Daniel Gregerman: Jazz Voice

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Gregerman directs a concert choir at Niles North. (Photo: Jim Luning).

By Matt Parish

Choral programs are always in a unique position to provide their students with one-of-a-kind life experiences. What other opportunity mixes performances with such levels of discipline, self-expression, and pop culture all at the same time?

Jazz vocal ensembles are a little different. Often leaner and sometimes more flexible, they can be tight-knit and incredibly creative outlets for aspiring singers and instrumental musicians. Daniel Gregerman leads one of the nation’s foremost such programs at Niles North High School, located in Skokie, Ill. just north of Chicago. There, he runs three jazz vocal ensembles (on top of five concert choral groups) in an impressive program that has gained national renown as one of the most recognized high school jazz groups in the country.

Since he began at Niles North 23 years ago, Gregerman’s groups have gone on to win six DownBeat awards, including the 2012 Jazz Education Achievement Award. The program’s top group, Take One, won the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts Award for Outstanding Fine Arts Education in 2009 and has performed with Diane Schuur, the New York Voices, Take Six, and Janis Segal (Manhattan Transfer), as well as commissioned work from composers like Jennifer Barnes, Michele Weir, and Kirby Shaw. Meanwhile, Gregerman has been a tireless advocate and leader in the greater jazz education community. He was a founder of the Jazz Education Network (where he remains constantly active), and has served as state chairman of Vocal Jazz for IMEA, director or the Midwest Grammy All-Star Jazz Choir for NARAS, Inc., director of the Midwest Young Artists Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and more.

Through his success, Gregerman’s earned the trust of the school administrators, who have allowed him great control over the development of the school’s choral wing. Always thinking ahead, they’ve partnered for a long-term vision that includes a complex of rehearsal rooms, private lesson and practice studios, and a space for a planned digital production studio that will be able to record from any of the practice spaces (there are also plans for a specific audio engineering track in Niles North’s music program in the future). For Gregerman, it all comes down to making sure the students get the most out of their time in his program. “It’s not about giving them an experience – it’s about giving them the best experience.”

Choral Director spoke with Gregerman recently about the development of this stellar vocal program and how it fits within the school’s arts program in general.

Gregerman meets with assistant directors Logan Farris, Leah Fisher, and Kathryn Lachey at an annual retreat (Photo: Dylan Rice)

Choral Director: It’s great to speak with you about this incredible program. What do you feel like the jazz ensembles have to offer the kids that they can’t find anywhere else?

Daniel Gregerman: Freedom, creativity, improvisation, and friendship. It’s about developing a love for America’s true art form and the confidence to stand up in front of people and perform, which translates to confidence in any other areas of their life. That friendship goes to a different level even because we consider it a family here. They’re getting lifelong skills and friends that they’ll have forever. We do a three-day retreat in the fall for the vocal groups every year. That weekend isn’t just about rehearsing, but it’s about icebreakers, getting to know each other, building an identity for your own ensemble and an identity for the program, teaching kids to let their barriers down and trust. They’re incredible life skills that we’re trying to teach while we’re doing all this other stuff with jazz.

CD: You’ve said before that you figured out a lot about jazz on your own. How did that work for you?

DG: I grew up and went to Wachusett Regional High School, in Holden, Mass. During high school, I was lucky enough to attend a summer camp that turned me onto music so much that I just made a decision as a freshman that I was going to be a music teacher. I went to college at Northwestern University as a music education major with a choral emphasis. But even there, I didn’t know what I was going to do. So for my electives, I completed all the requirements of the instrumental education degree also. I fell in love with jazz a little bit. It might have been because my dad loved jazz – I remember him always playing big band music around the house. In high school, we had no jazz until my senior year, when they started a jazz band. And that was in the ‘80s, so it wasn’t anything like what it is today. I was a keyboard player who didn’t know anything about jazz. I did the best I could.

I played for a year in one of the Northwestern jazz bands. I wasn’t very good, but I still had this bug about liking it. My junior year, I stated a student-run jazz band and kind of fronted it and played piano and did gigs. That same time, my school started a vocal jazz group and it seemed fun.

But I honestly don’t know what made me want to share jazz with the kids. I got a job teaching at McHenry Community High School in Illinois and I was the band director, choir director, and department chair. I started a vocal jazz group there while I was doing everything else, and it started to get a good reputation. My friend, April Arabian-Tini, who at the time was at Northwestern, saw my group and said to me, “You need to check out Western Michigan University. They’re doing exactly what you do and it would be a great place to go work on your master’s degree.”

CD: So there you would have been introduced to the Gold Company jazz vocal ensemble. 

DG: That was my first time seeing a Gold Company show at WMU and I was amazed at what they did. That trip sent me home to apply to their master’s program. I was given two assistant positions – one was as the director of the women’s choir in the concert choir program, and the other was as the graduate assistant to Gold Company. So I was singing in Gold Company and also working as Steve Zegree’s assistant. You’ll think I’m insane because, while I was doing that, I also chose to go out and help with the marching band if I could. It just took me a long time to give up the love for all those different kinds of music. But the one thing that was consistent was that jazz bug.

So I did my two years at Western Michigan University and then ended up here at Niles North High School. My first year, I came here strictly as a choral director.

CD: It must have been tougher to gain a footing in jazz education back then.

DG: Back in the day, the jazz program at Northwestern was two bands and that was it. There was nothing back at my high school. So I was just always on my own learning about jazz and picking things up wherever I could. My first formal training in jazz was after I started my master’s degree. That’s a thing I preach to people all the time – it’s never too late to learn. You can always dive into jazz and learn – it’s not as hard as people think. I mean to get to advanced level, yes – that’s a little more difficult. But to get started and do basic jazz, anybody can do it.

CD: You’ve had to set up this whole jazz program while at the same time running a very full concert choral program. 

DG: I’ve gotten so much PR for my jazz program, because it’s different than most and because of the nature of jazz and pop music, that sometimes people forget I’m a choral director, too. I couldn’t be a good jazz director if I wasn’t a good choral director because those kids are learning good vocal technique in my concert choir program. They have to get grounded somewhere. It seems like it’s a different beast altogether, but you’ve got such unique position in being able to supervise everyone’s fundamental techniques. I do everything – the musical with the theater director, the five choirs during the day, a piano class, I’m in charge of the sound and audio for the school.

CD: Did it take you awhile to flesh out your idea of what a jazz ensemble would be? Did it evolve?

DG: No, I think I’ve known all along what the ensemble would be. The size varies a bit, but I’ve always believed in taking no more than 16 kids so you have four to a part, plus a rhythm section. Sometimes that changes because I set a level of expectation for the top group and if I don’t have 16 people that reach that level in a given year, I’m not going to take people just to have 16. This year I have 13, which sounds unlucky but it’s been really good for us.

I also allow each group to evolve every year and take on its own identity. So some groups might be better at Latin music. Some might be better at a capella. Some might have more of an R&B sound. It varies year to year and the challenge is showing the strength of that ensemble and building up the weaknesses. There’s always a joke with the older kids in the group where in the beginning of the year I’ll pass out 10 charts and they’ll tell everyone else, “Don’t worry, there are five of these that we’re not going to do!” And it’s the truth.

CD: Have there been any particular programs getting the jazz ensemble to mesh with the overall choral program there?

DG: Yeah, there are always challenges, like schedules. My kids are doing a lot of things so I’m competing with sports and our phenomenal theatre program here and which many of my kids are involved with – when I say phenomenal, I mean our theater department does seven to nine productions a year. A lot of my kids are in those productions. That’s probably our biggest challenge: finding the time to have a dedicated ensemble. Another huge challenge, honestly, is me personally juggling school and my own family and children. I’m not afraid to talk about them – I have a wonderful wife and I could not do what I do if I didn’t have the support of her. Then I have two children, ages five and eight. So that keeps me really busy outside of school. I’m also the voice of the basketball and football teams at the school – I actually coached the football team at freshman, sophomore, and varsity level for the first seven years at the school!

CD: Has school administration been consistently supportive of your program there?

DG: I have to say that is one thing I’m thankful for. We all scream in public education about budgets. I want more money – everybody wants more money. But I’ve been blessed over the years to have the support of the administration and I’ve had their backing for a long time for a lot of my financial needs. I always want more, but we keep getting new equipment, we’re able to bring in guest artists, and it’s not unlike me to commission a piece of music every year. So the kids are getting experiences that no one else gets.

Gregerman leads his seniors at Niles North’s 21st Annual Vocal Jazz Night. (Photo: Dylan Rice)

CD: The facilities are an incredible example of that.

DG: I have a very large choir room that is big enough that my regular concert choir setup is in the room with an area next to it for the vocal jazz group to rehearse, with another room dedicated to sound equipment in our vocal jazz groups. Then I also have seven choral practice rooms – four large ensemble rooms and three small practice rooms for private lessons.

One of my large ensemble rooms is dedicated to the rhythm sections, so it has a piano-bass-drums setup so that students can come in any time of the day to come practice as a group or just individually. We set the sound system up and we do a rotation into the main room so that everyone’s rehearsing on the sound system and with the rhythm section whenever they need to. The last part of this whole puzzle, for which we’re waiting for full funding, is a room we’ve built that is ready to operate as a recording studio. The plan is to put a full Pro Tools HD recording system in there. Every practice room will be able to work as an isolation booth to record and work on vocal techniques. I have three students working as sound engineers for us right now.

CD: You also have an extensive history of commissioning new pieces for the ensembles. 

DG: That goes back about 20 years now. Many of those composers are from Western Michigan, but there are also people I knew before that. You meet one person then you meet another. I would go to the IAJE conference every year and got ideas. Now JEN has come along and that helps, so we have connections all over the place and continue to build them. I’m always thinking of my kids first and how I can tap into someone else for them.

CD: Is there a point in your program where you felt like it turned from being just a really great program to one that was consistently recognized on a national level as it is today?

DG: I can’t say that there was. I think that the kids have always strived to be better. I started the group 22 years ago and, every year, I push the kids to be as good as they can and raise the bar a little every year. So it snowballed and got better and better. As the reputation was building after about five years, I was a little tired of turning kids away because so many of them wanted to be a part of it. As an educator I had a problem with limiting kids like that. After some talks with administration, we started a second group, which gave more opportunity and also raised the expectations on the first group. Now you had two groups within the same high school – even though the more advanced kids were in the top group, the second group was still competing to be as good as them. On top of that, it allowed kids to get experience. I started a third ensemble 10 years later. All of that has kind of led to the maintenance of the excellence of our program because I’ve created my own training ground. A lot of people don’t have that luxury. They have their one vocal jazz ensemble at the high school, kids try out for that, and that’s it. They have no other opportunity. I’ve got 60 kids in my program training for the next level.

I’ve got assistant directors working on all of these ensembles, so I’ve always structured the vocal jazz rehearsals so that all groups rehearse at the same time. Therefore, I have the freedom to administrate the whole program and drop in on anyone’s rehearsal to see how things are going and mentor the students and, if I need to, the teachers. Each vocal jazz group also has its own rhythm section. They rehearse Tuesday nights and then, on Thursday night, they are on call as we need them for our rehearsal.

CD: That’s a lot of work!

DG: I can’t complain. We’ve won DownBeatawards here, we’ve performed at all the major conferences over the years like MENC and ACDA and IAJE and IMEA, and you probably know I’m one of the founding members of JEN, which I’m very involved with. In the end, I have a passion in my heart and soul for jazz and love sharing it and talking about it and helping to further the education and expansion of jazz.

Since he began at Niles North 23 years ago, Gregerman’s groups have gone on to win six DownBeat awards, including the 2012 Jazz Education Achievement Award. The program’s top group, Take One, won the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts Award for Outstanding Fine Arts Education in 2009 and has performed with Diane Schuur, the New York Voices, Take Six, and Janis Segal (Manhattan Transfer), as well as commissioned work from composers like Jennifer Barnes, Michele Weir, and Kirby Shaw. Meanwhile, Gregerman has been a tireless advocate and leader in the greater jazz education community. He was a founder of the Jazz Education Network (where he remains constantly active), and has served as state chairman of Vocal Jazz for IMEA, director or the Midwest Grammy All-Star Jazz Choir for NARAS, Inc., director of the Midwest Young Artists Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and more.

Through his success, Gregerman’s earned the trust of the school administrators, who have allowed him great control over the development of the school’s choral wing. Always thinking ahead, they’ve partnered for a long-term vision that includes a complex of rehearsal rooms, private lesson and practice studios, and a space for a planned digital production studio that will be able to record from any of the practice spaces (there are also plans for a specific audio engineering track in Niles North’s music program in the future). For Gregerman, it all comes down to making sure the students get the most out of their time in his program. “It’s not about giving them an experience – it’s about giving them the best experience.”

Choral Director spoke with Gregerman recently about the development of this stellar vocal program and how it fits within the school’s arts program in general.

Choral Director: It’s great to speak with you about this incredible program. What do you feel like the jazz ensembles have to offer the kids that they can’t find anywhere else?

Daniel Gregerman: Freedom, creativity, improvisation, and friendship. It’s about developing a love for America’s true art form and the confidence to stand up in front of people and perform, which translates to confidence in any other areas of their life. That friendship goes to a different level even because we consider it a family here. They’re getting lifelong skills and friends that they’ll have forever. We do a three-day retreat in the fall for the vocal groups every year. That weekend isn’t just about rehearsing, but it’s about icebreakers, getting to know each other, building an identity for your own ensemble and an identity for the program, teaching kids to let their barriers down and trust. They’re incredible life skills that we’re trying to teach while we’re doing all this other stuff with jazz.

CD: You’ve said before that you figured out a lot about jazz on your own. How did that work for you?

DG: I grew up and went to Wachusett Regional High School, in Holden, Mass. During high school, I was lucky enough to attend a summer camp that turned me onto music so much that I just made a decision as a freshman that I was going to be a music teacher. I went to college at Northwestern University as a music education major with a choral emphasis. But even there, I didn’t know what I was going to do. So for my electives, I completed all the requirements of the instrumental education degree also. I fell in love with jazz a little bit. It might have been because my dad loved jazz – I remember him always playing big band music around the house. In high school, we had no jazz until my senior year, when they started a jazz band. And that was in the ‘80s, so it wasn’t anything like what it is today. I was a keyboard player who didn’t know anything about jazz. I did the best I could.

I played for a year in one of the Northwestern jazz bands. I wasn’t very good, but I still had this bug about liking it. My junior year, I stated a student-run jazz band and kind of fronted it and played piano and did gigs. That same time, my school started a vocal jazz group and it seemed fun.

But I honestly don’t know what made me want to share jazz with the kids. I got a job teaching at McHenry Community High School in Illinois and I was the band director, choir director, and department chair. I started a vocal jazz group there while I was doing everything else, and it started to get a good reputation. My friend, April Arabian-Tini, who at the time was at Northwestern, saw my group and said to me, “You need to check out Western Michigan University. They’re doing exactly what you do and it would be a great place to go work on your master’s degree.”

CD: So there you would have been introduced to the Gold Company jazz vocal ensemble. 

DG: That was my first time seeing a Gold Company show at WMU and I was amazed at what they did. That trip sent me home to apply to their master’s program. I was given two assistant positions – one was as the director of the women’s choir in the concert choir program, and the other was as the graduate assistant to Gold Company. So I was singing in Gold Company and also working as Steve Zegree’s assistant. You’ll think I’m insane because, while I was doing that, I also chose to go out and help with the marching band if I could. It just took me a long time to give up the love for all those different kinds of music. But the one thing that was consistent was that jazz bug.

So I did my two years at Western Michigan University and then ended up here at Niles North High School. My first year, I came here strictly as a choral director.

CD: It must have been tougher to gain a footing in jazz education back then.

DG: Back in the day, the jazz program at Northwestern was two bands and that was it. There was nothing back at my high school. So I was just always on my own learning about jazz and picking things up wherever I could. My first formal training in jazz was after I started my master’s degree. That’s a thing I preach to people all the time – it’s never too late to learn. You can always dive into jazz and learn – it’s not as hard as people think. I mean to get to advanced level, yes – that’s a little more difficult. But to get started and do basic jazz, anybody can do it.

CD: You’ve had to set up this whole jazz program while at the same time running a very full concert choral program. 

DG: I’ve gotten so much PR for my jazz program, because it’s different than most and because of the nature of jazz and pop music, that sometimes people forget I’m a choral director, too. I couldn’t be a good jazz director if I wasn’t a good choral director because those kids are learning good vocal technique in my concert choir program. They have to get grounded somewhere. It seems like it’s a different beast altogether, but you’ve got such unique position in being able to supervise everyone’s fundamental techniques. I do everything – the musical with the theater director, the five choirs during the day, a piano class, I’m in charge of the sound and audio for the school.

CD: Did it take you awhile to flesh out your idea of what a jazz ensemble would be? Did it evolve?

DG: No, I think I’ve known all along what the ensemble would be. The size varies a bit, but I’ve always believed in taking no more than 16 kids so you have four to a part, plus a rhythm section. Sometimes that changes because I set a level of expectation for the top group and if I don’t have 16 people that reach that level in a given year, I’m not going to take people just to have 16. This year I have 13, which sounds unlucky but it’s been really good for us.

I also allow each group to evolve every year and take on its own identity. So some groups might be better at Latin music. Some might be better at a capella. Some might have more of an R&B sound. It varies year to year and the challenge is showing the strength of that ensemble and building up the weaknesses. There’s always a joke with the older kids in the group where in the beginning of the year I’ll pass out 10 charts and they’ll tell everyone else, “Don’t worry, there are five of these that we’re not going to do!” And it’s the truth.

CD: Have there been any particular programs getting the jazz ensemble to mesh with the overall choral program there?

DG: Yeah, there are always challenges, like schedules. My kids are doing a lot of things so I’m competing with sports and our phenomenal theatre program here and which many of my kids are involved with – when I say phenomenal, I mean our theater department does seven to nine productions a year. A lot of my kids are in those productions. That’s probably our biggest challenge: finding the time to have a dedicated ensemble. Another huge challenge, honestly, is me personally juggling school and my own family and children. I’m not afraid to talk about them – I have a wonderful wife and I could not do what I do if I didn’t have the support of her. Then I have two children, ages five and eight. So that keeps me really busy outside of school. I’m also the voice of the basketball and football teams at the school – I actually coached the football team at freshman, sophomore, and varsity level for the first seven years at the school!

CD: Has school administration been consistently supportive of your program there?

DG: I have to say that is one thing I’m thankful for. We all scream in public education about budgets. I want more money – everybody wants more money. But I’ve been blessed over the years to have the support of the administration and I’ve had their backing for a long time for a lot of my financial needs. I always want more, but we keep getting new equipment, we’re able to bring in guest artists, and it’s not unlike me to commission a piece of music every year. So the kids are getting experiences that no one else gets.

CD: The facilities are an incredible example of that.

DG: I have a very large choir room that is big enough that my regular concert choir setup is in the room with an area next to it for the vocal jazz group to rehearse, with another room dedicated to sound equipment in our vocal jazz groups. Then I also have seven choral practice rooms – four large ensemble rooms and three small practice rooms for private lessons.

One of my large ensemble rooms is dedicated to the rhythm sections, so it has a piano-bass-drums setup so that students can come in any time of the day to come practice as a group or just individually. We set the sound system up and we do a rotation into the main room so that everyone’s rehearsing on the sound system and with the rhythm section whenever they need to. The last part of this whole puzzle, for which we’re waiting for full funding, is a room we’ve built that is ready to operate as a recording studio. The plan is to put a full Pro Tools HD recording system in there. Every practice room will be able to work as an isolation booth to record and work on vocal techniques. I have three students working as sound engineers for us right now.

CD: You also have an extensive history of commissioning new pieces for the ensembles. 

DG: That goes back about 20 years now. Many of those composers are from Western Michigan, but there are also people I knew before that. You meet one person then you meet another. I would go to the IAJE conference every year and got ideas. Now JEN has come along and that helps, so we have connections all over the place and continue to build them. I’m always thinking of my kids first and how I can tap into someone else for them.

CD: Is there a point in your program where you felt like it turned from being just a really great program to one that was consistently recognized on a national level as it is today?

DG: I can’t say that there was. I think that the kids have always strived to be better. I started the group 22 years ago and, every year, I push the kids to be as good as they can and raise the bar a little every year. So it snowballed and got better and better. As the reputation was building after about five years, I was a little tired of turning kids away because so many of them wanted to be a part of it. As an educator I had a problem with limiting kids like that. After some talks with administration, we started a second group, which gave more opportunity and also raised the expectations on the first group. Now you had two groups within the same high school – even though the more advanced kids were in the top group, the second group was still competing to be as good as them. On top of that, it allowed kids to get experience. I started a third ensemble 10 years later. All of that has kind of led to the maintenance of the excellence of our program because I’ve created my own training ground. A lot of people don’t have that luxury. They have their one vocal jazz ensemble at the high school, kids try out for that, and that’s it. They have no other opportunity. I’ve got 60 kids in my program training for the next level.

I’ve got assistant directors working on all of these ensembles, so I’ve always structured the vocal jazz rehearsals so that all groups rehearse at the same time. Therefore, I have the freedom to administrate the whole program and drop in on anyone’s rehearsal to see how things are going and mentor the students and, if I need to, the teachers. Each vocal jazz group also has its own rhythm section. They rehearse Tuesday nights and then, on Thursday night, they are on call as we need them for our rehearsal.

CD: That’s a lot of work!

DG: I can’t complain. We’ve won DownBeat awards here, we’ve performed at all the major conferences over the years like MENC and ACDA and IAJE and IMEA, and you probably know I’m one of the founding members of JEN, which I’m very involved with. In the end, I have a passion in my heart and soul for jazz and love sharing it and talking about it and helping to further the education and expansion of jazz.

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