Substitute jazz teacher pursues music interest despite restrictions

By David Lim

Like many of the students he has taught in Jazz Program Head Shawn Costantino’s absence, Rimvydas Paulikas first picked up the saxophone in middle school. An aspiring musician by the time he reached high school, he spent hours rehearsing in a music program every day after school and attending intense summer camps, playing with musicians from around the world.

Yet in his native Lithuania, then a part of the Soviet Union, Paulikas was banned from playing jazz, and was only allowed to play state-approved classical music.

“I always felt like something was missing,” Paulikas said.

Jazz, considered a symbol of America and of capitalism, was officially prohibited by the communist country. Although playing jazz was not as severely punished by the time he grew up, he still was discouraged from seeking jazz.

“I remember a poster with a worker smashing a saxophone with a hammer and it said ‘If you play jazz, you are going to sell your country,’” Paulikas said.

Born into a family of musicians, Paulikas grew up listening to government-approved classical music and heard of his father’s experiences in college, training to become a choral director.

“When I was a child, it was already getting easier to play jazz,” Paulikas said. “You wouldn’t get expelled from school. That’s what happened when my parents were younger. My father said if teachers would hear you noodling some kind of jazz, you could get expelled from college.”

Paulikas was exposed to jazz during summers at the music camps in other European countries such as Germany, Denmark and Poland.

“I’ve always loved jazz since I was 12-years-old,” Paulikas said.

“I would meet amazing jazz musicians there, even American guys, so I studied with them during the summers.” Paulikas said.

After the ban on jazz was lifted, Paulikas played jazz for the first time in Lithuania when he was 17 when the Soviet Union began to fall apart, causing the restrictions that had held him back to disappear. For the first few years of his musical training, he only played classical music. He recalls memorizing and performing hour-long pieces in contrast to the improvisational nature of jazz.

Paulikas had no choice but to major in classical music in college and graduate school in the 1990s.

“There was no jazz education anywhere you could get a degree in,” Paulikas said.

“My teachers at university would look at you and say ‘Your sound is getting jazzier,’” Paulikas said. “Then, they would lower your grade.”

Paulikas taught for a few years in college but decided he wanted to pursue a jazz degree and play jazz full-time. After auditioning successfully at DePaul University in Chicago, Paulikas had to pass an English proficiency test before could study for his master’s degree in jazz.

“They accepted me into the university and said, ‘If you pass English, you can study and get the scholarship,’” Paulikas said.

“I didn’t know how to spell ‘school,’” Paulikas said. “I was the worst student and I really couldn’t speak English, but I wanted to study [jazz] so bad that I would learn 215 words a day. I felt that they were already giving up on me because I think I had to take [the test] three times to get the score required for a master’s degree. And when I passed, they were really happy.”

At DePaul, Paulikas met Costantino, who was pursuing the same degree at the same time. The two kept in touch even after Paulikas performed in New York for a few years. Paulikas moved to Los Angeles after he got married.

Paulikas occasionally substituted jazz classes for Costantino in the past while he taught other students privately or played at gigs, including one at the Nokia Center.

“All those four years were so busy, we just talked over the phone a couple times,” Paulikas said. “Only [these] circumstances pushed us together again.”

As Costantino planned to take his leave of absence, Paulikas was interviewed in order to temporarily take over his job.

“I taught for three years in college,” Paulikas said. “[In Los Angeles], I’ve been teaching privately in some schools but I haven’t taught a jazz program as big as this one before. I’ve enjoyed the energy of these young kids. It’s rewarding to see them perform.”

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