Jazz Studies Major Alters his Perspective after Research Project

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When Samuel Sherman traveled to Brazil last summer to experience that country’s music, he was surprised to discover that Brazilian music was more varied and less rigid than he had imagined. The Brazilian samba and bossa nova that he heard in Rio de Janeiro clubs peeled off in unexpected directions and found inventive ways to honor tradition.

Sherman’s research, which was supported by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, prompted an important moment of growth for him as a musician. During his 10 days in Brazil, Sherman, a jazz studies major, learned that playing a traditional style of music does not require being confined by its history.

“Initially, I thought that I would go there to learn to play Brazilian music more authentically,” Sherman said. “But then I saw that very little of what I thought of as authentic Brazilian music was played there.”

Antonio Garcia, chair of the jazz studies program at VCU and Sherman’s faculty mentor for his research, said Sherman’s approach to his investigation of Brazilian music has been focused and diligent.

“One of the reasons I believe Sam was chosen is that he has the ability and self-discipline to choose his path well,” Garcia said.

Before his trip to Brazil, Sherman believed that Brazilian music was largely a mathematical construction that did not “swing” the way American jazz did. However, the sounds he heard on the trip showed him that Brazilian music also swings, but in its own distinctive way. His additional research into the historical background of Brazilian music further demonstrated that it shared many of the same source materials as American jazz. Sherman said both Brazilian and American jazz forms are products of the blending of African and Western European musical styles.

“The roots came from the same place,” Sherman said. “And the differences are not as stark as they often are made out to be.”

He heard many pieces in Rio that were inspired by musical forms that he did not associate with Brazil, such as American pop music, and he saw that Brazilians themselves were not wrapped up in playing music with any insistence on propriety. Sherman began to understand that he could “loosen up a bit” with the music.

“I realized it’s not so important to be Brazilian when we play Brazilian music,” Sherman said. “It’s good to be informed, but what it comes down to is playing the music the way you hear it.”

Ultimately, traveling to Brazil led Sherman to “relax” and to stop asking the question, “Is this Brazilian enough?”

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Still, researching the history and the proper way to play a style of music is a helpful first step toward making it one’s own. Sherman’s research will aid not only his take on Brazilian music but also the interpretation of current and future VCU students. As part of his grant, Sherman created a presentation for a jazz master class and he developed instructional literature to help students at VCU in their efforts to represent Brazilian music.

Starting in July, Sherman will play drums for five months in a jazz band on a cruise ship. Ultimately, though, he believes he will pursue graduate school and new opportunities to pursue his research interests.

Garcia said Sherman’s project helps demonstrate the importance of research in higher education and its direct impact on student learning.

“Such opportunities provide some of the best of VCU’s students with an avenue to learn extraordinarily and to distinguish themselves further within their education and on their resume as they might approach graduate school,” Garcia said. “As student leaders, they are already well-suited to then pass that new knowledge and perspective on to the students and faculty of their own area, in this case the VCU Music Department. Research such as this keeps VCU ‘a school without walls,’ encouraging learning not to be insular and exclusive to the campus setting.”