Daniel Henderson’s midterms “got that swing.”
For many students at Harvard, midterm season means memorizing formulas, speed-reading of political theories and eventually, sitting down in a rickety lecture hall chair and writing feverishly for an hour. But for the students of Music 153: Jazz Harmony, the midterm process is a little different. Students who enter classroom 9 of the Music Building the morning of the midterm are greeted by five professional musicians warming up on their instruments. Soon, these musicians will be premiering compositions written by the students for this special occasion: Though called a “midterm” technically, what’s really happening is students hearing the songs they’ve written come to life.
Music 153 is taught by Daniel Henderson, a jazz trumpetist, vocalist, musicologist, teacher and director in the Boston area. (He’s also an internet sensation via Jazz for Cows fame with nearly 7.5 million hits on YouTube.) The Harvard Department of Music class is a jazz theory primer that covers all of the fundamental aspects of jazz harmony; more than 40 students with a wide range of jazz experience signed up this semester. Although the main subject is theory, Henderson emphasizes performance. “It gets the students motivated,” Henderson says. “If you have to write a song that’s going to be performed by professional jazz musicians and recorded, you’ll now say, ‘I really want to know all the theoretical possibilities at my disposal.’”
Leading up to the midterm project, Henderson had the class study compositions by jazz masters from Duke Ellington to Antonio Carlos Jobim. In studying classics such as My Funny Valentine and In a Sentimental Mood, Henderson demonstrated how composers use techniques such as tritone substitutions and pedal tones to evoke emotions. Then, he set the students off to write their own pieces.
“What I told them is, ‘Write something you love,’” Henderson says. The results were inspired and varied. Cynthia Meng ‘15 wrote and sang a Stevie Wonder-inspired funk tune that was driven by an idea she had while daydreaming in the middle of class; others wrote sambas, ballads, blues and love songs, all impeccably performed by the professional musicians earlier this week.
A particularly moving piece came from Gladys Kisela ‘17, who was inspired by Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved to capture slave experience through song. “Morrison’s writing is very blunt,” Kisela says. “I wanted to write a song that was just as stinging.” Kisela employed the harmonic techniques she learned in class to write gospel-influenced chord changes and melody, and then wrote lyrics that captured different parts of the slave experience.
Half of the class had pieces performed Oct. 22; the other half while have their songs premiered at 10 a.m. Oct. 24 in Music Building Room 9. The performance is open to the public, but space is limited. If you miss this one, count on dozens more budding jazz songwriters premiering original pieces in the same classroom in years to come, with Henderson guiding them along the way.