think the teacher told me to go to the other side. And it’s as if something is taking over. But when you’re improvising and things are really in the groove, other things are taking over. It’s a practice. It’s a practice for life in general. I mean, you do enough of that, and you start to see it start to boil and seep out in your life in different ways. At least that’s what I noticed.
VR: Last Jazz Night at Harwood Auditorium on February 9th at 7pm – what should people expect?
Bachelor: At some point after being hired, I decided I needed a jazz night here. After that we have them often. this will be my last I messaged everyone. At least I sent a message to my Facebook page that this could be a rough night and some of them took the ball and they are actually doing something with the alums. It can be rough.