Music learning and teaching graduate strives to be a changemaker


April 19, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Jalen Jorel Montgomery believes that one should not just talk about the work of equity but lead the way with action. Jalen Montgomery Jalen Jorel Montgomery Download Full Image

“As an educator and performer, one of my biggest accomplishments is the creation of and being the co-president of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accountability Student Committee (IDEA) of the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.”

Montgomery, who is graduating this semester with a Bachelor of Music degree in music learning and teaching, helped create IDEA to serve and to advocate for underrepresented members of the student community. The group aims to create a safe, equitable and welcoming space for all students, sharing their stories and voicing their concerns on issues including racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism.

Montgomery and IDEA co-president Ramon Soberano have been collaborating with faculty members on the production of MOSAIC: Highlighting Diversity in Arts, a virtual showcase of performances by composers who are Black, Indigenous, queer and/or people of color.

In addition to his work with IDEA, Montgomery is president of the ASU Gospel Choir; tuba section leader of the Sun Devil Marching Band; and a bassoonist in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre bassoon studio. As a music educator, Montgomery said he wants to bridge the gap between popular music and classical music and push the boundaries in music education through the use of popular music, contemporary techniques, representation and a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. He said he wants to be a changemaker.

“Jalen embodies what excellence is as a student and ASU community member,” said Robert Farid Karimi, assistant professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “His drive for innovation as a cultural producer and artist manifests in his vision as an artist. He has a ‘can do’ attitude of doing what is good for the community at large, sometimes sacrificing his own personal gain, to solve the inequities within the school with balance, integrity and innovative solutions.”

While at ASU, Montgomery has received scholarships, including the New American University Scholar – President's Award, the Sun Devil Standard Award, the Special Talent Award for Marching Band and for Music, the ASU Alumni – Dallas/Ft. Worth Chapter Scholarship, the Emil Barberich Scholarship, the Karen J. Zizzi Memorial New American University Scholarship, the AZ Teachers Academy Grant and the Robert "Coach" Fleming Scholarship.

“It meant the world to me to receive this funding, and I am so incredibly thankful for the groups and organizations that have supported me financially with these scholarships,” he said. “The funding has allowed me to attend school while not worrying about cost and has allowed me to focus more on the most important aspect of school – learning. The constant generosity has inspired me to give back to the community, and I hope one day I will be able to help students achieve their goals.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: In my first year of high school, I marched sousaphone in the Duncanville, Texas, marching band. We were at a competition and the entire brass section was warming up together. It was the best we had ever sounded, and everyone was ecstatic. We could truly see the progress we had made over the past few months as a band family. At that moment, I thought to myself, "This is what I want to do in my future. I want to teach high school band."

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I learned that there is so much more to music theory than Eurocentric classical music. I grew to love music theory, especially when learning about music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU based on the great interactions and conversations I had with Professor Albie Micklich, Professor Marg Schmidt and former Professor Jason Thompson on my audition day. I had wonderful conversations with all of them and knew immediately that I wanted to attend ASU.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I've learned so many great things from many professors at ASU. One of the most important lessons was from Professor Albie Micklich, who taught me that quality and meaningful practice produces great results.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: "Get your Monday homework done on Monday and Tuesday homework done on Tuesday." James “Hud” Hudson, the Sun Devil marching band director, constantly gave us advice for how to succeed in school and directed us to support systems if we needed them. His homework advice resonated with me the most, and I will continue to share that advice with my students in the future.

Q: What was your favorite spot-on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: My favorite place on campus is "A" Mountain. I have hiked it before sunrise numerous times in order to take time to myself and reflect on my life.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am excited to have accepted a position of director of bands and orchestra at Coronado High School in the Scottsdale Unified School District and will be teaching marching band, concert band, jazz band, orchestra and a percussion ensemble. In the future, I plan to earn my master’s and doctorate degrees in music education.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would tackle the issues of crisis response and policing in the United States. I would overhaul the policing system in the United States and create a system that no longer has roots tied to racism, no longer has constant accounts of police brutality year to year and create a system that combats the systemic racism in the United States that disproportionately affects and harms people of color. 

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music

480-727-7189

Undergraduate multi-instrumental musician discovers his place with jazz


April 19, 2021

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Benjamin Cortez has been playing music for most of his life. He grew up in a musical family and took classical piano lessons from age 3 to 6, but his training and coursework at Arizona State University has completely changed the way he now approaches music. Benjamin Cortez, photo courtesy of Cyler Resendez Download Full Image

Cortez will graduate with a Bachelor of Music in performance, jazz piano.

He credits a “Pop Music and Race” class by Christi Jay Wells, assistant professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, for completely changing the way he perceives music on a daily basis.

“I had the opportunity to critically analyze the ways that race, gender, sexual orientation and other aspects of social identity inform the music that I hear every day,” said Cortez. “These lessons and concepts have helped me ever since to think beyond just the notes in music and dig deep into the human elements that give songs incredible depth and significance in our society at large.”

In 2018, Cortez released his first album, “In Your Hands,” featuring eight original compositions that he performed, produced and engineered himself at his home studio.

“Benjamin Cortez is a multi-instrumental musician who breathes new life into the classic music of the '60s and '70s with his soulful, high-energy performances on vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass guitar and drums,” said Michael Kocour, professor and director of jazz studies in the ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “His diverse musical sensibilities reflect the eclectic cultural landscape of his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.”

Cortez has jumped at every opportunity to better his craft, having been recruited to do live and session work for high-profile acts ranging from Oregon Catholic Press artist Tom Booth to punk rock band Authority Zero, in addition to leading his own band.

In Spring 2020, he wrote a new arrangement of the ASU Alma Mater for the ASU Graduation Celebration Alma Mater Challenge. The arrangement included a new verse of lyrics dedicated to all of the ASU Class of 2020 graduates who were not able to participate in an in-person ceremony for the spring semester, and to every ASU student missing campus life in light of the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cortez received the New American University President's Award and a scholarship from the jazz studies program in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.

“It meant the world to be able to receive these awards, because it gave me the opportunity to receive an excellent education while also not having to worry about accruing student debt,” said Cortez. “This also gave me the opportunity to learn how to responsibly save my earnings from outside work that I chose to do throughout my time as an undergraduate student.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: The moment in which I realized that I wanted to study jazz music in school was when I heard the classic album “Aja” by Steely Dan for the first time in seventh grade. I had mostly learned how to play pop songs by ear and was perplexed by the fact that I could not automatically recreate the complex chords and rhythms I heard in this album. My interest in “Aja” led me to discover the legendary jazz musicians who laid the groundwork for all the music that I loved, and I’ve been hooked ever since on learning about the incredible music that they made throughout the 20th century.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU because the music program in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre offered me the opportunity to learn from an incredibly skilled and supportive jazz studies faculty only 25 minutes away from my house.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: My piano professor and Director of Jazz Studies Michael Kocour taught me the incredibly important lesson of being able to recognize my own personal tendencies in order to celebrate my strengths and find workarounds for my weaknesses. I’ll never forget the lesson in which he pointed out that he and I had a common trait of being “big picture” people, and that he encouraged me to pay special attention to small details in order not to let them slip by.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A:  The best advice I could give to current students would be to communicate effectively with your professors and peers. Learning how to communicate frequently and directly will help you to maintain positive, healthy relationships with the people with which you work, and it will help you to stay focused and mentally healthy. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: My favorite spot on campus was the music courtyard. It is a cozy and peaceful alcove with beautiful architecture and friendly fellow musicians passing through all the time. I especially loved it when it used to have ivy plants lining the walls. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My postgraduation plan is to stay in the Valley, build up my freelance audio production business and continue work as the director of Spanish Music Ministry at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Phoenix and a keyboardist at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Tempe.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would want to use the $40 million to help ensure that children from around the world would have access to a quality elementary education. I'm no financial expert, but I am guessing that $40 million would likely be a drop in the bucket to solve this problem, but it would be a start.

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music

480-727-7189