Sklar retired from Harwood Union after decades of creating jazz musicians

Harwood Union is known for its award-winning jazz program and the educator behind that well-deserved reputation, Bruce Sklar, will retire at the end of this year. Sklar agreed to be interviewed by The Valley Reporter prior to one last night of jazz at school with friends, peers, and students on February 9.

VR: How many years did you spend at Harwood?

Bachelor’s: I started full time in 1999. But I’ve been doing jazz there on some level since 1994, or something. Chris Rivers heard about me from a student who was also my student. Chris brought me in and started doing a jazz band. At that point, it was grades seven through twelve. So, the first major change was starting a jazz band in middle school that was also wild. I was not trained as a teacher. I was kind of thinking about it as I went on.

VR: Tell me how you came to Vermont and your educational background.

Bachelor’s: I went to UMass Amherst, and in fact I was the first person to graduate with a jazz degree from UMass Amherst. They didn’t really have a jazz program, which you could actually major in until, at some point, after you started. I was kind of going back and forth between a few schools, but I started at UMass. But I had to enter a classical major, because at the time I was taking auditions, the program had not yet started. School started in the fall of 1974.

I have been coming to Vermont for a long time. I’m from Newton originally. I have good friends who have ski houses in Mad River Valley and have been coming and going for the Fourth of July in Warren since 1974. I ended up marrying someone from the Valley, bought a house in Morristown and raised my family there. I came to join the pure pressure squad. That’s why I moved to Vermont. I was also teaching private lessons. I’ve been involved at Harwood for about five or six years, I think, when Chris said, and so did the manager, they’d probably create a position for me.

VR: And tell me, how did you end up being a musical kid?

Bachelor’s: Music was highly valued in my family. There was my great-grandmother’s cousin Lillian Rock, who was a big star like the ’30s and ’40s. There has always been a family idea that we have this as a value in the family. The idea of ​​jazz theory attracted me when I was 12 years old. I walked into Newton Center and there was a music store called Kuta Audio. It was a very progressive place in many ways. And she met the teacher, whose name was Gene Ashton, now known as Cooper Moore, one of the pioneers of the world of jazz. He taught me since I was 13 to 17 when he finally moved to New York. He gave me everything, you know, at an age when everything was more profound than intellectual in some ways, though it’s all about that, too. That’s what got me to it.

VR: You’ve really developed a great program here. It has an incredible reputation throughout the state and beyond. How did that come to be? Are they students? Was it the formula? Was it community support? Tell me a little bit about how something turns into something.

Bachelor’s: All of the above. I had a vision of what he wanted to happen there. He came in as a young teacher, right off the bat with his master’s degree in teaching, and really set things up. He saw that jazz was part of the program he wanted at Harwood. He could see that I was really good in front of a group of kids that I knew how to do, even though I had no practical training in any way, shape or form about being in school teaching.

VR: Did you make it up as you went?

Bachelor’s: Improvisation is a life skill. It’s more than just how you approach music; It’s, can you think on your feet, can you read people, read what they need, all those things that I can do fairly easily. This has been recognized. By the time I was offered the job it was half time in the first year, but then they worked full time. I also have experience with music technology, and Chris and I started to learn how to get kids involved because band and jazz always met at the same time. Back in the day, we had a lot of trumpet players. We had an A and a B band, and both were very much like full size, big bands. About five or six years later, I started doing Monday night workouts, too. It was a common approach. We just did it. And we got investment from the kids who were going to show up Monday night for a few hours and rehearse. So, a lot of the success had to do with the way Chris and I worked together to collaborate and share the same kids. They had this experience that was very intense in terms of the depth of what they were getting at. The basis of it really is that we’ve been able to work collaboratively, and have as many play opportunities for the kids as possible. And sure enough, the community support has been phenomenal all the way through.

Bruce at the piano and Nina Sklar at the Harwood concert.
Bruce at the piano and Nina Sklar at the Harwood concert. Photo: Gordon Miller

VR: Some of your students are very good friends of mine. I found myself passionate about jazz because of the intense passion it engendered in these children. It is tangible. How did you do that? Jazz brought life not only to the children but also to their families and community.

Bachelor’s: There’s a whole bunch of things that happened, like right when I started. First of all, they had a teacher, Matt Clancy, who was very jazz minded. I was having kids who were really exposed to the Masters, but there was a culture that happened very quickly, because we had a bunch of kids who could play really well, and everybody could hear that. So, I can start at a high level right away, and really challenge them. This is just luck in the draw. I was there, and I was able to serve them, and they were there, and they could take what I was giving them in full and handle it as hard as they could, so that the whole program would benefit from that because a lot of the other kids who got more probably had more motivation than others.

VR: You’ve mentored some great musicians and then there are a lot of kids who may not have gone on to fame and fortune. There are plenty of kids who have already framed the structure of Harwood’s music program and informed their lives and are still playing, even though they’ve gone on to do something very different. There is discipline value to being a musician. Talk about it a little bit.

Bachelor’s: I met a former student a few years ago at Waterbury who is now a lawyer. He was telling me something he had come up with legally, and no one had thought of it that way before. It was made in his head at the moment. He has the ability to put these thoughts together and put something together. You know, what is that? This is improvisation. It is a human ability. We’ve applied it to jazz, but it’s bigger than that. There are so many other kids that have gone on to do amazing things, like engineering, rocket scientists, PhDs, there are so many others. It amazes me that people have those kinds of abilities and this kind of focus. But they were all a path to this and they just had this natural tendency to be able to improvise.

VR: Yeah, that’s interesting. People tend to think, like straight academics, like outspoken academics. And I think there’s often a missing correlation between the value of, as you say, the ability to improvise, but the ability to think three-dimensionally. It’s a different way of thinking in 3D.

Bachelor’s: Yes, yes, absolutely. I mean, a lot of it comes from a very intellectual standpoint when you sit down to actually figure this stuff out. But when you play with a group of people, this is what I talk about with all my groups, is that syncopation and rhythmic syncopation is the thing that humans can do. And there’s been a lot of tingling under the hood by scientists about this for a long time, sticking people to MRI machines and measuring their brains when they’re singing, either alone or with other people and watching what’s going on. But sure, when synchronization occurs, when a group gets hit, it feels different. It’s really hard to explain what that is but once it happens it’s like, well, my teacher prescribed it to go to the other side. It feels like something is taking over. But when you improvise and things are off, other things take over. This is a practice. This is a practice of life in general. I mean, you do it enough, and you start to see that start to boil and boil in other ways in your life, at least, that’s what I’ve noticed.

VR: One Last Night of Jazz at Harwood Hall on February 9th at 7pm – what should people expect?

Bachelor’s: At some point after I was hired I decided we needed a jazz night here. After that we have it every so often. This will be my last. I’ve made it clear to everyone, at least on my Facebook page, that this could be a wild night, and some of them have taken the ball and are actually picking something up with the alums. It can be wild.

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