bill bell, musician and teacher (1937-2017)

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Bill Bell, the “Jazz Professor,” died a few weeks ago and it has been circulating through Bay Area music circles. At SF Gate, you can read a fine obituary. It covers his amazing musical career performing with the Supremes and many jazz luminaries, as well as decades spent as a music teacher. In this post, I want to offer a more personal reflection. I studied with Bill Bell in 1996-1997 when I was a student at UC Berkeley. He left a deep impression on me.

At the time, I was a student at UC Berkeley and I decided to take some courses in jazz performance. I was fully aware of my meager abilities as a musician, but I just wanted to play more and learn about the craft. I signed up for this undergraduate course in jazz performance. I had already spent years in the UC Berkeley big bands and I thought it would be a natural thing to do.

Bill Bell was the first “dead serious” professor I had ever had. Of course, I had met many professors who were very accomplished. Most treated teaching as a sort of “add on.” They didn’t see their activity as a natural extension of what they did “for real,” even if they were good  teachers. Bill was the first instructor who was completely 100% invested in every single class he taught. He wanted every note that was played to be as beautiful in the class as it would be on stage.

This meant that he was very, very serious in class. I don’t mean his demeanor, which was mostly serious sprinkled with jokes. What I mean is that when he wanted you to play, he wanted not only technique. He wanted emotion and he wanted knowledge. And he wanted every student to absorb that. It was a profound realization of what made great music great. It wasn’t just getting the notes right. It was about bringing ideas and heart and technique together. It was about standing in front of a group of people and pulling it together.

For example, I remember one moment when he just lost it with a young man who was playing the piano. The guy didn’t get anything “wrong.” We were playing Wayne Shorter’s “Footsteps,” a tune that is great for beginners because it is simple. Rather, this man had played in the most mechanical way. All the heart was gone. Listen to Shorter’s version – and you feel how he’s stretching and searching. Then listen to Miles Davis’ hectic version. This guy just made it flat.

Bill pointed to the floor and said, “Do you see that?” “What?” “It’s called a pedal. Put your foot on it and keep it there.” I think most teachers would have left it at that. But Bill went further. He asked the student, and the rest of the class, *why* jazz pianists use the piano’s sustain pedal so much. The student just stared back. He had no idea why.


Bill then talked to the class about how the early jazz pianists had been trained at the end of the impressionist period. How jazz melded late 19th century approaches to harmony with African art forms. And how jazz is an emotional art form. It’s starts with Blues, fercryingoutloud.

“Have you heard of Debussy?”


“I said, ‘Have you heard of Debussy?’ ”


Bill sat down and played us some Debussy.* He showed the student how to make Debussy’s works suffused with longing by using the goddamn pedal. “Do that.” When we re-started with Footrpints, it was a different sound altogether. It was all about taking the technical and emotional knowledge that the student had and transferring it to jazz.

So let me finish with a few more comments about what Bill taught me. First, he was open to teaching just about anyone who showed up. I was horrible, but he helped me anyway.** He also helped people who were on verge of professional careers and he helped the middle aged doctor who showed up just because he wanted to try a new hobby. Second, he was a big believer in the real world as the best teacher. Most jazz instructors have you play a concert at school. Not Bill. Our final exam was held at an obscure bar in Oakland. At 4pm on a Sunday afternoon, we played blues for our friends and a bunch of barflies.

Finally, Bill taught me that this was serious. All of it. We are in this room together. Some of us may be advanced and some of us may beginners. But we are here right now and this is it. Bring everything you have, all your passion, all your knowledge and all your feeling and let’s play.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

* Yes, of course, Bill had Debussy and tons of other music completely memorized and he played it perfectly.

** How bad? I had such severe stage fright that when I played my first solo in class, I shook so bad that not a single note sang from the horn. Bill was patient. We just tried and tried and finally, I did it.

Written by fabiorojas

April 27, 2017 at 12:02 am

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how do you know if your adviser sucks?

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Getting your PhD can be frustrating for many reasons. One reason is that advisers vary enormously in their quality. Some faculty have a very reliable record of happy students. Others are black holes who chew up students and never graduate them. Older scholars can more easily spot good and bad advisers but it is hard for young people with no experience to accurately assess advisers.

A few tips to help you determine if your adviser sucks:

  • Track record: A bedrock principle of evaluating people is past performance. If you meet a 60 year old professor in a major research program who has only graduated one person in his entire career, it’s probably a bad sign. If a 60 year old professor has a nice steady stream of advisees who seem well adjusted, then that’s probably a good sign.
  • Emotional response: I am a big believer in thinking through your emotions. An adviser is a leader and that means that they help you overcome challenges. Good advisers might occasionally give you tough love, but if you leave every meeting in tears and torn up from anxiety, they’re probably a bad adviser.
  • Absenteeism: This is simple. It doesn’t matter how famous or obscure your professor is. They have to be there and be there frequently. This can vary. Some professors have secretaries who take appointments and schedule you weeks in advance. Others just hang out at the office with the door open. Regardless, it means that they are working with you. In contrast, if your adviser boycotts you for a year and you don’t see him/her, or they never respond to email, then that is bad.
  • Deadwood: You don’t need an adviser who wins big awards every week, but you do need an adviser who is at least moderately active. The problem with deadwood advisers is that they may not give you a proper sense of what sort of scholarship is valued in your profession and how to get a job in the current job climate. They may be nice, but it’s like driving around town with a map from 30 years ago.

Use the comments and tell me about spotting the sucktastic adviser!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

Written by fabiorojas

April 26, 2017 at 12:22 am

want to know how academic books are published? listen to eric

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Eric Schwartz, of the Columbia University Press, gives a nice summary of how academic publishing works. From the Emory University Center for Faculty Development and Excellence.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

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April 25, 2017 at 12:22 am

top secret: get 30% off new theory book

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April 24, 2017 at 12:42 am

andrew hill, solo performance (1975)

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50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

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April 23, 2017 at 12:00 am

it’s all about contexts

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It is my pleasure to announce that Rashawn Ray and I will join Contexts as the new editors in Winter 2018. Contexts: Understanding People in Their Social worlds is the ASA’s magazine which brings the cutting edge of sociology to the public. Rashawn and I are humbled by the appointment. A lot of top notch people have edited this journal and we hope to live up to their legacy.

Let me tell you a little bit about Rashawn. I first met Rashawn when he was a graduate student at Indiana University. Immediately, he struck me as a highly intelligent and outgoing person. He begins a conversation with a smile. He is interested in what you have to say and really wants to learn from you. But more than that, he had a real interest in linking sociology to the concerns of everyday life. As time passed, this became clear to me. His research focuses on how social inequality affects health and well being and he is extremely active in getting the sociological vision out there through Facebook, Twitter and public speaking. The right guy for the right job – and associate professors can’t say “no!”

So what do we have in mind? First, we want to build on a decade and a half of excellence. Contexts is a magazine that pleases the mind and the eye. It is also an intellectual magazine that offers the public well-grounded but accessible accounts of academic research. Second, we want to really start engaging with the audiences that might enjoy sociological work, whether it be people in the policy world, business, or the arts. Rashawn and I are excited about the possibilities.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street  

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April 21, 2017 at 12:01 am

don’t make ethnography anonymous – new article by jerolmack and murphy

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In Sociological Research and Methods, Colin Jerolmack and Alexandra K. Murphy ask if we should use people’s names in quantitative research. We’ve discussed this idea before and now you can read the final article. The abstract:

Masking, the practice of hiding or distorting identifying information about people, places, and organizations, is usually considered a requisite feature of ethnographic research and writing. This is justified both as an ethical obligation to one’s subjects and as a scientifically neutral position (as readers are enjoined to treat a case’s idiosyncrasies as sociologically insignificant). We question both justifications, highlighting potential ethical dilemmas and obstacles to constructing cumulative social science that can arise through masking. Regarding ethics, we show, on the one hand, how masking may give subjects a false sense of security because it implies a promise of confidentiality that it often cannot guarantee and, on the other hand, how naming may sometimes be what subjects want and expect. Regarding scientific tradeoffs, we argue that masking can reify ethnographic authority, exaggerate the universality of the case (e.g., “Middletown”), and inhibit replicability (or“revisits”) and sociological comparison. While some degree of masking is ethically and practically warranted in many cases and the value of disclosure varies across ethnographies, we conclude that masking should no longer be the default  option that ethnographers unquestioningly choose.

Check it out!!!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($5 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist/From Black Power/Party in the Street 

Written by fabiorojas

April 20, 2017 at 12:01 am