Christopher A. Daniel
Public schools and universities throughout America are cutting their music and arts programs at a rapid pace due to budget deficits. Thankfully, jazz musicians are working to keep jazz music alive in schools, while helping students appreciate the role that music can play in one’s life. Iconic jazz singer Al Jarreau, award-winning composer Ramsey Lewis and Branford Marsalis of the legendary first family of jazz, are working to ensure that youth not only have a sense of music history but also continue to nurture their creativity, despite the cutbacks.
Seven-time Grammy Award-winning artist Al Jarreau hosted a Master Jazz Music Class at Atlanta’s Benjamin E. Mays High School in September. The following evening, Jarreau and three-time Grammy Award-winning pianist and composer Ramsey Lewis, curated the Jazz Roots Series, entitled Jazz & Soul, at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. As part of the venue’s educational outreach initiative ArtsBridge, Jarreau and Lewis treated 100 high school students, from four schools, to a soundcheck and Q&A session. The singer/songwriter, famous for scatting and his ability to vocally resemble musical instruments was impressed by the primarily African American high school’s musical collective.
He expresses his joy for talking with youth and seeing how music education positively influences their lives. “Jazz is this wonderful thing that influenced the world,” he says. “There’s no better place to be than in a classroom and learning. Some of our finest ambassadors were jazz musicians who went to other countries and explained the story of America. Education is still the answer; it’s a good way to learn about life’s importance and spiritual leanings.”
Saxophonist Branford Marsalis is also an acclaimed educator. The Tony-nominated composer, saxophonist and bandleader has held past positions at Michigan State, San Francisco State University and Stanford University. He is currently serving as Artist-In-Residence at North Carolina Central University, where he has received mixed reviews from students and colleagues on his teaching style. His jazz-based platform emphasizes critical thinking and application, which is why he believes that students and faculty perceive him as a challenge. “It’s a completely different way of thinking,” says Marsalis. “Regardless of whether students become a musician or not, they’ll benefit from the expanded way of thinking. Why not just learn something that you never really know and figure out how you can put that to use later in life? Jazz at its highest level teaches you that,” added Marsalis.
Marsalis, a Jazz Master Fellow for the National Endowment for the Arts, launched his tour with his quartet at Emory University the same night as the Jazz Roots Series to promote their new project Four MFs Playin’. Mr. Marsalis expanded his recent musical project by collaborating with symphonies and listening to more classical music — a technique he’s sharing with his students. “Kids have to get used to really hearing complicated songs which is very different for them,” he says. “Students learn a lot of methods instead of just playing music, but in doing so really aren’t able to engage the casual listener. You have to find a way to get people to relate to the sound of this music. The whole idea is to get people who are accustomed to listening to different forms of music to find elements in our music that are easy to detect.” That’s music to the ears of those who support music programs in schools.
Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and contributor to The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.