By Patrick Larsen
Carey Bina, a senior at Elon University, shows up to Jon Metzger’s jazz improvisation class. He is ten minutes early and is carrying a saxophone. He begins preparing for the class, running through a scale on his instrument over and over again, perfecting it. He uncovers a vibraphone and pulls it into the center of the room.
Not long after this, Jon walks in. Carey finishes his scale successfully.
“You did it!” says Jon.
What follows in the next few minutes is a sort of musical conversation with a few instructive and questioning words thrown in. Jon stands behind the vibraphone, showing Carey variations on the scale, prompting him to follow.
It is immediately evident that Jon is one of the most talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure and good fortune of meeting, but he didn’t just stumble across this talent.
Jon’s experience with the vibraphone began when he was 15. His parents convinced his school to let him borrow their vibraphone for the summer. It was around the same time that his sister, Lise, granted him a life-changing experience.
Lise brought Jon to see legendary vibist Milt Jackson, an exposure to jazz vibraphone that profoundly affected Jon.
“As a 15-year-old, I couldn’t articulate what was going on in the room, but I knew I just had to have it,” said Jon. “Milt said, ‘Never stop playing.’ That was a lot of the impetus to do everything that I had to do.”
And it is very clear that this impetus was strong.
Jon Metzger, Jazz Ambassador
It’s not a title that sounds exactly real. It sounds a little bit too good to be from this world.
In fact, the position of jazz ambassador is quite important. The program originated in 1968 as a sort of cultural bridge to make the United States seem more appealing in the midst of the Cold War. The program has continued for similar reasons to the present day.
Like any regular job, being a jazz ambassador requires an application. What’s more, you have to apply for each round as ambassador. Jon applied and got the job – after his first round, he was given a “highly recommended” rating to tour again. Jon felt confident and reapplied.
He was denied.
So, he asked why. As it turns out, they still really wanted him, but there were two sizable obstacles standing in his way.
Those obstacles were none other than jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton.
“I don’t know, I was probably around 27 or 28 at that time. I said ‘Yeah, okay. I’m not competing with them quite yet.’”
Jon looks back at the denial and is clearly amused. He has good reason to be – his chance came not long after that and he got to play with Gillespie and Hampton out of the connections he made with them there.
“It’s interesting, you never know who’s going to apply.”
He certainly deserves the position. Jon’s résumé is probably among the most extensive at Elon University. According to the bio on his website, he has worked as bandleader on seven albums, lectured and conducted masterclasses at numerous institutions and has had praise heaped on him from all sides.
The way Jon talks, it’s easy to see how his value of hard work got him to where he is today.
“I’m still fascinated by the music, I’m still very eager to explore it. I still want to practice all the time. What I can learn or take way from any experience is really really meaningful to me.”
That’s Jon talking just a couple weeks before this article was first published. The drive has never left him.
Jon Metzger, Professor
For the rest of the class I sat in on, the atmosphere was truly remarkable.
Despite not being a member of the class or really knowing anything about music theory at all, I can confidently say there are few times that I have felt so invested in the classroom.
Jon’s ability to jump from big picture to one on one tutoring to personal story to everything in between escapes description. He is efficient – his fast pace does nothing to reduce the quality of his work.
There is no doubt that this efficiency is due in no small part to the respect his students have for him. I get the sense that they work diligently outside of class to learn their assigned work.
Thomas Erdmann, orchestra director and professor of music at Elon, shared his perspective on Jon’s relationship with his students.
“Jon has a unique ability to clearly and substantively share his knowledge of music, giving our students the theoretical and practical skills necessary in order to develop decidedly accomplished abilities,” said Erdmann.
Kavian Bina, a Junior in Jon’s jazz improv class, feels lucky to be learning from Jon.
“He is encouraging, patient and understanding when we are learning difficult things, and he is so gifted at teaching complex concepts in easy and digestible ways, which facilitates learning and creates a sense of accomplishment.”
Kavian cited Jon’s stories about his “heroes” – jazz musicians he grew up listening to and now uses them to teach his students. His personal ties to the music make for “infectious and enlightening” stories, according to Kavian.
His core philosophy on teaching is simple.
“I want to make sure they’re truly jazz musicians.”
He holds in high esteem a student’s ability to make the music their own – the ability to understand all the different ways they can improvise and to know what they feel they should do next.
Jon’s intimidating knowledge of jazz and music theory isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal, however.
“Jon’s experience navigating legal issues involved with a performing life – such as copyright and contracts for live and recorded work – allow him to share this knowledge with his students,” said Erdmann.
As Erdmann hints at, Jon’s understanding of the business side of the music industry is one of his greatest assets to the music department. Perhaps his most impressive achievement was working with Elon associate professor of entrepreneurship Barth Strempek.
“Barth Strempek took that improvisation II class, he’s a jazz pianist,” said Jon. “He did really really well. He stopped me after class because he had some new ideas about how he wanted his business students to gain this business acumen.”
They had the idea to produce a standards album performed by Jon and other professional jazz musicians as a business project for Strempek’s students and as a way for Jon to get his students to take an interest in business.
“Strempek got a $50,000 grant from the Coleman Foundation in Chicago and that was that first album – his business students won business plan awards in North Carolina.”
“The album, which was with my professional quartet at the time, sold more than 4,000 copies in North Carolina alone, which are good numbers for a jazz album nationally,” said Jon.
His eyes widen a little bit at this comment and he sounds a little in awe – he is still clearly very proud of what these students were able to accomplish.
“That led to another project, the two projects together Strempek used to apply for a FIPSE grant, which is from the United States Department of Education, and it was a matching $385,000 grant that Strempek won. That was really the beginning of the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership.”
Since then, Jon routinely speaks at the center and is proud to see his students still taking classes there.
For Jon, all this teaching seems to come pretty naturally.
“I see myself in my students. I do remember being 18 or 20 years old and that fire that burns in the belly, and the dreams that you have of being a professional musician.”
His instruction in class verifies this statement. His conversation with students is peppered with bits of advice and his own personal experience that backs him up.
“I know what I needed at the time.”
Jon Metzger, Still Learning
There was a magical moment early on in the class when the students were playing the assigned music for class and improvising on the melodic minor scale when Jon stepped up to the vibes and did a little playing of his own. The best word I can think of to describe his playing is arresting. It’s no wonder that his students obviously have so much respect for him – he fully embodies what any jazz instructor would ask their students to aspire to.
Like many professors, however, it’s not about his students looking up to him.
“I’m learning things from my students all the time, you saw them saying ‘Have you heard this,’ and I thought ‘No, let me check it out!’”
He’s referring to a funk band – Lettuce – that his students referred him to after class ended for the day.
“I think the minute we close our minds, our hearts and our souls to being open to something new like that, that’s not a good thing. I hope we never stop learning.”
At the end of the day’s work, Jon became serious for a moment. He told his students that they are the future of music, that in some time people will be learning from them as they are from him.
He means every bit of it.