David Bloom - In His Own Words
Cover Photo by Lois Gilbert
Photo by Christine Jeffers
Chicagoan David Bloom had a calling. Born into a family of educators and with a passion for music, aesthetics and self-expression, it seems he was destined to become a jazz teacher. Unlike most music teachers who focus on a particular instrument, Bloom’s approach is primarily at the macro level––helping students and professionals alike to develop or fine-tune their jazz concepts. He is a master at cutting though to what matters, and of communicating difficult concepts to his students in easy-to-grasp ways.
Since founding the Bloom School of Jazz in 1975, David Bloom has strived to push his students to break through musical and psychological barriers and achieve the highest level of performance on their instruments. Bloom always strives to impart on his pupils not only what constitutes a good solo, but also what makes a good musician: “It’s not about ego, it’s about serving the music.” Over the years, thousands of students have benefited from his unlimited enthusiasm for teaching jazz, including notable musicians such as Zach Brock, Steve Rodby, Rob Mazurek, Chad Taylor, Larry Gray, Regina Brown, Ryan Cohan, and Cliff Colnot.
In 2017 he was named Jazz Educator of the Year by the Jazz Institute of Chicago for his excellence in the field, and his school continues to grow. As the Bloom School of Jazz heads into its 43rd year we spoke with Bloom about his teaching concepts and techniques, along with the current state of jazz performance and presentation, as well as its future.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How does one go about “teaching” jazz?
David Bloom: It’s about elevating a student’s aesthetic!–– what they think is good and why. Thousands of times musicians have walked in the school with one set of musical values, if any, and walked out with a very clear sense of the values of the masters and how to practice those values without direct imitation of their licks. I have learned the only way to truly improve is to raise your musical values, sensibilities and aesthetics. You can learn new licks by master players without elevating your grammar and syntax. In the end, you have to be a master of what you love. The only way to stand out in a tsunami of imitators is to not be one. Jazz has always been a highly individual art and the people who promoted it in the fifties and sixties were as passionate about the recording, distribution and promotion as the artists were about the art.
If you take a look at the four main jazz labels, these were not big corporations. For Blue Note Records, there were four main principles there. Alfred Lion was the owner, Francis Wolff his photographer––with those incredible picture —the cover art designer was Reed Miles, who designed those beautiful covers, and the magnificent engineer was Rudy van Gelder—each one great in their category. That combination was just so smokin’–– there was no testing, no does he look right?, all that crap. If Alfred Lion dug you, that was it. In that period of time, you had deeply impassioned people. There are small labels now, and it’s a very curious time because if someone wants to play jazz, where do they go? They might ask: What do I do? Do I go after Bird? Am I neoclassicist? Do I go after Trane? Do I do some Saturday Night Jazz Ramsey Lewis stuff? Who are the models? It becomes a conundrum. I like to improvise, but what context do I play in? Where am I going to play? If you want to play jazz, you really have to love it. It’s like any of the arts; you won’t do it well if you have a casual interest in it. To me, a musician is a person capable of making top-level music. Instrumentalists are people who can play their instrument, while weak musicians are merely instrument owners. When it comes to soloing, most people just don’t know when to get off the bus. They don’t know when to stop. I heard a funny phrase and it really applies to music, too. It’s “a closed mouth gathers no foot.” I really think some of these musicians should just shut up sometimes. It’s like the story with Miles and Trane: Trane said to Miles, “Man, how do you play so little?” And then Miles said, “I take the mouthpiece out of my mouth sometimes.” [laughs]
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Talk about how you got started in music.
Bloom: I grew up in Hyde Park. I started music by studying clarinet with Jerry Stowell, first chair of the Chicago Symphony. He was a tough cookie, and I wasn’t ready for him.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How old were you?
Bloom: I was eight. A year later, my father was on sabbatical at the Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Science at Stanford in Palo Alto, California. Basically, it was a year for him to just think and write. So he took his family out there and I learned guitar with a local teacher named Mrs. Schniederman, who started me off playing folk songs. I learned songs by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Pete Seeger, and the Clancy Brothers. I enjoyed it and taught my brother. We used to sing and play folk songs. This was in ’59, and when we got back to Chicago we still played folk for a while. I didn’t return to clarinet.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You gave it up at that point?
Bloom: Yes. I was 15 years old and I joined a little rock band at my high school. The first rhythm and blues song I ever sang was “First I Look at the Purse” by the Contours, a Motown group.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did your parents inspire you to listen to jazz?
Bloom: No. When we got back from California, I heard some jazz coming out of a window across the street, and I was just blown away. It was Herbie Mann, Live at the Village Gate. Somehow I met the people who lived there, a guy named Alonzo Reed. We got to be friends. His brother Jerry Reed was an incredible jazz fan. I went up to their third floor walk-up and we listened to the rest of the record. It just really went right to my soul. I bought a couple records, and my dad bought me Portrait of Wes Montgomery on Riverside, which is still one of the greatest records of all time. So I was listening to jazz, but I had no idea how to go about playing it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You were still doing folk music?
Bloom: I was still playing folk, but I started listening to jazz when I was about 11 or 12. A dramatic turning point for me, however, was when I went to hear the blues festival at Mandel Hall, an auditorium in Hyde Park. I heard Bobby Bland, Otis Rush and Buddy Guy. Bland’s guitar player Wayne Bennett was just fantastic. When Buddy played I knew that I wanted to play blues. The next day, I got his phone number.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What year was this?
Bloom: This was in ’66.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So he was just starting to break on the national scene.
Bloom: Yes. He was still unknown, in terms of where he is now. I mean, not even close. He was a local blues player, playing blues gigs for like $75 with Junior Wells. The person who made him was Eric Clapton, when he said that Buddy Guy was the best guitar player in the world… the rest is history.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s a pretty good testimonial.
Bloom: Yes, it couldn’t have been better! [laughs] I called up Buddy and told him that I’d love to study with him, but he said he didn’t teach. I told him, “I’m sure I can learn a lot from you. Can we try it out?” He said, “Okay.” I asked, “Well, what will you charge me?” And he said, “five bucks.” I said, “For how long?” And he said, “For as long as it takes.” I would go over on Sundays for about three hours, and there’s truth to the notion of Southern hospitality. I felt it wasn’t simply okay that I was there, but important and necessary.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you were hanging out with Buddy at his home, talking music.
Bloom: Playing. I’d be playing guitar, backing him up. He’d be playing such incredible stuff, I would just stop, and my jaw would be hanging, and he would look at me and crack up. It was a really sweet moment. He was entertained by me.
The Bloom School Banner hangs across Rush Street in front of the original school in 1985.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you stay in touch with him? Your school is not that far away from his club.
Bloom: I didn’t talk to him for many years, and then I went over to his club a few years ago. He was sitting at the bar, and I approached him and said, “Do you teach guitar?” And he said, “No I don’t.” He didn’t recognize me, so I added, “Well, you did 45 years ago.” Then he remembered me, and we talked. He said, “Dave, things are different than they were when we were hanging out.” I said, “How so?” And he replied, “Back when we met, it was all about music. Now it’s all about money.” That was telling.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Well, it’s true. That’s where it’s at right now.
Bloom: When I was about 15, I started listening to WVON, the “Voice of the Negro,” and listened to rhythm and blues. They had announced a show was coming to the Regal Theater, so I went with a few of my friends. I was absolutely overwhelmed by the music, the vibe. I mean, the first show I went to I think was the Miracles, the Temptations, the Contours, and Otis Redding—for three dollars.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That was one show?
Bloom: One show, three dollars. And if you wanted to, you could stay for all three shows. They did it three times a day. The performers would get there at noon. The worst movie you’ve ever seen in the world would start at 1 p.m., and then you’d hear the band tuning up at the end of the movie. It was really exciting. After that first show, I went there every Tuesday for about two years.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was it a packed theater?
Bloom: Not all the time, but they were doing 20 shows a week.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Imagine trying to talk some of today’s musicians into playing three times a day.
Bloom: That was called the Chitlin’ Circuit, including the Apollo Theater in New York, the Fox in Detroit, and the Howard in D.C. I was mesmerized by the guitar players, who accompanied the vocalists, because they knew exactly what to play and when to play it. They didn’t play one note extra. I wanted to learn how to play that way. At her work, my mother got the name of a highly respected musician named Reggie Boyd. I called him and set up a lesson. When I got to his house, his wife let me in, and sat me in the room next to the room where he was teaching. I could hear him, and his playing was unbelievable. Today, I put his playing right underneath Wes Montgomery, and the only reason is that his tone wasn’t like Wes’s. Reggie was playing “I Remember April,” and I heard the student playing chords. Then Reggie started really getting down and I didn’t hear the other guitar anymore. The student was probably like me, in awe and unable to play. Reggie played about two choruses, the most blistering stuff you’ve ever heard. Finally, the lesson was over. The student left and Reggie came out—a super friendly guy. I asked him, “Can you teach me how the guys at the Regal Theater play?” He said, “Oh, you’re talking about twiddling.” He taught me that style, but he was a hardcore jazzer. He was also the contractor for Chess Records, a consummate musician. All kinds of musicians would come to him, because he could transcribe Sonny Rollins’ solos off the records and give them to a horn player, so all day long people were coming in. And he could write arrangements. He was the guy who actually started the boogaloo bassline. He’s the guy playing bass on the Vibrations’ tune “The Watusi.” I studied intensely with him. Reggie convinced me I could play jazz; he helped me crack the code. Then, I went to Berklee in 1969 for a couple of years.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is that because you wanted to try to pursue music as a career?
Bloom: Well, I went to Grand Valley State College in Michigan, and midway through I got a blues gig in Texas, playing with Chicago Slim. So I quit school and went down there and we had two black musicians in the band. One guy was Jerome Arnold who played with the Paul Butterfield Band and another guy. As soon as the owner saw that there were two black people in the band, he paid us for two weeks and we left.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That was it?
Bloom: That was it. That was in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: This was the late sixties?
John Scofield Clinic at the school on Michigan Ave., in 1997 (now the Nordstrom building).
Bloom: This was in ’68. In the next year, I got tired of urban blues. It was three chords all night, and I just got tired of it. I was trying to stretch out and I really didn’t know what else to do. So I went to Berklee for a couple years. I did practice many hours a day, but foolishly skipped a lot of classes. If I were to study there now, I would be a committed student. I was fairly rebellious back then.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You just treated the music classes like lessons?
Bloom: Yeah, I did that. Yet I was learning stuff on my own, with the background of being mentored by Buddy Guy and Reggie Boyd, plus my own curiosity. A couple of the Berklee teachers gave me some much-needed encouragement. My combo teacher was bassist Major Holley who was on Kenny Burrell’s album Midnight Blue. He would say, “You can really do something.” I mean, looking me dead in the eye. It’s almost like someone handing power over to you.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You know that’s the thing with going to college. Even if you’re an advanced player, it’s important to get that little nod from someone you respect. It confirms that you’re on the right track.
Bloom: Positively. I’ve had many world-class students and I’ve taught them a lot of musical techniques, but one critical component in their learning was that I believed in them. They believed in me, and held me in high regard, so that what I said meant something.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s the most important thing—mutual respect.
Bloom: It’s like trusting your guru. I left Berklee after a couple years and came back to Chicago. Lots of kids around the area were interested in lessons because they didn’t go to Berklee and they wanted to see if I could give them some “secret” tips. So I started teaching.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’re young at this point.
Earl Crossley and Bloom performing at a club (circa 1979).
Bloom in an apartment in Boston while attending Berklee,
Jon Weber and Clyde Batton at Bloom’s first school on 1007 Rush St., in Chicago.
Bloom and the legendary Johnny Giffin in 1997.
Bloom: Yeah, I was 22. I started teaching and I worked my way up to about 30 students. I was charging five dollars a lesson.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Taking after Buddy Guy’s pay scale.
Bloom: [Laughs] Back then I was splitting an apartment with a bass player. The rent was $62.50 each, for a two bedroom. We’d go to Far East Kitchen and get egg rolls for lunch. I wasn’t feeling any pain. Sometimes I long for those days. Now I own two properties and I have a school. There’s just so much going on. Sometimes I long for––what do they call it?––traveling light. I got my flute, my guitar, some clothes, that’s it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: And you’ve got one goal on your mind: to get better at playing.
Bloom: Yes. That poses a very interesting question that I’ve asked many, many people. The question is: when do people stop developing? It’s a very serious question. For many, it’s when commerce starts. A lot of people are practicing, practicing and then as soon as they’re making that first $350 jobbing date, it’s over. They’re good enough to get paid, so they stop developing. That’s a sad notion. I’ve asked lots of people the question and many said they were overwhelmed by life and had lost the initial mystery and majesty of music. I have taught hundreds of professionals and reignited their love and enthusiasm for music. I take people from all levels and I enjoy taking pros who have either never learned or forgotten big musical sensibilities and values, such as dynamics and phrasing. I have reawakened or started a whole new value structure for these musicians, so that now they think about telling stories. Many musicians think they’re telling a story just because they’re playing. That’s very different than telling stories that the audience can hear. If your story is about you getting up from the couch and going to the front porch, it’s not that damn interesting. Now, if your story is about getting up from the couch and going to Zanzibar and back during your solo, now I’m really interested. The distance—how far someone can travel in their solos—is what I’m interested in teaching. That, and how much expression can come out. I listen to a lot of gospel and all kinds of other music. I like any music that’s highly expressive and none that isn’t.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So one of your skills is the ability to re-engage musicians that have been on autopilot. By working with you they can shift their thinking, if they’re open to doing that.
Bloom: Yes. There is no one that I’ve heard in Chicago that wouldn’t benefit greatly in at least one of the following areas: improvisation, composition, arranging, set formatting, CD production and effectively leading a band. There are some very good instrumentalists in Chicago whom I’ve heard, yet there are very few––if any––who in my lexicon play a world-class solo or present a world-class set; one where you just say, “This is up there with the best solos on the best records, or in the best sets by the masters.”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you think there’s a different mindset in Chicago? That the bar isn’t as high as in New York, so musicians don’t feel like they have to push themselves?
Bloom: That’s a very good question. In New York, everything is intense. New York is now thought of as the center of jazz. There’s overarching competition in New York. Musicians from all around the world go there to try to get into the scene. There’s an incredible legacy in those clubs. When you walk into the Village Vanguard and you leaf through your memory of the records recorded there, you realize you’re in a club that’s not just a jazz club; it’s where it happened. The live sessions were recorded right where you’re sitting. I think that the bar there, in certain ways, is much higher. There are excellent players here in Chicago, yet I almost never hear a set that’s put together for a world stage. I don’t think people think that way. I think they’re just calling tunes and improvising. They are not vigilant about the structure and the storytelling of the set. When I used to go hear Kenny Barron in the nineties at Fat Tuesdays with Victor Lewis, Essiet Essiet, as well as Steve Nelson—a vibes player who plays like he’s from another world—every single thing that you heard should have been played—everything you heard. I used to sit by drummer Victor Lewis, and every stroke he would make was a profound musical gesture. This is so rare in the world. This is what I try to teach my students: to make everything you play sound important and expensive, not cheap and frivolous. So many people just turn a faucet on when they play jazz solos, or any solo. They don’t claim ownership for every note. They just spew it. It’s like they’re fertilizing their lawn. With the solos that I’ve heard—I mean, I’ve heard the best people in the world play their best. I’ve heard Freddie Hubbard at his best. My standards don’t come from hearing some jazz band at a bar mitzvah playing jazz standards where no one really gives a shit; they’re just kinda playing. They know they’re going to get paid in two-and-a-half more hours and that’s good enough. There is a minimal emotional investment. When the great musicians play, it’s more like a religion than an art. It is a complete statement of their being, not just another activity. I was looking at basketball player Stephan Curry speaking online and he said, “You don’t do things a few times; you do it thousands of times”—especially if you want to change the way you do things. That’s a lost value: that you are going to just play until you get it right. That’s something you learn from Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. These guys did music—it wasn’t just two hours a day. They played all day. They went out and they came back and played again. I’m saying that value—I don’t see it happening. It’s getting less and less. It’s not even that it’s not taught in the schools. I don’t think that the parents have a concept of that to pass it down anymore.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: This has probably been said for time immemorial, but among young people today––whether in music, the business world or life–– there does not seem to be a strong work ethic.
Bloom: Right. One of the students I’ve had was Lee Metcalf, a great guitar player from New York. We developed a 35-hour per week practice routine that I designed for him. It’s not that people want to do this. It’s a need. They need to do it. The only context where virtuosity exists is in deep commitment. The individuals who are the best in the world are worth studying closely to figure out what it takes to be the best. Whether it is Coltrane, Phineas Newborn Jr., Adolph Herseth or any of the greats in any category—these guys are devout. That word is not part of the lexicon these days, except in a religious context.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How much musical devotion do you hear with current jazz musicians?
Bloom: I hear a high level of technical proficiency with most celebrated young jazz players. But most of what I hear doesn’t elicit an emotional feeling in me. I mostly hear a celebration of technique without a story being told. It seems to me that vulnerability, which is the ultimate human-to-human language, is being avoided.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Describe how vulnerability plays into great music-making.
Bloom: Vulnerability is the most valuable and reality-oriented currency between humans. When we express our deepest feelings, there is always the risk we will be rejected. Many musicians don’t want to present themselves emotionally, so they create a carnival act of technique, a faux statement of invincibility and invulnerability. This turns a potentially deep experience into a dog and pony show. Humans are fragile. Truly bona fide humans embrace their vulnerability as a gift, rather than a liability. You can’t have it both ways. It’s the ante to be a true artist. When musicians don’t feel vulnerable, they’re not giving it up, or they have a low capacity to feel. Often, they are presenting tried and proven licks––usually conceived by jazz masters––that don’t qualify as real jazz. Real jazz must be in the moment. If you are truly in the moment all you have is the potential of that moment to imagine and to express. Everyone, no matter how badass they think they are, is fragile. Just take a super-arrogant badass and watch how badass they are with the pain of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Suddenly they will profoundly understand their humanity. Great and successful musicians have learned to be vulnerable, but also to know when and how to protect themselves off the bandstand. When you are on the bandstand there should be absolutely no protection; you should be giving everything you have in you.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was it like in the sixties?
Bloom: In the fifties and sixties, there were around 50 jazz clubs in Chicago, but it was an underground thing. I used to go to the hungry i jazz club before I was of age, and I’d stand outside and listen. Odell Brown and his group called the Organizers would be playing right on the other side of this little window. I’d knock on it and write “Taste of Honey” on a piece of paper, and he’d play it for me. That group has soul on steroids. His drummer Robert Shy went on to be in my group for a while. If you listen to those Blue Note records that came out in the fifties and the sixties, there is a set of values those players have. It’s about storytelling. There’re so many solos I can name right now—entire records, like Speak No Evil—the entire record is about storytelling. On one of the most burning records, Free For All by Art Blakey, even with all the chops and all that, you still hear paragraphs, sentences and syntax. That’s something that I miss a lot. I challenge Chicago musicians to get their presentation together so that they’re making incredibly dramatic sets of music, not just stuff thrown together and justified by improvisation.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is this something you help musicians with?
Bloom: Yes. That’s something I’m really good at—helping people get together dramatic solos, sets or CDs. My musical partner, master arranger and producer Cliff Colnot and I recently released the album Contender. I made sure every tune had a different mood, groove, tempo and vibe. I defy anyone—people who like it and people who dislike it—to deny that there is a huge range of expression on it. That’s what I value. I don’t value just playing three swing tunes in a row in B flat. That’s lazy. Many of those problems are such quick fixes. It’s just about pride in presentation.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you’ve taken your vast array of music experiences, know-how and perspectives and turned them into a school. What made you decide to do that?
Bloom: When I came back from Berklee, I started teaching a bunch of kids. I had 30 students a week. I made a good living and I also started my own band in ’72 with fantastic players.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Because all those guys were around town?
Bloom: Yeah, these were major players and I was young. The reason they played in my band, quite frankly, is I had all the best players, and I had a gig. And they liked my tunes. I didn’t write super-pretentious tunes showing how many chords I knew. I wrote tunes that were really great vehicles for soloing. I had a great run with my bands from ’72 to ’80. I was teaching a lot and I remember I had lunch with my dad. He was a major educator––I come from a family of teachers–– and I was just wondering what I should do, and he said, “Well, why don’t you open a school?” And I said, “Hey, that’s a good idea.”
An early Jazz Vocal class at the Bloom School of Jazz.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Were there any jazz schools like that around town at that time?
Bloom: No, there weren’t. There still aren’t. [laughs] So I opened my first school on Rush and Oak, right at the beginning of ’75. At the beginning, we offered theory and ear training classes. I was teaching private lessons and I enlisted a teacher named John Marable, a fantastic arranger and composer who taught at my school for 10 years. I had six other teachers: on saxophone, trumpet and so on. In 1979, I started the combos, and they were just a little add-on I had Sundays, and I charged people five dollars just to come to the combo. They went so well that I decided to make combos part of the regular curriculum, not just an add-on. I’ve taught hundreds if not thousands of combos since then.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So these are combo classes with a rhythm section, horns and other instruments, that offer a way for everyone to get together and actually work on techniques while playing.
Bloom: Exactly, but these are not jam sessions. These are serious group classes where students work on upscale values. In other words, some teachers might nudge their students to use more dynamics. I don’t hope students use it, I demand it, because it’s part of the exercise. The really good students who have been with me get far beyond the exercise. They have embraced the values. Now, they don’t even think about playing without dynamics. That’s true of any conceptual exercise. If you don’t get it to a place where it becomes a tool, it’s always an exercise, and nobody wants to hear you play exercises. The exercises—the things I throw at my students—they’re templates for storytelling.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’re giving them the concept, and a way to practice the concept. Once they get that ingrained in their system, then they can start taking that on their own.
Bloom: It’s practicing for individuality. That’s important. It’s how to work on music, so that in the end, you’re you. You’re not a clone; you’re not chasing somebody because you have self-doubt about who you are.
Joe Bianco playing a Bloom School Recital at the Jazz Bulls in 1988.
My main goal at the school is to help everyone be themselves through telling their own musical story. Anybody who tries to copy someone else is just going to be a second-rate version of whomever they’re trying to copy. I feel fortunate that I thoroughly enjoy people putting their music in my hands, especially students who are really serious. If it’s tenth on your list of things to do, then you’re never going to get good because you don’t have anything to lose. If you’re married or have a significant other and a day job, if jazz is third, then you can plan on getting pretty good. If there’s seven activities before you get there—I mean, do it if you like, but no one is going to care if you do or not, because you’re not going to do anything that’s good enough to be cared about.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How many years has the Bloom School been in business?
Bloom: This is my 43rd year.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: And you’re still interested in teaching––you’re not burnt out?
Bloom: My energy wavers, but never my enthusiasm. I teach 30 hours a week. I have been given an incredible gift, that I love teaching and I’m good at it. I feel great when a student comes to my school and becomes totally enthused and ready to play with a new self-esteem. What’s better than that?
Get more information on the Bloom School of Jazz at www.bloomschoolofjazz.com