News & Politics » Feature

Jazz in Bloom

Teacher David Bloom has a rare gift for putting music into words.



By Jeffrey Felshman

David Bloom sits on a stool, gazing intently at the players in his class. Bass, drums, piano, trumpet, vibes--they've been going at it for a while. "Now, I want total restraint," he tells them. "I want you to play with the smallest emotional aperture possible. Who's heard players play less with truer results? Has anyone listened to Miles?"

"Yeah," say a couple of students.

"Case closed."

They run the tune again, everyone trying to play fewer notes, and Bloom is a study in concentration. His hair swirls around his bald spot, he cocks his head at various angles, as if trying to tune in a frequency. "OK," he says when they're done. "How'd that work for you?" The bass player nods. "Where there's a lack of constraint, there can be chaos. That's one of the age-old complaints civilians have of jazz." Bloom often refers to listeners as civilians.

"How old are you?" he asks the trumpet player.


"Don't play like a woman of 78."

Vibraphonist Betty Devise is in her 60s. "Glad you made that high enough," she says.

"You had a lot of good ideas in your solo," Bloom tells the trumpeter, Aaron Smith. "But you stopped before you developed them, like you didn't trust what you had." Smith nods.

According to Bloom, restraint isn't always rewarded. "You can't play like this at the Green Mill on a Saturday night. The bar's at, like, 98 decibels. But in a respectful room like the Jazz Showcase or in a recording session you can play quietly."

The trumpeter tries again, building his solo gradually, blowing soft, hard, soft, soft. When it's done, Bloom says, "Yeah, that's it. Make your playing important." He turns to Devise. "Wasn't that important?"


"That was undeniably important. Give him a round of applause."

The Bloom School of Jazz has been around for a quarter century, and David Bloom is there seven days a week, up to 16 hours a day. He doesn't get out much, and when he does, it's usually to a school-related event. He has no wife or children--he's married to the school. Inside it, he's a font of sensitivity and compassion who opens his students' ears and searches their hearts, teaching them truth, beauty, and the Bloom way. Outside it, he's just another guy who gets no respect.

Every eight weeks Bloom assembles anywhere from four to six new groups that train with him intensively and then go public with what they've learned. A few of the beginners' classes give recitals at the school, but most classes perform at clubs. Bloom plays guitar and flute himself. He hasn't performed on a public stage in 19 years, and musicians around town have taken him to task for that, asking why he doesn't put his chops where his mouth is. But his reputation as a teacher is solid.

"Bloom teaches how to play from the heart, as opposed to a whole bunch of licks," says Rob Parton, director of jazz studies at Roosevelt University. A bandleader and composer, he began taking private lessons from Bloom last summer. "He's taken me to another level. The way I listen to music is different now. I've been reexploring the masters and hearing new things."

"I have found no other jazz method of teaching improvisation remotely similar or remotely as soulful and consistent with my own musical values," says Cliff Colnot, a producer, arranger, and DePaul University instructor. "The emphasis placed on dynamic contrast, architecture of the line, variety in articulations, variety of color, motivic development, and a virulent opposition to 'Olympic-style' crutches of technical bravura are, interestingly, almost identical to my mentor and teacher's approach to music--Daniel Barenboim. Frankly, I know of no other living comparable figure in jazz."

Bloom hasn't kept an accurate count of his school's alumni, but he teaches 70 to 80 students each term and can safely say that over the years they've numbered in the thousands. Unlike Walter Dyett, who taught Johnny Griffin, or Clyde Kerr, who taught Wynton Marsalis, he's never had a student who set the world on fire, but perhaps a quarter of the people he's taught are professional musicians, including Rob Mazurek, bassist Larry Gray (part of the house band at the Jazz Showcase), and pianist Anthony Wonsey (who plays with Nicholas Payton). He estimates that he's turned out "two or three hundred players who are really messengers of jazz, who really have something to say."

Bassist Lorin Cohen calls Bloom "the most interesting person I've ever met. He reminds me of a Hasidic mystic master, a maggid. He has uncanny insight into the psyche of his students. He can pick up on general moods--he has psychic ability in that way. One time I walked into class, he looked at me and said, 'You got laid last night.' 'Yeah, I did!' 'I could tell.'...Bloom has helped me through some dark periods of doubt--I call him, or he can sense it. He understands being a Jewish musician from a milieu of doctors and lawyers, who goes into a field where you make $300 a week."

But this understanding exacts a tuition that can't be paid in cash. "He's an egomaniac. A lot of great teachers are. Which is both good and bad. You have to give yourself up to his way--which is the truth. Going to the school is like joining a mystic cult. To Bloom that school is a realm of absolute truth." Cohen took part in Bloom's "perfect set" course, which encompassed three terms of study and required a level of commitment beyond that usually demanded of student musicians, amateur or professional. "During the course there were times I thought, 'We'll show up for the gig dressed like Shaolin monks.'"

Bloom believes there are certain undeniable, universal truths in art: "In my experience, in many types of music, I've seen and experienced certain aspects of the music that are measurable--things that positively are tools of expression. If you look at nature, it's not just thrown together, and I think that taking a look at art, there's a craft in all these different disciplines. A lot of schools are just pandering to the lack of discipline of their students--if you come out of art school and you can't draw, I think there's a serious problem." His standards are high, but as Bloom sees it, "Even if you go halfway there, it's ten times what you normally would have done."

Bloom heard little jazz in his parents' house on South Maryland in Hyde Park--they liked classical music--but it wafted in from the street, courtesy of a neighbor who practiced near an open window. "I got bit by the bug," Bloom recalls, "but I couldn't crack the code--I didn't understand how to play it."

Both of his parents were teachers: his mother, Sophie, worked in the Chicago public schools, and his father, psychologist Benjamin Bloom, changed the field of education itself, using early-childhood learning experiences and one-on-one tutoring as models for learning processes that have been used in classrooms around the world. In 1956 he led a committee at the University of Chicago that produced Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Commonly known as "Bloom's Taxonomy," it's become a standard text for training teachers and has been translated into 50 languages. His 1964 paper "Stability and Change in Human Characteristics" provided the theoretical basis for the Head Start program. His "Mastery Learning" method, which supposes that practically all students can master any given curriculum, was the beginning of outcome-based education.

David, the younger of his two sons, attended the University of Chicago Lab School, but he didn't like it. "I was kind of like the shoemaker's son," he recalls. "I was very rebellious and I had different problems in school." His parents were gentle, but they weren't pushovers. "My mom can be a harsh critic, harsh as a heart attack. I like that, I like a harsh critic." His father "was one of the best ever at asking questions. He could ask you a question that would completely destroy your whole epistemology. If you were being intellectually lazy, he would cut you to the quick. And he would do it in the gentlest way, which is even harder to take. You can't say, 'Well, screw you!' because it's so gentle and soft and nice."

The Blooms' home was an open house where students came to tea and professors dined, where bloodless academics mingled with passionate intellectuals. A high level of discourse was de rigueur; conversation revolved around ideas and theory, and it wasn't always pleasant. One night in 1967, renowned theorist Bruno Bettelheim came to dinner. "We were at the dinner table, and I said something, and he just cut me off at the knees," Bloom recalls. "I mean, I'm like choking, gasping for breath." He was supposed to meet up with a girlfriend later that evening, but he telephoned and said he'd be late. He had a score to settle.

"I was just waiting until he said something that I could jump on. At 9:30 he said something, and I just cut him down." Bloom doesn't recall the point of contention, only that Bettelheim "became very quiet." Bloom didn't notice his parents' reaction until later. "They were a little embarrassed. 'Cause now it's going the other way, their guest is being embarrassed and humiliated, and that's not a nice thing to do." Since Bettelheim's death, he's been attacked in books and articles, by both journalists and former students, yet Bloom derides the critics. "It's easy to attack someone who can't answer."

Benjamin Bloom never visited the Bloom School of Jazz; when he and his son got together, it was on the father's turf, either at home for the high holy days or at the university's Quadrangle Club, where Professor Bloom would sketch graphs on paper napkins to make points about educational principles. "He was a tremendous influence on me," says Bloom. "Historically, in music schools and in all kinds of educational institutions, a lot of people who aren't easy to teach are excluded. If someone calls himself a teacher, he must teach. The responsibility is on him to teach, not the student to learn....Also, a certain level of compassion for people and just how much he respected the human potential. I feel the same way--anybody who wants to can play jazz and can make some very, very good music. I'm not saying anybody can become a Wes Montgomery or an Art Blakey, but I do believe that anybody who is bitten by the bug can become very competent."

Bloom's school is located in suite 600 of the Pakula Building, at 218 S. Wabash. A sign on the door reads "Knock Hard." The door is locked day and night, and stragglers often stand out in the hall until someone inside hears them pounding.

Inside are eight rooms: two for solo instruction, three for ensemble rehearsal, and three more housing the front office, the music library, a copy machine, and some recording equipment. One class practices in the room farthest from the door, running though one of Bloom's exercises, called "Whisper to a Scream." Bloom delivers dissertations on "renegade dynamics" and "natural playing," and tells various stories about Blakey, Montgomery, Woody Shaw. The saxophonist won't be in tonight (she's a federal judge), and the guitarist is late. At times Bloom will sit in on an instrument when the player is missing, but he hasn't picked up his guitar.

A lanky kid enters, carrying a guitar case. "Nice of you to show up," says Bloom. The guitarist takes a seat while Bloom walks to the front to lock the door. When he returns he has everyone play a few notes while he goes into the adjoining room to check recording levels; he records most classes. When he reenters, he's smiling. "Did you get a haircut?" he asks the guitarist.

"No, I got some new clothes."

"You look good." Bloom nods happily. "You look like money."

Zach Brock, violinist for the perfect set class, has heard plenty of students complain about Bloom, but he dismisses them. "Some guys seem to feel like Bloom is lucky to have them down there. What a pile of hog shit.... I've been around, and there's nothing out there like Bloom. He's taught me some of the basic elements of music making and how they apply."

Bloom says he isn't bothered by criticism--it comes with the territory. Because he really listens to his students, he probably hears more complaints than most teachers. One of the most frequent is that he walks out during his students' performances. "Some musicians around town are critical of me because if I go in for ten minutes and if there's nothing happening, I'll leave. Often, I'll leave. But you know what? I come out. And a lot of people don't even come out. If I come out, I expect them to deliver. And if they don't deliver, then I'm not hangin'. I'm giving you the opportunity to deliver. How many other people are coming out to see you, who have institutions themselves or are busy people? Who else is coming out to hear you? So you better deliver."

He thinks he knows how to deliver, and he's codified his knowledge into a manifesto called "Bloom's Laws." They are as follows:

1. No fewer than eight tunes per one-hour set.

2. No duplication of tempo, mood, or groove per set.

3. A ballad should never be more than three choruses long.

4. Do not repeat the order of the soloists.

5. Everyone should not solo on every tune.

6. Every tune should be arranged.

7. No tune should last more than ten minutes.

8. Do not duplicate arrangements.

9. Do not repeat tunes.

10. Vary the intensity from chorus to chorus.

11. Neither ego nor machismo should override musical sense.

12. Not every tune has to include improvisation.

13. No sheet music on the bandstand.

"There are examples of solos and sets that do not necessarily adhere to these guidelines," he points out. "Coltrane, for example, played solos for extended periods of time. He is an exceptional master who could maintain interest for long solos. But for 99 percent of all players, these guidelines will dramatically advance your message."

For musicians with egos of their own, these commandments can be hard to swallow. Ryan Cohan, a pianist and bandleader who's studied classical music at DePaul, says that learning from Bloom "can be a humbling process." But Bloom's vision is what makes him a great teacher. "He's got a clear aesthetic, what the music should sound like, and what art is....Studying jazz is not like studying classical music, where you have a repertoire. Jazz is not so easy to define." After studying in a university setting, Cohan found the Bloom School a breath of fresh air. "There's no politics, no BS. It's not glamorous--it's the real deal."

"I'm trying to give people the insight on how solos work--and how they don't work," says Bloom. "Given that I think so much of music is question and answer, I'm trying to teach the students how to ask great questions, musical questions, which can be a motif in a solo through answering the questions....The reason I'm so critical is because I find so much of what's in our face to be just so insulting. I tell all my students at the school, 'I want your music to be dignified. I want you to get up there and play with dignity, like you're proud of what you're doing.'"

"I grew up in the Spock era," says Bloom. "Basically, whatever you want goes. I had an incredibly long leash." When he was 15, living in California while his father contributed to a think tank at Stanford University, Bloom took up folk guitar. A year later, back in Chicago, he saw Buddy Guy perform at Mandel Hall and asked the blues guitarist for lessons. Guy resisted at first, but Bloom wore him down. "I said, 'I really want to learn from you. You've got it and I want it.' He said, 'All right, I'll teach you.' I said, 'Well, what will it cost?' He said, 'Five bucks.' I said, 'For how long?' He says, 'As long as it takes.'" Between 1965 and '66 he went to Guy's house every Sunday for a four-hour lesson. "He'd always ask me if I wanted some whiskey, or this and that, and I'd have a little taste."

In 1967, Bloom's father took a summer job at UCLA, and this time Bloom's parents left him behind. For two weeks he had the run of the house, and the academic salon was replaced by a long-running poker game. "I was hanging out with my girlfriend upstairs, and I'd come down every once in a while. One time I got a three and a king, and there was $110 in the pot, and we're talkin' late 60s. I potted it and won. The next week I'm waiting for a cab to go out to see my folks, and there's a poker party across the street busted. Paddy wagon comes and takes everybody away."

That same week Bloom arrived in California, cash in hand, and he and his brother drove out to the Lighthouse at Hermosa Beach, where Wes Montgomery was playing. "And I'm in heaven," Bloom recalls. "I'll never forget Wes Montgomery playing 'Sunny.' He took 20 choruses, just building, and the people were screaming. It was one of those peak experiences you'll never forget in your whole life. It was authentic. It was pure and great."

Later that year Bloom drove to the Newport Jazz Festival and saw Miles Davis and James Brown. He listened to blues at south-side clubs, checked out Motown revues at the old Regal Theater. "Back in that period, when you'd go into a blues club, it was all black, on the south side. You had blacks playing for blacks, and two or three of us weirdo white guys. We weren't enough to change the modus operandi of the club."

All the musicians Bloom admired were black--every great individual player, every true and authentic musician. There were white musicians who could play blues and jazz, but none could play with the innovation, the majesty, the unique style and vision of Montgomery, B.B. King, John Coltrane. Bloom was a middle-class kid from Hyde Park--what chance did he have to achieve that sort of greatness?

Yet, as his father had once written, "A normal person can learn anything that teachers can teach." At 17, Bloom asked his mother to find someone who could teach him to play like Curtis Mayfield; she came up with Reggie Boyd, a jazz guitarist who did session work for Chess Records. Bloom spent the next five years studying with Boyd and going to clubs like Mother Blues, on Wells, where he'd sit in during jam sessions. At 20 he enrolled at Roosevelt University, but ten weeks later he quit school to take a gig at a club in Texas. "We had Jerome Arnold, from Paul Butterfield, and when we got to the club they saw there were two black guys in the band. We couldn't play there. We got paid--that's how they worked it out so there wouldn't be a lawsuit."

Bloom spent two years studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and learned flute well enough to make it his second instrument. He listened to the masters for hours on end and gigged at blues and jazz clubs around Rush Street: the Crystal Pistol, the Plugged Nickel, the Window. Then he began to get interested in teaching. Most musicians gave private lessons to supplement their income, yet Bloom felt drawn to the profession for its own sake. In 1975 a friend let him use the back room of a place on Rush Street; by 1979 he had between 30 and 40 private students, some of whom would show up on Sundays for a jam session. "These guys really need to play with people. That's how you get better." Bloom started jazz improv classes in 1980, and they were a hit--30 of his private students signed up.

As he gave more time to the school, he found less satisfaction playing in clubs. "My last band, I played at a place called the Backroom, on Rush Street. And I had fantastic players. But it was such a pain trying to find them for every set. I'd be out on Rush Street until 3:30 in the morning finding them for the next set....I got to a point where I was really bummed--not with my players, but I was bummed with the venues. Because, make no mistake, when I'm teaching, I dig the shit out of teaching, and I dig the fact that I can hear my voice in the room and people will respond to me and people will take advice that I give them. Playing in a room where nobody's listening to you and making $50, that to me is like low self-esteem. What are you getting? You're not making any money and you're taking your energy out every night to be humiliated. That's a bad combo for me."

Some of his students had talent but were terrified of performing; some had technique but little else. Yet Bloom's authenticity, his individuality, his birthright lay in teaching. His standards demanded that he teach in his own way, at his own school. He couldn't be Wes Montgomery, but he could show others what made Montgomery great. In 1981 he hung up his guitar, and he hasn't performed in public since.

Bloom's father died on September 13, 1999. Three months later Bloom began planning his course on the perfect set, he handpicked the students, inviting them to participate in something new and dangling the prospect of a gig at the presigious Jazz Showcase on Grand. "Look," he told them, "the reality of you being a musician in Chicago is you'll play a jazz gig here and there, but mostly you're going to play 'Hava Nagila' on a Saturday night and you're going to make $200." The course would be an antidote to that soul-destroying regimen, an opportunity to elevate their playing "to the level of the people who play at the Jazz Showcase. Because there's almost no music in Chicago that is at that level." They would work damn hard, and if anyone missed a rehearsal, if anyone gave less than what Bloom thought was required, he'd be a hard-ass and cancel their show. "If it's not ready, I'm canceling the gig, and I don't care, you can call me an asshole, whatever you want--if it's not ready, we're not up here. Period. And I'll call my 50 or 60 people I'm gonna invite and tell 'em not to come. And I'll have egg on my face with [Showcase owner] Joe Segal, but who cares? The point is, I'm not doing it."

He recruited a bassist, guitarist, pianist, violinist, and drummer, though he had to venture outside the school for a saxophonist. Classes began in February 2000. Bloom designated the repertoire, arrangements, solos, and group interaction. The tunes would be "specifically chosen to fulfill the widest range of human emotion and interest." The arrangements would push the group "to new levels of expression and invention." The goal of solos was "to play only what is necessary." And he expected "full cooperation and involvement of the members of the group to create highly responsive and evocative results." They rehearsed once a week at 10 PM; the sessions ran later and later, until by April they were still playing at three in the morning. Bloom burned with ideas and energy--his day at the school started at 8 AM, but he never seemed to tire.

"He has incredible energy," says Lorin Cohen. "He doesn't sleep much, doesn't eat much--except chow fun at two in the morning." Bloom is a connoisseur of the Chinese dish, and he insists that all his students come with him to Hong Min, in Chinatown, so they can experience it. He explains to a new waiter or waitress that the noodles must be extra crispy, and the side dishes must be curried chicken puffs and meatless egg rolls. Says Cohen: "He's a control freak."

In May the guitarist and pianist quit. Bloom didn't replace the pianist but did find another guitarist: a friend of the violinist's who proved to be a quick study. The group would play all original compositions, three of them by Bloom. Everyone but the drummer contributed at least one tune. In June, Bloom asked the Jazz Showcase for a gig and landed one for Monday, July 24. The rehearsal schedule expanded to three or four times a week. They were all professional musicians with other commitments; they had all paid to be part of this project. Now they would find out if they'd earned their gig.

The Jazz Showcase is packed, the candle on each table ringed by friends and relatives. Bloom has been sitting at the bar drinking a screwdriver, but now he straightens his tie, smooths his jacket, and takes the stage. He hunches over the microphone, gazing into the dark. "My name is David Bloom and I am..." He steps back to acknowledge the applause. "Thank you very much. I run the Bloom School of Jazz, which is coming into our 25th year in Chicago, and I'll tell ya, it's great being up here with the masters." A photo of Duke Ellington squints pleasantly just over his shoulder, and to his right peers John Coltrane. Bloom points stage left to a photo of Wes Montgomery. "How many people know who that guy was?" Light applause. "Not enough, I guess.

"It's thrilling to be here," he continues. "Tonight marks the culmination of a six-month course in which five extremely talented professional musicians elected to come to the school and really work on increasing their standards to a level where they can be playing on this stage tonight. For those of you who don't know, this is where the best players in the world play." Bloom has brought only one other student ensemble here, and that was because he had to find another stage at the last minute. With this performance a line has been crossed. "I'm going to talk to you a little bit more, but we're running a little bit late. So, without further ado, I'd like to welcome Bloom Group to the bandstand." Clapping, he walks offstage, then he returns to the bar for another screwdriver, and the perfect set begins.

More than a month later, watching the performance on videotape, Bloom moves in time to the music, a proud papa gloating over his charges. "That Zach is such a bad boy," he says during a violin solo. "I told Zach, 'You can do something out here, not even in jazz--that crossover thing. You can do it.' He's talented as hell, plus, he looks--he's a bad boy." Watching Lorin Cohen play bass, he observes, "Looks like some bookie, doesn't he? Out of a movie." At the end of the first tune, a song he composed in the 70s called "Trane a la Bloo," he says, "Hey! That was good! I was really pleased, they really came up to it."

Bloom has hardly anything but praise. "This night was a pinnacle of my career," he says. "To get a group basically from a lab situation to the Jazz Showcase that by no means embarrassed themselves and came out with some serious pride and dignity--for me to kick these guys' ass and get them to play at that level was a major high point in my career." He'd hoped the group would go out on its own, building on the success of its opening night. "I told them up front, I said, 'You'll not only have a wonderful set, but you'll have a product that you can try to sell around the world.' I don't like those words, but if you want to gig, you're selling a product."

But without Bloom pulling the strings, the group fell apart. They all play in other groups; they have jobs, families, outside interests. Bloom has the school and not much else. "I feel in a certain way I've been hiding for the past 20 years," he says. "This is where I live, right in here. I've got some friends that I hang out with, but I haven't had a significant woman in a while. Which I definitely want to rectify in the near future. I'm looking for my little soul mate now, I'm finally ready. Put that in the top of the article! 'Would-be guru seeks soul mate.'"

When Bloom teaches his students the values behind jazz, when he talks about Montgomery or Coltrane, he knows as well as anyone that they didn't learn to play in school. They learned on the bandstand. "When you get down to it, the great jazz schools were Art Blakey's band, Miles's band, Mingus, Horace Silver--these were groups that from early on had hit songs in the milieu and they employed young players, and they taught 'em." But times change, and even in Chicago, one of the birthplaces of jazz, venues are few and far between. "Thirty-five, 40 years ago, there were 25, 30 jazz clubs. [Now] the club-going crowd is so tiny. We're in a population of four million, and I would say there's under a thousand people who regularly go out and hear jazz."

The masters are gone, he says, and no one playing now has reached their standards. Pop music as well as jazz is populated by "instrument owners," not musicians. "Growing up in the 60s, it's inarguable that Motown was burning, it's inarguable that Coltrane and Wes and Sonny Rollins and Miles and all that music was burning....That time was a jazz time. Right now it's harder because the environment is so unjazzy and so unindividualistic, and it's almost antithetical to what jazz is about. Jazz is about extreme respect for your birthright, your individuality, your imagination."

Bloom knows he's fighting an uphill battle, one he can't possibly win. Music that challenges listeners will never be popular, authenticity cannot be taught, and there's no such thing as a perfect set. But he has no regrets. "It could have been much worse. I feel somehow, someway, the angels or somebody is looking out for me. Otherwise I wouldn't be in business anymore."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.

Add a comment