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Nick Colionne: Making a Difference for the Future

Mikayla Gilbreath By

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Where I grew up, there were no mentor programs. You just tried to make it on the streets as good as you could.
No one likes hearing dire predictions about the imminent demise of jazz as an art form. And yet it's hard to deny that jazz seems at times to be slowly fading into the background. The genre receives relatively scant airplay, and is frequently relegated to little more than footnotes in the annual Grammy awards show. Increasingly, jazz seems to be heard primarily as soundtracks for television shows, commercials and motion pictures. And we've all observed that most young people are seemingly no longer interested in jazz music, and that many kids don't even really know what it is. But perhaps most disturbing is the thought that those few young people who are learning about jazz frequently are doing so only from a historical perspective, as though it's already gone. A musical evolution seems to be pushing jazz to one side, in favor of rap, rock, and other more popular contemporary musical styles.

For more than twelve years now, Chicago-based jazz guitarist/vocalist Nick Colionne has chosen to actively do something about this problem. All but his most avid fans know Colionne solely through his public persona: a nattily-attired smooth jazz showman with a playing style that invokes comparisons to Wes Montgomery or George Benson. "I picked up a lot of George Benson's technique, just like I did with Wes, because I listen to him. I figure my style of playing is basically a potpourri of everything I've ever played and everybody I've ever listened to: George, Wes, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani—cats like that."

Some may be familiar with Nick Colionne because of his Top Ten hit "High Flyin'" from the CD Just Come On In (Three Keys Music, 2003) or his current hit "No Limits" from the album of the same name (KOCH Records, 2008). Others may have become acquainted with him through his nationwide American tour or his extensive involvement with the jazz cruise industry. But most fans don't realize that Colionne has spent more than a decade working with kids as young as five years old, not only for the sake of jazz but also for the simple joy he experiences by impacting a young person's life in a positive way. Colionne has found mentoring children to be both an effective way to create new jazz fans for the industry and an extraordinarily rewarding experience for himself.

Colionne started mentoring kids (in Kindergarten through eighth grade) in an effort to raise money for a local Chicago area school. "It all started when I was playing at a club in Elgin, and the Principal of the school was there." The Principal asked Colionne if he would consider performing at a fund-raiser to benefit the school. "I told her, 'Sure, I'll be glad to do that.' And I told her that I'd like to come by and meet the kids. First I did a seminar in the auditorium, and all the kids came down. And I just kind of fell in love with the kids, and vice versa I guess, because the next week the kids were sending me messages." When the school year ended, the students invited Colionne to attend their graduation ceremony. "I went back to watch the class graduate, and then I decided that I wanted to be a part of these kids' lives, and do what I can to help them out."

The following school year, Colionne committed to mentoring the children every other week. "We started putting talent shows together—the Easter pageant and Christmas shows, Christmas caroling at the senior citizens' home for those that are shut in or don't have anybody. It's just something that's really close to my heart.

"The music program was very small at the school and then was eventually eliminated altogether. I was bringing a lot of computer equipment to the school and synthesizers and things, to show the kids how it was done in the music business. And I started having the eighth grade classes write their own graduation songs. I taught them a lot about what I do—jazz. And we did some rock stuff, showed them how to create music and how to use today's technology using sequencers and computers, and how to put together a song."

Colionne has become more than merely a music mentor to some of the children. He has in some cases taken on the significance of a parent. "There are kids who need a father figure, so I'm there for them too—to talk to, to call when they've got a problem. And I try to help them work it out and keep them on the straight and narrow, not only in music but in life in general."

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