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Trumpeting Jazz

On a bright, airy classroom on the West Side, six youngsters are grooving to Miles Davis, their feet gently tapping, their bodies swaying a bit as they savor the trumpet sighs wafting out of a portable stereo system.

Meanwhile, at the tony Symphony Center downtown, a much larger group of kids is hanging on to every note that jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is playing, as he re-creates the clarion sound of Louis Armstrong hitting a glorious series of high Cs. The day's topic may be vintage Miles or classic Satchmo, but the subliminal message -- the one that the instructors are trying to get across -- is that music can save their lives and open up their futures, whether or not they decide to become musicians.

If jazz long ago was the music of the street and the brothel, lately it has taken on a considerably more heroic role in the lives of some urban schoolchildren, thanks to two daring new projects. One, based in Chicago and headed by the protean trumpeter Orbert Davis, uses jazz to save "at-risk" children. To date, Davis' MusicAlive program has been adopted in more than a dozen Chicago schools and in classrooms as far away as Mobile, Ala. If Davis has his way, MusicAlive eventually will be swinging in every state.

The other, a Jazz for Young People Curriculum conceived in New York and headed by Marsalis, can give kids "the tools to speak to one another," as Marsalis puts it. The lessons may cover the basics of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington, but -- in profound ways -- they show kids how to respect one another other, how to negotiate and how to get along.

So far as Davis and Marsalis are concerned, no music can do more to give kids hope than America's only homegrown art form, jazz. Moreover, in an era when arts programs rapidly are disappearing from financially hard-pressed school districts, the need for music education never has been greater, argue artists such as Davis and Marsalis. And at a time when science is discovering that musical training improves intellectual abilities and deters against anti-social behavior, they appear to have a point.

"The intrinsic value and enjoyment of the music is important, but it's also a beautiful way to teach about democracy and about people working together," says educator Sandy Feldstein, who helped create Marsalis' jazz curriculum. "Because that's what jazz is all about -- a group of musicians trying to play together, improvising, being creative. "Teach kids jazz, and you're teaching them history, because of all that has happened in this music in the past 100 years. And you're teaching them social studies, because you cover all the places that the jazz musicians traveled to, on the road. "Really, you're teaching them about life."

Easygoing approach
"So what's new?" Davis asks the kids awaiting him in Room 307 of the Victor Herbert School, located just a few blocks west of the United Center, which most of these kids never have seen on the inside.
"Band," answers one of the youngsters.
"Basketball," says another.
"Girls," jokes a third.
The approach may seem informal, but that's precisely the way Davis prefers it. The idea is to establish a real rapport with these kids -- to talk about everyday life and its problems and its possibilities -- before a single note is played. Davis knows that the youngsters sitting in front of him have had trouble in school. Some have been failing their classes. Some haven't been showing up. Some have been showing up but haven't said a word. Or at least that's what they were like a year ago, before the school picked them as prime candidates for Davis' MusicAlive, an innovative program that focuses as much on communication and coping as it does onBuddy Bolden and King Oliver.

Between discussions about jazz and related musical forms, Davis and the instructors he trains teach kids why it's important to show up for a job interview looking good, just as musicians do when they have a gig; why it's critical to "speak the `King's English' in proper settings," says Davis,to keep phrases as beautiful as those a trumpeter makes when he's standing in front of the public.

"Over the years, I've come to realize that students who are involved in the arts learn the life skills of discipline, focus, self-confidence, expression, group dynamics, coping, communication and racial reconciliation," says Davis, who spent 14 years teaching at Columbia College Chicago and received a master's degree in music education from Northwestern University. "These are skills that enable us to function in society and become responsible citizens -- and employable. So why is music the first thing cut in school curricula?"

Taking action
A few years ago he decided that he wasn't going to sit around watching it happen. So he spent his own time and money developing MusicAlive, which he conceived as a 15-session curriculum "for at-risk youth grades K-12" and unveiled in 1999. The project, which includes workbooks for students and teachers, was designed specifically to connect "every day life and music," according to MusicAlive's mission statement. Ultimately, the goal was to improve kids' self-esteem, teach them how to express themselves verbally and show them how to solve problems and make decisions -- all through hands-on activities in music.

Thus the student workbooks that Davis created include both Miles Davis' recording of "On Green Dolphin Street" and Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.Since Davis brought MusicAlive to Victor Herbert, the kids have formed a jazz band and jam together at least once a week, even when no one from MusicAlive is around to hear them. In effect, these youngsters are being transformed.

"That music program has saved my boy's life," says Donna Thadison, whose youngest son, 7th grader Jerome, had problems before he started MusicAlive. "He was hanging with the wrong kids, he wasn't getting along with the other kids. Now he's staying out of trouble and getting kids into the program and hardly listening to rap music at all. His life changed."Says Jerome, "When I first came in here, I didn't know a single thing about Louis Armstrong or Miles Davis or any of that," says Jerome, after class. "Now I'm trying to play like him, which is not easy."

The magic of music
There's more than just anecdotes supporting the notion that music education of almost any sort can turn a kid's life around. Recent scientific studies confirm what Jerome's mother has noticed. A few studies stand out:

- Second graders who used piano keyboard training in conjunction with computer software designed to teach math scored 27 percent higher on math tests than children who used only the computer software, according to Neurological Research journal, March 1999.

- Students who were involved in instrumental music in middle school and high school had "significantly higher levels of mathematics proficiency by grade 12," according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Moreover, this was true regardless of the students' socioeconomic status.

- Students with music performance experience scored 57 points higher on the verbal and 41 points higher on the math SAT tests than those who had no such experience, while students with music appreciation coursework scored 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math than those who took no such courses, according to the College Entrance Examination Board.

Davis does not pretend to have a magic wand. Some kids drop out of the MusicAlive program. Many schools cannot afford it (at the Victor Herbert School, in fact, Davis provided the program for free, as a kind of pilot venture). But Davis and his longtime business partner, Mark Ingram, believe they're on to something. "We began to realize that there was a problem out there in America's schools, and that we were subconsciously ignoring it," says Ingram. "Whole generations of kids have been lost. Kids are failing. They're disconnected from learning for a lot of reasons, so we needed to find a way to reconnect them to learning. And we believe we have found it by using their favorite tool -- music."

The results, says Victor Herbert music teacher Milton Gardner, are unmistakable. "You can see the kids changing," says Gardner. "I just wish more kids could get a chance to get involved."

A different approach
Realistically speaking, however, struggling, inner-city schools that need jazz instruction the most are, by definition, the ones least able to afford it. Which is why the Jazz for Young People Curriculum created by Jazz at Lincoln Center, in New York, may come as a godsend to schoolkids across the country (including those at the Chicago Public Schools, where it currently is being evaluated by administrators).

Unlike Davis' MusicAlive, which was explicitly created to save at-risk kids, the Lincoln Center program has been conceived to increase jazz literacy among youngsters of all kinds. And while Davis' program emphasizes the role that teachers or mentors play in teaching life skills (its instructors trained by Davis himself), the Lincoln Center program is a self-contained collection of materials that almost anyone can use, regardless of how much or how little the teacher knows about jazz.

Designed by Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, in conjunction with a team of educators, scholars, musicians and graphic designers, the Jazz for Young People Curriculum kit includes 10 CDs (one of which is a CD ROM), video, student workbook and teacher's guide. It defines the "jazz lingo" and nearly everything else a youngster needs to know. More important, it teaches kids "to listen to one another with empathy," notes Marsalis in his introductory letter to teachers, "to understand and enjoy the individuality of each person."

You can see as much as Marsalis stands before a group of school kids in Symphony Center's Buntrock Hall, where he somehow has persuaded a group of 300-plus youngsters to pipe down for a moment. "We're hear to talk about jazz music," says Marsalis, who shrewdly speaks at almost a whisper, so that the kids will have to keep quiet to hear him. "We're going to talk about Buddy Bolden," adds Marsalis, referring to the nearly mythic precursor of the great Satchmo. "Buddy Bolden is the beginning of jazz. Before Buddy Bolden, New Orleans music was about society dances and marches, but Buddy Bolden had another idea. "And that's what jazz is all about -- playing it your way. But it's also listening closely while someone else plays it their way. It's respecting someone else and them respecting you."

Later, in a larger session in Orchestra Hall, where a couple thousand kids and their parents have gathered to learn about John Coltrane, Marsalis cuts to the heart of the matter. "For a while, John Coltrane used drugs," says Marsalis, knowing that kids face this temptation, and others, every day they go to school. "But once Coltrane licked drugs, he found God in his own way. He had a spiritual awakening. And he hooked up with another serious musician, the high priest of bebop, Thelonious Monk."

Planting a seed
And so the point has been made, tucked in amid the glorious tunes of Coltrane that Marsalis and friends unfurl. If a great artist such as Coltrane can find salvation away from vice and inside the discipline and rigor of music, Marsalis is intimating, maybe the youngsters in the audience can, too.

"We're trying to reach the kids with ideas and with music that they don't hear on the radio very much," says Marsalis later. "We're trying to teach them in a very plainspoken way, a very accessible way. But we can't be in all the classrooms in America at once, so we came up with the Jazz for Young People Curriculum, and we believe it makes it possible for kids to hear us even when we can't be with them."

According to Laura Johnson, education director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the program is trying to fill a void. "Jazz has been around for 100 years, but outside of the jazz bands in many schools, there is no real school instruction in this music," Johnson says. "And you can't help but conclude that that has something to do with race. American schools mostly have taught music by white composers, and it's time for the schools to show the kids that great art comes from other races, as well. Even apart from music, I think that's a worthwhile lesson."

So is the entire Jazz for Young People Curriculum, which stands as by far the most exhaustive, interactive jazz course ever made available to primary and secondary schools. "This is very good stuff indeed," says Michael Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the Music Educators' National Conference. "It's estimable." Adds Henry Chapin, arts coordinator for a Brooklyn school district that has embraced the Jazz for Young People project: "I think this curriculum could fill a vacuum that never even has been acknowledged."

By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
March 31, 2002
Copyright (c) 2002, Chicago Tribune

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Orbert Davis
  • Event Date: 3/31/2002
  • Subtitle: Wynton Marsalis and Orbert Davis are leading the charge to bring America's music to kids
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