The Root Progression: Teaching In A Uniquely New Orleans Way At The Heritage School Of Music
This fall, the 24-year-old Don Jamison Heritage School of Music will move into its first permanent home on Rampart Street, across from the French Quarter. The building’s façade is being sanded and painted for a December opening.
“All the classrooms are gonna have recording equipment so we can record each class,” says Derek Douget, the school’s coordinator of music education since 2010. “We have a state-of-the-art stage where we can do performances at the end of the week.”
Douget is excited about the upgrade to a new building, but he’s equally excited to expose more students to a nearly lost New Orleans tradition called the Root Progression: a teaching method devised and codified by mystic clarinetist Alvin Batiste.
“The Root Progression is basically a practice technique, and it involves the learning of intervals, so that you get them in your ear and get them under your fingers,” Douget says. “Section one of the Root Progression is just half steps. Then if you want to learn, say, an idea in half-steps, like a triad, it would be this —”
Douget plays an example on his saxophone. He studied Root Progression under Alvin Batiste — arguably the world’s first jazz teacher. The New Orleans-born Batiste taught at McDonough 35 before founding Southern University’s Jazz Institute in 1969. Batiste later spent four years as chair of the Jazz Department at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts before passing away in 2007.
Over 40 years of teaching, Batiste continually revised and self-published his own spiral-bound textbook titled The Root Progression Method: The Fundamentals of 20th Century African American Music.
“Before you can delve into this complex territory you really have to know the basic building blocks, and he was all about breaking music down to the subatomic structure," says Cliff Hines, an adventurous local jazz guitarist who studied Root Progression with Batiste at NOCCA. Hines explains the particular power of the method:
“Other teachers try to force you into a box — even if they’re not trying to do it, they’re inadvertently showing you their style. Alvin was more about giving you the tools to build your own concept,” he says.
Root Progression teaches jazz theory to very young students. The way young language learners simply speak Spanish or French, without pausing to translate in their heads, is the idea. Children who learn with Root Progression play scales, transpose phrases, and change keys, all without really thinking about it.
Heritage School keyboard teacher Michael Pallera also worked with Alvin Batiste at NOCCA, and was impressed with the way Root Progression affected the younger students.
“He slipped it on ’em, because young kids don’t play the whole tone scale, or the half-whole scale; these are all kind of modern 20th Century, very advanced concepts,” Pallera says.
Nearly all the modern New Orleans jazz greats were raised on Root Progression: Batiste taught several Marsalis family members, pianist Henry Butler, even bassist and American Idol Judge Randy Jackson.
But when Batiste died, Root Progression disappeared too — until 2010. That’s when the Jazz and Heritage Foundation began considering Root Progression for their Heritage School of Music.
“We contacted Alvin’s widow, Miss Edith, and she sent us copies of the book, and we sent it to a couple of musicians and educators who are on our board and essentially the answer came back ‘Yes, this is something that, if we adapt it, we can use as the curriculum for the Heritage School of Music,’” says Scott Aiges, Director of Programs, Marketing & Communications at the Jazz and Heritage Foundation.
Derek Douget and Michael Pallera turned Batiste’s self-published textbook into a working curriculum for the Heritage School. Douget aims to combine Batiste’s methods with classic New Orleans songs and artists, and enough lessons and exercises to fill the school’s new schedule.
“It’s changing because we have just been doing school on Saturdays; now we’re gonna be expanding to where we do classes multiple times a week. So that means we’ll have to beef up the curriculum, add a little more.”
More classes means more exposure for this unique building block of New Orleans’ music. With a foundation of Alvin Batiste’s Root Progression, students don’t just learn the standard New Orleans songs; they get the technical versatility for which the city’s greats are known. By continuing to teach Root Progression, the Heritage School hopes to bring some of Alvin Batiste’s magic to the new building on Rampart St. this fall.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
The Don Jamison Heritage School of Music was founded in 1990, making it 24 years old, not 15.
Since this piece was produced, we have learned that the school's projected opening date has been changed to December.