Academics and Research

Lamont professor mixes worlds of jazz, technology, art

Marc-Sabatella2014Mixing the worlds of technology, music and education has been a way of life for Marc Sabatella since the early 1990s, when he published the first downloadable jazz instruction book to an online network that predated the World Wide Web.

“Newsgroups were the thing then — that was the forum,” says Sabatella (MM ’07), now an instructor in jazz theory at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music. “I was on a jazz forum, and Google didn’t exist yet, so if you wanted to know the answer to something, you posted it to a forum. For general musicology questions — if someone wanted to know what years did Miles Davis have Herbie Hancock in his band — there were a million other people who knew that stuff. But when people would ask, ‘What notes are in a G7-flat-9 chord?,’ I was the guy who knew that. At some point I got tired of answering the same questions over and over again, and I thought there should be something out there that people can look at and find information.”

The hundred-page jazz improvisation primer that Sabatella put together became a bible for tech-savvy musicians, with millions of downloads and an eventual publication deal. Sabatella still teaches many of its lessons in his role at DU, where he teaches a jazz theory and aural skills class to first-year music students.

It’s a job the multifaceted Sabatella balances with directing adult ensembles for the Colorado Jazz Workshop, pursuing his passions for painting and photography, and playing gigs in and around Denver. For years he led the house band at legendary downtown jazz club El Chapultepec, and on May 17, his Different Worlds String Quartet — which plays Sabatella’s jazz-meets-classical compositions for piano and string quartet — performs at Denver’s Crossroads Theater as part of the Five Points Jazz Festival.

“Art, music, programming, math — they all go together,” says Sabatella, who has degrees in math and computer science and originally moved to Colorado to work for Hewlett-Packard. “People don’t realize the creative element that goes into math or programming, but it is a form of creativity, of problem solving. And improvisation is very much about problem solving: ‘I’ve got this chord, and I need to somehow string some notes over it; how am I going to do that?’ Or, ‘I see that tree; how am I going to represent that on the canvas?’ It’s all problem solving.”

Sabatella’s latest adventure in problem solving came from his job at Lamont. A few years ago, when he had a blind student in his class, he realized there was no easy way to communicate with her using standard music notation. “Braille music exists,” he says, “but not many blind musicians actually read it — it’s separate from regular Braille — and there’s no easy way to write it.”

To assign the student homework and tests that she could complete and he could grade, Sabatella had to improvise. “We had to invent stuff, and some of it was figuring out a way to take other tools and combine them in certain ways,” he says. “Then, because of my background as a software engineer, I wrote some tools to help with this process also. Over the course of a year, we developed a flow that worked. It was still a Scotch-tape-and-baling-wire kind of thing, it’s not something you could productize, but as a proof of concept, it was like, ‘Yeah, this is possible.’ When she took tests, it was the exact same test I gave to everyone else.”

Sabatella is now talking to interested companies about what he calls the Accessible Music Notation Project. It’s just the latest step in a career marked by a passion for educating in one form or another.

“I feel like I have this innate need to teach,” he says. “If you think about putting that [jazz improvisation] document out there — no one asked me to write that thing. No one asked me to be the answer guy on the forums or anything. I just feel like that’s who I am. I’m someone who learns things and then assimilates them and puts them out there for other people to maybe learn it a little easier, whether it’s through writing a book or standing in front of a class and teaching it. I feel like it’s something I need to do, so I’m perfectly happy to have a job doing it.”



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