Jamming with My Professors: Jazz Students Learn from Masters at Historic Venue

Monday, May 08, 2017
Photo collage of jazz musicians performing at restaurant-bar 7 Mile House

Getting started on the live music scene can be a tough road for student musicians seeking experience playing in lounges and clubs. Thankfully, jazz students at SF State have a monthly opportunity to ease the nerves and get their feet wet playing for crowds in a professional performance setting off campus, alongside seasoned players Michael Zisman and Andrew Speight.

Last year, the two Music lecturers started the “Master and Student Night” at Brisbane restaurant and bar 7 Mile House, where they encourage students to jam with them the second Tuesday each month.

Zisman, an upright bass and mandolin player, has been teaching jazz at SF State for almost 10 years. A Redwood City native, he left for New York at age 18 to study music at William Paterson College.

“The way we learned is that we played with the older people when we were young, and they taught us and showed us how to do things in real life situations,” Zisman says. “When we did good, it was great, and when we didn’t do so good we were told about it, and we wanted to give that to some of our students here at SFSU.”

“There’s nothing like the trial by fire of actually getting people up in front of a real audience,” says Speight, an alto saxophone player.

Speight began teaching jazz at SF State 17 years ago when he moved from Sydney, Australia. He first launched an evening jazz jam session for students at San Francisco restaurant Shanghai 1930, running successfully for nine years until it closed in 2009.

The opportunity for a teacher/student improv night rose again when Speight and Zisman discussed the idea with 7 Mile House owner Vanessa Garcia. The historic venue presents a variety of live bands seven nights a week, with a heavy focus on jazz. Established in 1853, 7 Mile House is a family- and dog-friendly restaurant, sports bar and live music venue, serving up a unique mix of homestyle Italian, American, Filipino cuisine.

Vocalist Jacqueline Corona, a double major in Latina/Latino Studies and Music, loves going to the “Master and Student” nights at the lounge to see professionals at work.”

“You get an opportunity to sit in with musicians that are already good at their craft. … It provides a place to connect not only with [other musicians] but with our teachers,” Corona says. “[Our teachers] are people we look up to and respect, so it’s really nice to see them outside of the school context.”

Student Alex Farrell, an upright bassist like Zisman, enjoys the unspoken dynamic shared between players.”

“There’s a lot to learn, not only from how they play, but how they hold themselves on stage,” he explains. “There are a lot of little coded things into how they communicate with each other outside the straight musical aspect.”

Speight agrees: “I’ll often see [students] with a notebook taking notes on what else is going on when they’re not up there on stage.”

Students have much to observe at the shows, extending beyond the musical pedagogy from the classroom, although Corona and Farrell say their professors are knowledgeable in both theory and showmanship. They both value Speight’s straightforwardness and Zisman’s clarity; their teaching styles have helped influence their performances around the Bay Area in their own jazz trio, The Midnight Moods.

Participating in “Master and Student Night” prepares students to start their own projects just as Corona and Farrell have.

“I believe it’s an essential part of a complete education in music,” Speight says about continuing the tradition of mentorship on a live stage. “I think without having that experience, the students lack something — they won’t necessarily survive in the scene.”

Some students are nervous about playing and improvising with their professors. Although attentiveness and honesty are the most valuable gifts the musicians offer their students, Zisman stresses “there’s no risk” at the sessions — 7 Mile House is a safe, supportive environment for students to grow as performers.

“I really like working with young people. I remember when I was their age and the older folks had patience with me,” Zisman says. “They trained me to take their place in the world.”

For students, 7 Mile House provides an intimate opportunity to begin playing for the public and collaborate with established musicians. But why should general audiences come? Speight and Zisman have several reasons.

“The audiences, they can sense [students’] development, too,” says Speight. “[They] very much like the idea of that interplay between masters and students.””

“7 Mile House is a really welcoming place. They have great food, great drinks, it’s under 21 and reasonably priced,” Zisman adds. “Regardless if you’re into jazz or not, it’s a really fun place to hang out.”

— Gospel Cruz


Photos, from top: Ben Stolorow, Austin Lee Harris, Andrew Speight and Michael Zisman. Photoss by Roger Habon and Gospel Cruz. Video directed and edited by Gospel Cruz. Cinematography by Roger Habon, Hannah Anderson and Cruz.

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