Senzoku University is different from other universities in Japan. Huge black cases jam the hallways; five parallel lines are etched onto the whiteboards; lecterns hold stereo systems; and many classrooms are empty but for a few metal stands or the occasional grand piano. It’s all down to the study of one thing: jazz.

Long known as a top school for classical and traditional Japanese school, Senzoku University opened its own jazz department five years ago. While most universities have jazz circles, and private jazz schools abound, this full-time, degree-awarding program in Japan is a rarity. With handpicked Tokyo musicians (Yosuke Yamashita, Kazumi Watanabe and Shigeharu Mukai, for starters) and a curriculum based on the famed Berklee College of Music, Senzoku started teaching formally what established musicians have had to pick up through jam sessions, long apprenticeships or experimentation.

Jazz pianist and Senzoku teacher Masaaki Imaiizumi invited me to his classes at Senzoku to see what aspiring jazz musicians need to learn. His classes were complex, focused and practical, condensing a vast amount of jazz theory and directed practice into one short class period. Unlike the stereotypical Japanese college students snoozing or e-mailing on their cell phones at the back of an auditorium, Senzoku students were serious and attentive. This glimpse of budding jazz musicians offered unique insight into just how difficult it is to learn jazz.

Passion, of course, helps. Walking around the neat, modern satellite campus, separated from the main Yokohama campus by a few stations, it was clear that everything — and everyone — at the school is dedicated to jazz. In place of the basketball court is a performance space; instead of a library there are practice rooms; and instead of chatting in the cafeteria, students huddle over guitars silently fingering scales or copying out sheet music. The part-time job board only lists tutoring positions.

Entrance is competitive. Senzoku has been accepting only 30 students per year for their program in jazz theory, harmony and performance. Instead of grueling multiple choice entrance exams, students write jazz harmonies and perform. Once accepted, they have classes and private lessons with top-level musicians like Imaiizumi, Seiji Tada, Masahiko Osaka or Tomonao Hara.

Imaiizumi’s private lesson revealed the difficulties of learning jazz piano. As we walked to a lesson, I asked him what he thought was the most difficult thing for aspiring pianists. “They have a hard time playing the right chords to support the soloist. They need to really learn all the chords thoroughly and not play too much,” he said. His student, Shunpei Matsumoto, arrived with a schoolbag full of music scores, as shy as any first-year student, until he sat at one of the two grand pianos and belted out that week’s homework. Imaiizumi put on a Charlie Parker number, “Confirmation,” specially recorded with the piano left out for practice. Matsumoto played well, but — as Imaiizumi had just said — he overplayed.

“Why not make it simpler? Put it in four-voice,” Imaiizumi advised, and then showed him several four-note chordings. Matsumoto copied them by ear, nodding in concentration. At a slower speed, Matsumoto went through the song again, more easily after taking out half the notes. Imaiizumi nodded, then without a word, ran through the same chords, but made them come alive. Matsumoto winced at the difference, but then added more rhythm and feeling.

Once he had that down, though, Imaiizumi took it up another notch. “OK, on the sixth bar, you can switch from A7 to Am7, then flat the 9th and 13th, and that’s it,” he said.

Matsumoto frowned at these new chord variations. He seemed reluctant to take out notes after having just learned the rather difficult cycle of bop chords. After trying out different combinations, though, he finally created fresh and lean patterns.

Imaiizumi sat down at his piano and started to play, exchanging melody lines with his student, varying one aspect each time, and then giving space for Matsumoto to copy his improvised lines. Finally, after 50 minutes, Matsumoto had it — he started to swing.

After the class, I asked Matsumoto how often he practiced. He answered in good English, “I don’t have any set schedule,” drawing a frown from his teacher. “Maybe next year, I’ll try to go to Berklee on the exchange program,” he added. After Imaiizumi went away to prepare for the next class, Matsumoto, out of range of his teacher, listed his favorite piano players — Kei Akagi, Yuki Arimasa and Fumio Karashima — with a dreamy look in his eye.

In the teacher’s room, I mention that “Confirmation” is an especially difficult number to learn. Imaiizumi nodded and said, “Yes, but bebop has everything in it. It is modern harmony, of course, but inside are the traditional chords. You have to learn bop to play anything.”

“Actually, Chick Corea is more difficult. His harmonies are very tricky,” added saxophonist Seiichi Nakamura, another teacher who leads a group well-known in Yokohama clubs.

“I’m using Corea in the next class!” countered Imaiizumi, and they both laughed in that way experienced teachers like to do.

For the next class in “comping” (or accompanying), 10 students sat fidgeting at eight keyboards. The class handout had 96 bars of music with a total of 180 chord changes. Students barely had a chance to glance through it before Imaiizumi counted off. For the next 20 minutes, they played through the extended series of chords. After a total of nearly 1,000 chord changes, they took a break.

But not for long. Imaiizumi soon cranked up the promised Corea song, “Armando’s Rumba,” a challenging number. Students scrambled to read through the numerous chords dotting the copied sheet music. After playing the melody through, they took solos one by one while the others comped. I noticed that Imaiizumi and I were the only two in the room moving to the rhythm. Everyone else was concentrating too hard on the music.

Next up was Dexter Gordon’s “Fried Bananas,” a tune with Thelonius Monklike, off-kilter phrases. Instead of playing, though, Imaiizumi posed a problem, “OK, now think of how to get tension into the backing.”

Students took out pencil and lined paper, then began working back and forth from keyboard to paper to figure out their own accompaniment. A cacophony of chords poured through the room. Students scratched their heads, stared at the keyboard, frowned and fiddled with the keys.

With the universal teacher question, “OK, everyone ready?” and the universal nonverbal answer, “Uh, not really,” the music started and they took turns playing their chords. Imaiizumi’s original teaching method, though, still had another step.

After hearing everyone, Imaiizumi said, “OK, now let’s go back to the five backing patterns from the beginning of class.”

The groans were as audible as the stereo. Without asking anything more, Imaiizumi increased the tempo, faster, then faster again, while students played the chords they had written at each speed. Despite their obvious fatigue, they sounded good, their confidence and control coming together at last.

By the end of the hour, they had worked through three difficult songs, played thousands of chord changes, worked in eight rhythmic patterns and written their own chordings — an intense workout that rivals the traditional jazz classroom of late-night jam sessions and isolated practice. And that was just one class on one day out of the three-year program; a good step toward the pursuit of playing quality jazz.

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