Musician Sean Nowell teaches art of improvisation to Pelham students

Upon entering the band room, members of the Pelham Middle School jazz band are greeted by a lightning fast flute solo and an exhortation to get their instruments out. James Bond guitar riffs and jazz piano rhythms are explained via beatboxing while students quickly assemble their instruments. Sheet music quickly gives way to improvisation and soon, nearly everyone in the room is improvising.

Enter Sean Nowell, tenor saxophonist and flutist for three jazz and hip hop ensembles, movie composer, private teacher, Artistic Ambassador for the State Department, and Pelham’s newest teaching musician. Brought to the Pelham middle and high schools by a grant from the Pelham Education Foundation, Nowell brings his vast expertise as a jazz saxophonist to both the middle and high school jazz bands. Despite the grant only providing for Nowell to visit once per month for the whole school year, Nowell has since voiced his desire to come teach the middle and high school jazz bands once per week.

“He reached out to me to see if he could come in and show me what he does. I allowed him to come in and everyone had a really great time, so I decided to apply for the grant,” said middle and high school band director Andrew Van Bochove. “The reason I learned about him is because he teaches one of our high school students private lessons.”

During Nowell’s visits to the jazz bands, band members form a semi circle around a microphone connected to a speaker perched atop a shelf. Nowell stands in the center of the group, inviting students to solo with the microphone. He commented that using a microphone seemed to coax normally reticent band members to improvise, attributing this effect to “the power of the mic.”

“The best thing about having Sean work with the bands is that more and more students are volunteering to improvise, which is something that has been a struggle since I started teaching here. They are also learning that it does not have to take a whole lot of effort, it takes more creativity than it does effort,” said Van Bochove. “I think he creates an environment where you don’t feel like you are making a mistake [while improvising] even if you do, and that it’s okay because that’s a part of learning. Somehow, in his really smooth, friendly, creative way, he allows people to kind of embrace the idea of improvising.”

Nowell’s unorthodox teaching style, which focuses almost exclusively on improvisation, has been hugely popular with students and has succeeded in getting more students to improvise. His naturally vibrant personality shines through his teaching, where he might beatbox to demonstrate a new rhythm or emphatically move his hands to tell a soloist to be louder.

Eighth grade trombonist Robbie Shepherd said that Nowell created a more casual and relaxed atmosphere and brings the band closer together. “He teaches us different improvising techniques while making crazy sounds to imitate each instrument, my favorite part of his visits. He has a very fun and bubbly personality, which inspires and encourages more people to step up to the microphone and improvise than in a normal class. All in all, there is never a dull moment when Sean is in class,” Shephard said.

Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama exposed Nowell to the rich blues, jazz, funk and gospel traditions of the South. He first gravitated towards various types of rock from the sixties, seventies and eighties before becoming interested in eighties hip hop and sixties jazz. 

“I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church and almost became a music minister before Tritones made me go to Jazz School in Boston. I used to listen to Carry On My Wayward Son at double speed. [I also listened to] Christian Rock. I was a weird kid,” Nowell said.

Nowell’s love of jazz started as a way to escape gym class in elementary school, but the discovery of the blues scale “sealed the deal” for him. He picked up his first instrument, the alto saxophone, in a trailer behind his school gym and has since learned the tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet and piano. He received his bachelors degree in Jazz Composition from Berklee College of Music and his masters degree in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music.

An active participant in the New York City jazz scene, Nowell regularly performs at Smalls, The 55 Bar, Groove, The Blue Note and The Let Love Inn. He frequently incorporates technology such as effects pedals, likening them to an expanded palette with which to paint with.

“The most important part of [using technology in music] is that it allows me to participate in different styles of music than just acoustic jazz, or even what you think that saxophone or flute could possibly participate in, it allows me to participate in all kinds of other things,” said Nowell. “I’ve noticed in the past, particularly 5 years, I’ve noticed most horn players in New York City have some kind of electronic edge that they can add to their sound so they could participate more in the music of today.”

He has founded an electro-jazz ensemble called the Kung-Fu Masters which has represented the Istanbul Jazz Festival in multiple universities around Turkey. His other jazz band, the New York Jazz Exchange, is a collaboration between artists from New York City and Stockholm, Sweden that has toured multiple times in both Europe and the United States. Its most recent tour took the band into over eighteen cities in Sweden, as well as NYC, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Despite his high expertise in jazz, Nowell is hesitant to call himself a jazz musician. “I don’t feel like I am relegated to playing one music: jazz. I mean, when people say jazz, it elicits a certain sound that invariably equals swinging,” Nowell said. “For me, that style of playing, is just one style of playing that exists. It’s a good one, swinging is good, but it’s not everything.”

His versatility as a player has allowed Nowell to make forays into other music genres like techno, house and club music, and especially hip hop, which he called “the most open art form there is in music.”

As lead tenor saxophonist and flutist for his five person hip hop ensemble, Soul Inscribed, Nowell has toured in New York State, Colorado, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Mauritius as artistic ambassador in the State Department’s American Music Abroad program. Nowell is currently on tour in the Peruvian cities of Cajamarca, Ayacucho and Lima.

Over his career as a freelance musician, Nowell’s taste for music has widened considerably. He admires the bebop of tenor saxophonist John Coltrane just as much as the electronic hip hop of Icelandic vocalist Björk Guðmundsdóttir, and he often sees labels such as jazz musician or hip hop artist as too constricting. However, one label that he can agree on is improvising musician. 

“The spirit of improvisation and the humanity of improvisation can’t be substituted,” Nowell said. “Improvisation is a constant presence in all of his performances, whether that be a sixties inspired blues ballad or a quick paced techno-hip hop piece.”

In addition to his touring schedule and visits to the Pelham jazz bands, Nowell privately teaches two tenor saxophone students at Pelham Memorial High School.

Ben Glickman is a senior who has been Nowell’s student for over five years. “Sean is obviously an incredibly talented musician, but to his students he is more than that. Sean makes music fun. He wants you to engage with it and love it just as much as he does,” Glickman said.

Whether teaching a whole jazz band or an individual musician,  Nowell’s goal is for students to “know themselves better and to express that self knowledge through the abstract communication style of instrumental improvisation.”