For trombonist Doug Leibinger, the new Director of Jazz Studies at Sonoma State University, learning to play jazz is a lot like learning to talk.
First, you acquire the vocabulary. Then, you figure out how to string words together into sentences. Finally, you forget everything you've learned, listen deeply, and respond to what others are saying.
"Music is much better when there's a conversation," the 42-year-old musician said while sipping coffee at a Rohnert Park coffee shop. "Ideally, we want a lively conversation."
Leibinger proved his mettle as a musical communicator during his interview for the SSU post, which consisted of a jam session with SSU jazz instructors Randy Vincent on guitar and George Marsh on drums.
"We played no more than five minutes, and I knew," said Marsh, jazz drummer with the David Grisman Quintet. "He listens. Oh, he's in tune. He's melodic. He's sensitive ... and he's a very humble guy, which is nice."
Since he started teaching at SSU in the fall of 2009, Leibinger has changed the shape and sound of the SSU jazz program.
A passionate proponent of big-band music — a swinging form of jazz popular from the early 1930s to the late 1940s — he re-established the Jazz Orchestra (after a five-year hiatus), restructured the jazz curriculum and created a new lecture class known as the Jazz Forum, where he invites professionals such as saxophonist Lee Konitz to give a master class.
"They come and perform their music, with commentary, in a relaxed setting," he said. "Lee is a legend in jazz. He played on Miles Davis recordings in 1949."
As the only full-time faculty member in the jazz program, Leibinger teaches most of the core classes, from jazz theory and improvisation to jazz arranging and composition.
One of his strengths as a teacher is helping students make the connection between the cognitive mind and the physical body.