“Teaching was what I was supposed to do—the [music] gigs are what I could do,” says an emphatic Germaine Bazzle, the 2015 recipient of OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement in Music Education award. “As far as I was concerned, I had the best of both worlds.”
Bazzle’s public persona is that of brilliant jazz vocalist whose accomplishments as such were acknowledged by her winning two Best of the Beat awards—in 1996 as the Best Contemporary Jazz Vocalist, and in 1997 in the Best Female Vocalist category. Many people have opined that she “sacrificed” what could have been a successful career as a nationally renowned singer to remain in the teaching profession.
“That’s not true,” declares Bazzle, who after some 50 years as a full-time educator, retired in 2008. “It was not a sacrifice to me. I enjoyed teaching. I enjoyed the smile on [her students’] faces and when they would clap their hands. I would sometimes hear them walking out of my classroom singing the songs as they were going across the schoolyard. You can’t buy that.”
Music has been a part of Bazzle’s life since childhood. “I grew up in a family where everybody played piano,” she explains. “That’s where I think it really starts. My mother, father, aunts, uncles all played. That was the instrument of the day. You could walk down one block and at least three families in that block had a piano in their home. I wasn’t even aware that it was an influence because it was just an everyday kind of thing.”
Bazzle began playing piano by ear and remembers picking up the song “Sweet Sue, Just You” which her father would play. She began her formal training at age 12 when her mother enrolled her in the Xavier Junior School of Music, located on the Xavier University campus. “That’s where I met [pianist] Ellis Marsalis and [bassist] Richard Payne,” says Bazzle, who also encountered a significant influence in her musical life, Sister Letitia.
Bazzle recalls that when she was in Sister Letitia’s fourth grade classroom an itinerant teacher would come in and give lessons to other students and she had the opportunity to watch him. The experience sparked her interest in the process. It was Sister Letitia too who selected Bazzle to be included in the newly established voice program at the school. Surprisingly, in retrospect, Bazzle had never really sung before.
Sister Letitia was also prophetic concerning the future of her young student. “One day when I was in her class she just said to me, ‘You’re going to be a teacher.’ It didn’t sound very strange to me because there were teachers in my family. I said, ‘Okay,’ and didn’t think anything of it at all. She saw in me what I am.”
Sister Letitia’s approach to teaching and the standards she set followed Bazzle into her own classrooms. Bazzle began teaching in Thibodaux soon after she graduated from Xavier University. It was in that small south Louisiana town that she made her first professional gig, having been asked to sit in on bass, an instrument she learned during high school. The combo broke up but Bazzle continued working in a duo format, with her on piano teamed with a trumpeter. Even in this situation, Sister Letitia’s influence came into play, resulting in one of Bazzle’s signature vocal elements—the ability to mimic brass instruments.
Bazzle explains that when Sister Letitia would lead the school’s orchestra and wanted to demonstrate something to the trumpet or trombone section, she would do it vocally, imitating the instrument. “So I would start harmonizing with [the trumpeter] by doing what I saw Sister Letitia do. That’s how I got started.”
Bazzle placed a sign at the top of the bulletin board in her classroom at Xavier Prep where she taught high school girls. It simply said: “Yes I Can.”
“I used to tell them there is no such word as ‘can’t.’ ‘How do you know you can’t? Have you tried it? No. So what’s the answer? Well, I’ll try it.’ That’s all I was asking. I wasn’t asking for it to be beautiful, I wasn’t asking for it to be perfect. All I was asking is that you try. If you keep trying something good will happen.’ And we stuck to that.”
“If they were working on a passage or a song and said, ‘I’m having a problem,’ that’s better because it makes them take ownership in their learning. That’s what was passed on to me from Sister Letitia. You take ownership in your learning and you’ll find out that you’ll learn much more than you expected.”
Bazzle also posted—and never took down—three other inspirational messages on her walls. “Keep an Open Mind,” “Listen and Learn” and “Respect Others.”
“When the students came into the classroom and you do your introductory speech, I had them understand that these things were important.”
One of the reasons that Bazzle stands out as a great jazz vocalist—and there are many—is that she is always one with the band. Naturally, she shares the importance of that frame of mind with her students.
“I don’t think there is a separation,” Bazzle says. “Basically, music is sound. When I go on a gig, I just bring another sound to the organization. It’s not about me at all. I am aware of the individuality of the performers that I work with. My job, and the individualism that I’m bringing, is that I want to be a part of it.”
“I very seldom assigned solo work,” Bazzle continues. “If there was a part that was written for a soloist, I’d have two or three people do it. I say, ‘We have to do this as a unit because there is no star.’ I didn’t want them to get caught up in some of that hoopla that kids can get caught up in.”
Bazzle always told her students that the stage is a classroom where one learns to work with different personalities and appreciate each person’s contribution. “Most important” she emphasizes, “is learning to listen. You just have to have your ears open to everything that is going on.”
Bazzle used a unique approach to make sure that her students were audibly aware of their surroundings. She would tell them, “Once we’ve learned the song and then when we get ready to really sing it you are required to listen to everybody’s part—listen to the sopranos, listen to the alto and listen to your neighbor so you can sense when your neighbor is going to take a breath. Now that we’ve learned the lyrics and we’ve learned our parts, now you have to close your eyes. I want to hear from you what this song means to you. ‘Close your eyes and sing!’ It’s amazing because then they are able to go within themselves and that’s where the music really comes from.”
Bazzle didn’t conduct the Xavier Prep chorus at its performances. She gave the ensemble the key, tempo and downbeat and when they started singing, she’d walk off the stage. “That was the joy—they didn’t need me.”
Germaine Bazzle has retired from her longtime teaching job at Xavier Prep. However, passing along her knowledge and love of music still inspires her.
She continues to teach vocal students at the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp, as she has almost since its inception 20 years ago.
“We are all of one mind at that camp—we’re all on the same page about trying to do things for the kids regardless of their development as music students,” Bazzle says, adding that it doesn’t matter if someone has a great voice. “We maintain and demand high standards no matter what level you are on—beginning or advanced. Even at the beginning stage you must reach for your highest performance. We all demand excellence.”
Diversity and exposure to all styles of music is essential to Bazzle, a jazz vocalist who also sang classically with the Moses Hogan Choral.
“Oh my gosh, exposure is very important. If I want the students to grow to appreciate music, you have to expose them to it,” exclaims Bazzle, whose students studied and performed music from Bach to Broadway hits, from operas to spirituals and jazz. “The music was there—why not teach it? Not only did I want them to know the opera I wanted them to know that we had a New Orleans woman, black woman, Shirley Verrett, who was in this as a career and that it was possible. One of the students said, ‘Oh, Miss Bazzle I didn’t know black people sang opera.’ I mean I just stood there for a while and just looked at her because it had never dawned on me that these kids did not have that exposure.”
“I did as much as I could in the time that I had. The blessing of it all that is that I was in a situation at Xavier Prep where I was allowed to do what I was supposed to do—I was allowed to teach.”