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Passing the Torch: Jazz in the Next Generation

By Published: January 25, 2007

Yamin understands the importance of finding a way to make the music relevant to young folks' lives: "You can't just go there and tell kids, 'Duke Ellington is so important and you should all know that.' That's a terrible way of trying to invite people in. You've got to find more dynamic ways to get people excited about the music and to get them to own it for themselves. Like Louise Rogers, he often begins with a story his students can relate to, then creates a jazz soundtrack for it, or he might pen new lyrics for a catchy Fats Waller tune. Like his mentor, drummer Walter Perkins, Yamin likes to structure improvisations programmatically: in a musical featuring enchanting trees slowly coming to life and menacing the protagonists, Yamin assigned a clarinetist to a particular tree with instructions to make an appropriate sound anytime the tree moved. Free improvisation is important, he stresses, because "kids need to feel right away that they can participate with their mind, body and soul. We can't teach this music so that it's so freakin' intellectual that it's twenty years before you get to say anything [laughs] of your creation!...The music is about connecting with your creative voice and being able to express that. The trick, he notes, is to find a balance between constraints: give students some parameters so they'll sound good, but not so much that they become bogged down by technique. To introduce the parameter of time, for example, Yamin has his rhythm sections play a 4/4 groove in no particular key with horns soloing on top. He contends that an overemphasis on harmony at the expense of melodic development is apt to stifle an individual's creative voice, citing Lester Young as an obvious antithesis to this trend. As a result of his activities, Yamin was asked to found and direct the Lincoln Center Middle School Jazz Academy, a vantage point from which he continues to spread the word, contending: "We can change the culture of America with jazz.

Yamin's work is just one of many artist-initiated jazz education programs. Other notable torch-bearers include Hans Benjamin Schuman, drummer and artist director of JazzReach, a non-profit outreach program featuring interactive multimedia presentations. Schuman's groups have toured all over the U. S., bringing high-quality performance standards and engaging programming to future jazzers. Hayes Greenfield runs a similar program called Jazz-A-Ma-Tazz, featuring fun for the whole family.

Another keeper-of-the-flame active on the New York scene is bassist and band director Sergio Larios, a veteran of the public school system who now teaches at Eleanor Roosevelt Intermediate School in Washington Heights. Described by one colleague as a "role-model teacher who "has really nurtured so many wonderful kids who just wouldn't have gotten out of that neighborhood if it wasn't for what they did in music , Larios has offered opportunity and optimism where it counts the most.

Wynton Marsalis, through the offices of Lincoln Center and with the support of his orchestra, has brought jazz lore to youngsters across the nation. In a recent Apollo Theater performance/workshop "What is an Arranger? Marsalis explored options open to jazz composers, comparing these to the articles of clothing one picks out when getting dressed for the day. To the audience's amusement, many of the orchestra members were decked out in fairly outlandish sartorial "arrangements. To illustrate these options musically, he introduced the various sections (trumpet, trombone, saxophone & rhythm) by having them play individually and in combination with each other. Using Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train as a common denominator, he had each saxophone (baritone, tenor & alto) play the melody, followed by the brass clothed in various mutes (straight, cup & wah-wah), to show the range of available timbres. More importantly, he called on several musicians to play the tune in their own style, emphasizing the individuality of these idiosyncratic interpretations. To demonstrate differences in groove, the band played short arrangements of "A Train employing latin, swing, ballad and hip-hop time-feels (predictably, the latter got the most enthusiastic response). Marsalis introduced musical terms such as decrescendo, crescendo, and dynamics, challenged audience members to define and repeat them out loud, and then demonstrated these concepts with musical excerpts. The Apollo audience ranged from elementary schoolers—who were bouncing on their seats when the music swung hard, much to the bandleader's bemused chagrin—to high schoolers, with food-for-thought available to all appetites.

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