Playin’ Around With Playbook: Sean Dobbins
Hey everyone! This past week on Playin’ Around With Playbook, I had the opportunity to talk to percussionist and educator Sean Dobbins.
Sean Dobbins got his start as sought-after Detroit area jazz sideman at a young age, when he would regularly play with Blue Note artist Louis Smith. As Sean’s Career progressed, he found himself the recipient of many awards and accolades including the “Woody Herman Jazz Award,” an award for outstanding musicianship, as well as the Louis Armstrong Scholarship. Due to Sean’s great talent both as a player and an educator, he has been the focus of countless news articles, jazz radio programs, and documentaries. Currently, Sean is on faculty at the University Of Michigan, Oakland University and Wayne State University. He has served as the Artistic Director of Jazz Ensembles for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and is currently the Executive/Artistic Director for the Southeastern Music Academy (southeasternmusicacademy.org)
In 1999, Sean was asked to become the director of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Summer Jazz Program. This program was designed to help educate and inspire young artists as they began their quest of learning jazz. In 1998, a year before Sean’s arrival, the program was in jeopardy of being canceled due to low enrollment. In 2000, a year after Sean took over the reins, the enrollment more than tripled and a year later, the group was featured on WEMU, a national jazz radio program.
Dobbins has amassed an impressive list of playing companions. He has performed/toured/recorded with Johnny Basset, Benny Golson, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Frank Morgan, Joey DeFrancesco, George Cables, James “Blood” Ulmer, Marcus Belgrave, Larry Willis, Rodney Whittaker, Claude Black, Johnny O’Neal, Paul Keller, Tad Weed, Kurt Krahnke, Jon Hendricks, David “Fathead” Newman, Donald Walden, Cyrus Chestnut, Barry Harris, David Baker, Randy Johnston, Marion Hayden, Mose Allison, and a host of other great musicians.
Below are some snippets of our conversation on February 24, 2022. Click here to view the full interview.
TRISTA FORD: What have you been listening to lately?
SEAN DOBBINS: It’s a variety of music that I’m checking out. I’m into this music more or less for my own development, but also for my students because they have a wide range of interests. I’m enjoying doing that with them and in the summertime, when I get a chance to do my own listening, I’m checking out some individual things that I like.
TF: How do you create community within your band students?
SD: The number one thing is to create a sense of joint ownership. That’s the most important thing that’s always worked for me. As an educator, you have to set the standard, and it’s most important that everybody buys into the standard. It’s a standard that everyone wants to live by. You can see the potential in your group, but it’s equally as important that your students see the potential in the group, and what the group can be. Everyone should own it. When you say that word community, to me means that means there’s ownership throughout. Everyone should have some ownership in the success. The director should take the role as a facilitator of the music and realize that we’re in every rehearsal, every performance to serve the music. It’s never to feel like at any point, anyone in that in that rehearsal room is above the music.
TF: Was there a mindset transition when you went from performing to also being an educator?
SD: I’ve been doing them both since the beginning. I started my private studio roughly at age 20 and at around 19 or so I was going out and doing clinics and assisting in schools and doing workshops in schools, as I was raised by great educators. Louis Smith was my first drum teacher, and Eric Alexius followed. They were the two people that said, once you decide to do this, you’ve also agreed to share it. The information that you gain is not for you to keep, it’s for you to share. Like, that’s what this is all about. It’s for the next person in line. So that was always a part of it. I had a chance to play with artists and they took the time with the younger musicians to call them for gigs and performances, and to work with them. I got the opportunity to play. It started off with this great singer named Ramona Collins from Toledo, Ohio, and she hired me for my first club date. That led to me playing with this great trio. I consider all of them major mentors, and they took the time to allow younger people to play on their stage. You get an opportunity, and you’re like I’m not ready to be up there with those guys, but they encourage you. So that’s been part of it; the minute that you decide to do this is the minute you decide to be a mentor.
TF: I know that you have worked with the Southeastern Music Academy, do you have a favorite experience working with them?
SD: That’s one of the youth groups that I work with, and I actually put that together. In Ann Arbor, I did that one and I also did the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and also Community Music School. All these are youth programs that were designed to not only promote the music, but to create an opportunity. I feel like it was giving young people positive attention, and the encouragement that they needed. The two things that stick out with working with young people in my community programs is that we defy the odds that are put in front of us every day. Sometimes may get more reasons to be divisive than to be together. When you look in a band, and you find young people from all across everywhere, different cultural, different economic backgrounds, and you’re all there for the love of the music, that’s the best feeling and you see people that normally don’t get a chance to interact, but love to use music together. I love it. My favorite part for all of those programs is after the first rehearsal because I start seeing those friendships being born. I see people exchanging information.
I love to see young people getting attention when they’re doing something positive. They don’t have to do something negative for us, as adults, to pay attention to them. Sometimes everyone just needs to kind of get encouragement or get feedback, or whatever it is, they feel like they need.
TF: Do you have any mantras for when you’re feeling low?
SD: Most of my childhood we grew up in the church, right. So my mom, being a single mom, all we had in the house when things were tight, all we had was music. That’s why music has a certain thing. So there was music that we put on when it was tight. I knew that if times got tough, If I went downstairs, and I heard the song, you could work it out.
For our last question, I want to ask you, why do you think platforms like Playbook are so important in today’s classroom?
SD: Look what you guys are doing. You’re bringing it to a discussion like myself and other people, that other young musicians can kind of take from and start to build their careers off. Sam, you guys were telling me so much about what you guys were doing. On the other side of the podium, some people require you guys to be important, because it’s really teaching people opportunities, options, and responsibility in this music. To me, those are the things. I think young people want to go into getting or get into a career and they think like, oh, man, you know, I got to go out, I got to play, I gotta record. In this, community responsibility can be overlaid. It’s so important because even if someone doesn’t emulate exactly what you’re doing, they’re seeing that there’s more they can do to help the music grow, to help inspire other people and help them start up. There are a lot of musicians who call me and say, well, you know, I love playing but what else is there for me? You guys are teaching people like “Hey, sit down, think artistically about what you really want to do, and what are the things that you want to do, and go ahead and contribute to the art form?”