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In Conversation: Simon Rowe on the Future of RJAM

Simon Rowe, executive director of SFCM’s Roots, Jazz, and American Music (RJAM) program, had high hopes for jazz at the Conservatory even before a jazz major was fully realized. Now, after a year of gigs in cafes and clubs, side-by-sides with Grammy-winning artists in major concert halls, residencies with legendary figures, and a unique curriculum that covers jazz from its earliest incarnations to the modern era, RJAM is off and running, and the program is only getting bigger. In the Q&A below, Rowe reflects on RJAM’s first year and lets us know what to expect in the future.

We're now one year into the RJAM program. What were your main takeaways from the program's first year?

I am thrilled with the way in which the students and faculty have embraced the curriculum. Our RJAM curriculum is more playing intensive than our peers’ programs around the world as our students have their instruments in their hands, in class, for two hours, four days a week. A critical piece of building a new program at an institution is to create a community around the art form. I feel that our first-year students quickly realized how important their community is, and they worked both on and off campus to help each other along. They also reached out and became a part of the larger SFCM community. To that end, our RJAM faculty have also been well received and supported by our colleagues at SFCM.

How is the RJAM program expanding in its second year?

With our new cohort, we will have 22 students in the RJAM program, so the community is certainly growing! We have also added three new faculty members in Carmen Bradford (jazz voice), Mike Rodriguez (trumpet), and Matt Brewer (bass). We’re returning to the Monterey Jazz Festival on September 22 (where all of our students will perform!) and, on September 30th, we will perform our side-by-side concert in Miner Auditorium at the SFJAZZ Center. We’re also hoping to be more involved in outreach programs with our partners at SFJAZZ, and we anticipate that our students will continue to perform in and seek out new venues around the Bay Area.

What curricular changes or additions are taking place this year?

We’re continuing to streamline our approach to the mentoring of our students within our established curriculum. For instance, we’ve been really happy with the way in which our San Francisco Symphony colleagues, notably Scott Pingel and Jake Nissly (also on the SFCM faculty), have stepped forward to mentor our young bassists and drummers, working in collaboration with RJAM faculty members Matt Brewer and Matt Wilson. These students benefit by having expert instruction from artists at the top of both the classical and jazz worlds.

How is the RJAM program at SFCM different from other jazz programs?

Apprenticeship is key in the RJAM program. Our hope is that the students will model themselves on the faculty with whom they interact daily—in class, on stage, and out in the community. Different from many other programs is the idea that artist-level skills are acquired as students encounter the jazz canon through the experience of learning, playing, performing, and studying together in the context of a working ensemble. Class participation is always active… with instrument in hand!

How has the musical life of San Francisco benefited RJAM students?

Our RJAM students can be found working and performing across the greater Bay Area. They host a monthly student jam session at Bird and Beckett (the second Monday of every month) and can also be found leading their own engagements or supporting others at numerous venues including SFJAZZ, The Black Cat, Cafe Pink, The California Jazz Conservatory, and others. As the RJAM community grows, our students will continue to become a vital piece of the Bay Area’s performance world.

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