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As class began on a clear, swelteringly hot morning in late July at the Siena Jazz International Summer Workshop, Theo Bleckmann stood before 10 spellbound female students and commenced to instruct them on the finer points of jazz singing. As the class progressed, he delineated various practice techniques and strategies that the students could employ going forward in their careers. He discussed and demonstrated ways to open the rib cage and loosen the tongue, to infuse their vocalizations with intent (a word he kept using over and over), to truly learn rhythm and swing, to address technical problems and use one’s whole body during the act of singing, not demonstrably but practically and fundamentally. He prodded the students to stand and attempt to replicate certain exercises. By the end of the class, he had them all walking circles in the room, simultaneously singing, clapping and stomping out complex rhythmic cadences. An hour had passed, and much had been accomplished.
For two weeks each summer during the past 42 years, young jazz musicians — most of them in their late teens or early 20s, many conservatory-trained and already working professionally — have ventured to Siena, Italy, to further their studies and collaborate with a sterling array of accomplished artists at the Siena Jazz International Summer Workshop. I had the good fortune to spend five days at this year’s Workshop. During that time, I was able to sit in on several classes, attend a few evening performances and converse with many of the 105 students and 33 teachers in attendance. It was an enlightening experience. By the time I left, I had gained a healthy appreciation for the value of the Workshop and for the considerable charms of the town in which it’s held.
A majority of the students hailed from cities and towns throughout Italy. Most of the rest were from other European countries, though a handful arrived from the United States and elsewhere. About half of the teachers were Italians whose names would be familiar to fans of Italy’s rich jazz scene; the other half were mostly well-known musicians currently residing in the States. All of the teachers conducted their classes in a fairly modern, unremarkable building within the remains of Fortezza Medicea, a vast fortress constructed in Siena by Florentine invaders during the Middle Ages. Usually the building serves as the home of Siena Jazz University, a reputable institution lauded by an Italian saxophone instructor that I spoke to as the “nicest jazz school in Italy and maybe in all of Europe.” With the university’s full-time students and faculty being on break during the summer months, the building and its facilities are utilized for two weeks by the Workshop students and teachers.
Class sizes are small, as are many of the classrooms themselves. Even so, a grand piano resides in each, as does a drum kit, an electric piano, bass and guitar amplifiers, and other equipment conducive to music-making. While the Workshop is in session, groups of no more than 10 students assemble in one of those classrooms six days a week, twice daily, to learn about improvisational techniques and other matters on their chosen instruments. At two other classes each day, they delve into the intricacies of playing within an ensemble. During the workshop’s first week, students also take classes in jazz history.
On the whole, the two weeks of classes amount to an immensely enjoyable, challenging and, ultimately, profitable learning experience. Though the lessons are often both mentally and physically demanding, all of the students with whom I spoke were thrilled to be in Siena for the Workshop. No wonder. Imagine being a gifted young saxophonist and having the golden opportunity, as this year’s saxophone students had, to study the art of improvisation in a small classroom with Miguel Zenón or Donny McCaslin or Italian ace Maurizio Giammarco. Imagine the singular thrill of attending a combo class conducted by trumpeter Avishai Cohen or fellow trumpet master Ambrose Akinmusire. Not only do those two gentlemen and all of the other Workshop instructors teach combo classes, they also perform with their students in the combos. For most of the students, these are once-in-a-lifetime scenarios.
Aaron Parks, Stefano Battaglia, Matt Mitchell and Kenny Werner taught piano, patiently imparting invaluable knowledge and insights to their students. Notable European and American musicians proffered drum, double bass and guitar lessons. Vocal students received exacting instruction from Becca Stevens, Jen Shyu, Diana Torto and Bleckmann. Italian scholar and avid jazz aficionado Francesco Martinelli, who’s been teaching at the Workshop for 20 years, delivered finely nuanced lectures about jazz history, peppering his presentations with sound clips that clarified and enlivened key points. Students and teachers alike took advantage of countless opportunities to exchange ideas, forge valuable connections, and expand and deepen their understanding of jazz. At every turn, inspiration was given and received. It’s an admirable enterprise, and what makes it all even more delightful and memorable is its brilliant setting.
Siena is located within the gently rolling hills of Tuscany, about 60 miles south of Florence, in central Italy. It was a powerful nation-state until its population was decimated by the Black Death in 1348. It survived as a republic until 1555, when its army was routed by Florentine soldiers allied with the Spanish crown. Today it’s a town populated by some 40,000 inhabitants (that number expands to 55,000 when classes at the University of Siena are in-session). Its well-preserved historic center — principally laid out and constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries, and still surrounded by a fortified wall nearly 4.5 miles in length — is among Italy’s most popular tourist destinations.
Visitors come to behold the churches and other religious structures, especially the splendorous Siena Cathedral, a dazzling masterpiece of Romanesque-Gothic architecture that stands atop the city’s highest hill. They come to ponder the great works of Medieval and Renaissance art that reside in the city’s churches and museums. They come to bask in the Mediterranean climate, to stroll leisurely through Siena’s beguiling maze of old-world thoroughfares and to savor the exquisite cuisine. And, of course, they come for the Palio, the world-famous, medieval-era bareback horse races that are held twice annually, on July 2 and August 15, in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, the expansive fan-shaped town square that’s served as the center of Sienese life for the last 700 years.
The Piazza itself, renowned throughout Europe as one of the continent’s greatest medieval squares, is a prime destination for tourists, who dine at restaurants scattered along its perimeter, marvel at the ornate Fonte Gaia (Fountain of the World) and lounge languidly, day and night, on the square’s vast red-brick surface. Some of the more fit and hearty visitors climb the 400 steps that lead to the top of the Piazza’s 335-feet-tall Torre del Mangia (Tower of the Eater), where a spectacular bird’s-eye view of Siena and the pastel-colored surrounding countryside awaits.
Siena is a winsome, seductive old town, brimming with fascinating color and detail. Its past and present — and no doubt its future — are vitally and plainly bound together. It’s little wonder that gifted, adventurous students from around the world have long desired to dwell in Siena for a couple of weeks while studying jazz with distinguished elders. All things considered, why wouldn’t they? - David Pulizzi