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Creative Music Studio Changes Hands at a Critical Moment for Jazz

This month’s workshop was the last under their artistic direction. From here on, that responsibility will fall to Mr. Apfelbaum, the trumpeter Steven Bernstein and the drummer Billy Martin, all free-ranging musicians who began their careers in New York’s downtown scene in the 1980s.


From left. Billy Martin, Rob Saffer, Peter Apfelbaum and Steven Bernstein at the Full Moon Resort in Big Indian., N.Y.

Lauren Lancaster for The New York Times

Mr. Berger will be in residence at the Stone all this week, and he’s using the opportunity to spotlight his acolytes. The incoming directors will play sets, including on a Saturday bill that also includes him and Ms. Sertso.

This is a critical moment for C.M.S., which now must decide how tightly to hold on to the legacy of its founders. At this point, eclecticism has become jazz’s established doctrine — but the music’s educational apparatus still does not accommodate the kind of integrative teaching that Mr. Berger and Ms. Sertso prize.

Both German immigrants, they established C.M.S. in 1972, largely on the encouragement of the saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the trumpeter Don Cherry, who incorporated myriad spiritual traditions into his music.

“What is the common ground of all the music in the world that we can actually base this on?” Mr. Berger remembered wondering. “Can we develop practices that are not based on any particular kind of music — practicing rhythm, practicing sound, but not designing the music that we are going to practice?”

For jazz, the early 1970s were a time of stylistic fracture and commercial dislocation. They were also a moment of relative institutional silence before its vast education-industrial complex spread across the country.

C.M.S. acquired its own property, becoming a place where oft-overlooked innovators could turn their practice into pedagogy, hold residencies and collaborate.

“The professional musicians really loved the school. It was a relief for them,” Ms. Sertso said.

Avant-gardists like Anthony Braxton, Carla Bley and Jack DeJohnette convened there, as did musicians from abroad such as Naná Vasconcelos and Babatunde Olatunji.

“It was a meeting point for my cohorts that were like-minded,” said the saxophonist Oliver Lake, who taught at C.M.S. in the 1970s. “It was a very intense and creative time.”

Mr. Saffer, a marketing and media professional, met Mr. Berger in 2008, when C.M.S. had been dormant for about two decades. Mr. Saffer offered to help reboot the organization, and since 2010, he has worked to acquire grants and donations and establish regular programming — including semiannual workshops at the crunchy Full Moon Resort.

These intensives are modern-day miniatures of the old C.M.S. experience. A different musician gives a master class each day, and Mr. Berger and Ms. Sertso host sessions on “basic practice” and “listening meditation.”

“Essentially it goes to this sense of flow that we all have,” Mr. Berger said. “Thinking is too slow for music. You need to trust your musical instinct.”

Mr. Apfelbaum and Mr. Bernstein first went to C.M.S. in 1977, when they were teenagers. They maintained contact with Mr. Berger, and in 2015 he invited them to take command of the organization’s future. He also brought in Mr. Martin — best known for his work with Medeski, Martin and Wood. He’s not a C.M.S. veteran, but has devoted himself to developing nontraditional instruction techniques.


The Creative Music Studio campus, circa 1980.

Creative Music Studio Archives

Mr. Martin, Mr. Apfelbaum and Mr. Bernstein met with members of C.M.S.’s board in April to discuss the organization’s future, and sketched out a list of guiding principles that reflect its ideology; the document is a homage and a commitment to Mr. Berger and Ms. Sertso’s universalist values.

The audience at this month’s workshop felt similarly tied to the organization’s history. A handful of participants had attended in its heyday, and most were white men old enough to have done so.

The biggest challenge awaiting the new artistic directors may be to engage a broader audience, especially if they want C.M.S. to again play the guiding role in jazz that it once did. That means increasing the group’s outreach, and programming beyond the bucolic Catskills.

In the 1970s, it was radical to assemble and support a diverse cast of vanguard artists, allowing them to mingle and barter ideas. To some degree, grants and institutions now accomplish that sort of thing. But over the past 45 years, access to quality education has become only more divided by class and race, which also plays out in jazz. What’s often missing now, even more than before, is access.

To contribute as radically today as it did in the 1970s and early ’80s, C.M.S. may need to strategize toward not only a broad corps of teaching artists, but also a more thoroughly inclusive student body. That, of course, means getting creative about outreach, and location — and fund-raising enough to tamp down its high tuition fees. (It also may mean adding other voices to the artistic directors’ circle.)

There have already been hints of progress. Since 2011, C.M.S. has organized almost 100 concerts with a group called the Improvisers Orchestra, often in New York City; these are open gatherings that draw a slightly more diverse group of musicians. And this spring the organization hosted its first weekend-long workshop at Greenwich House Music School in Lower Manhattan, offering more scholarships than usual to students who couldn’t pay. It plans to repeat that workshop at least once a year.

For his part, Mr. Bernstein also hopes to infiltrate the mainstream educational establishment.

“It would be great to bring in C.M.S. for a week, where you work every day on ‘gamala taki,’ on sound, on listening,” he said, using the name of Mr. Berger’s core rhythm training exercise. “That’s stuff you don’t necessarily get in the universities.”

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