Cathie Anderson

How one Sacramento teacher cultivates award-winning jazz students again and again

Josh Murray teaches jazz at Rio Americano High School

For 19 years, Josh Murray has lead his students to win awards
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For 19 years, Josh Murray has lead his students to win awards

Band teacher Josh Murray directs what DownBeat magazine recently recognized as one of the top high school jazz groups in the nation: the AM Jazz Ensemble at Rio Americano High School.

Murray, 45, grew up in New York City with his mother Kim Kenin but spent summers in the Sacramento region with his father Bruce Murray. His maternal grandfather Tio Giambruni taught and created art at UC Davis along with Robert Arneson, Manuel Neri and Wayne Thiebaud.

“I grew up in the East Village, Alphabet City, in the ’70s and ’80s,” Josh Murray said. “On our block, we had the Mafia on one corner, and in the middle of it, there was a big heroin den. I walked past that to school every day, but … as challenging and as dangerous as it was, it really taught me a lot about dealing with people because I had to deal with everybody.”

Murray studied the saxophone after seeing family friend Danny Wilensky play it in concert with Ray Charles. In junior high, Murray’s band director asked him to coach other students. By high school, Murray was being paid to give private lessons and to perform in bands.

He recently spoke with The Bee about developing a community of music students who support each other and how that has led to stand-out performances by Rio Americano students. Murray said he is continuing a tradition started by his predecessor, Craig Faniani, and now parents relocate to get their musically gifted children into the program.

Q: What would you describe as key lessons you learned in your career?

A: A big one is not to take yourself too seriously, especially when you’re dealing with kids. If I do, the students will too, and then everything becomes really, really serious. Then the stress comes in. Whether you’re teaching math or music or whatever, it should be fun. I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years now, and I still absolutely love it. I crack up with my students and at myself.

Q: Do you work privately with students who want to compete nationally, or is it part of class instruction?

A: Performances for the Duke Ellington competition is part of one our classes. That’s our top jazz band. The Mingus competition is a smaller group, anywhere from five to eight kids, and that’s a small group who rehearses outside class time.

I’ll be there to provide suggestions, but actually with a group like that, sometimes I find that the less I do, the better they are. I don’t want to cloud their judgment with my opinions. Whatever they come up with, because it’s coming from who they are, it’s going to be better than what I tell them. Music has to take on the personality of the people who play it, not the personality of the director.

Q: Does every band director think that way?

A: Definitely not. I got to this place from personal experience. Being a free-range child (in New York), I did a lot of things in high school that were self-directed. I played in a lot of groups that were all kids, and I had the joy of being able to figure out what I was doing without some adult telling me what to do. My job is being a facilitator, creating opportunities for them, opening doors and not impeding their progress.

Q: How much work do kids have to put in to participate in the Rio music program?

A: The new kids and the new families always want to know: “How much should I practice?” My answer to them is always: “How good do you want to be?” I have a lot of kids who don’t practice, and I have some kids who practice eight to 10 hours a day, but that is their passion.

Most of the 150 kids in the program want to be a part of a community. I respect that. Those kids aren’t going to play when they get out of high school. I tell them, at minimum, they need to be able to play their parts and support everyone in the band.

Q: Do you have a philosophy about jazz education?

A: I’ve gotten to know Wynton Marsalis over the years, and one of the things that he and David Berger, another great jazz educator, always say is that jazz is the ultimate form of American democracy. When it’s done well, every voice is being heard. Regardless of whether it’s a supporting voice or a soloist, they’re all equal voices, and each one is needed. Without one, the whole thing falls apart. If jazz education is done right, it creates a community where every kid, whether they’re a star or not, has a real equal voice and feels important.

Q: What career advice would you offer new grads?

A: You need to do something that you love – period. Find the intersection of passion and talent. You can make your living at just about anything if you’re good enough at it and you love it.

Q: What student performances have been memorable lately?

A: In September or October, our top jazz band played at the Mondavi Center, opening for Marsalis. I love seeing kids get out of their comfort zone and take a chance. I see that every day. High school is a place where we’re afraid to be ourselves because we’re afraid of what somebody else might say and sometimes because of what somebody else does say.

Q: How did Rio end up opening for Marsalis?

A: The education director at Jazz at Lincoln Center called me. We have been to the Essentially Ellington festival in New York eight times.

Q: How much time do you put into practicing for the Marsalis show?

A: The band really isn’t functioning in the summer. They called me at the beginning of September or end of August, something like that. We had to get the band sounding like an end-of-year band at the very beginning of the year. The kids took it as a challenge, and they worked their tails off, and they sounded killer.

For 19 years, Josh Murray has lead his students to win awards

This conversation has been edited for content, clarity and space.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee