“The purpose of the riff is to propel the groove,” proclaimed famed jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis to a theater full of jazz musicians and students at a clinic held Sunday, May 18, in Charlotte.
The renowned musician is one of several jazz greats hosted by the Jazz Arts Initiative to offer educational opportunities for their students. Approximately 30 talented kids and adults with various instruments in-hand listened attentively to Marsalis, who earned a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award with his famed family.
With his trombone on his shoulder and his computer queued, he played songs like Johnny Hodges’s “The Peaches are Better Down the Road.” Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on stage, everyone spoke the rhythm and played together first. Then, one by one, each was called upon to play solo and make the piece his or her own.
“Play something funky,” Marsalis said to 14-year-old drummer Stephan Engel. Engel departed from the traditional jazz groove to a fun funky beat. Marsalis challenged every musician to play every tune like their favorite.
“It’s an honor to learn from someone like that,” said 16-year-old Stephen Brock, who has been playing violin for 13 years. Brock has improved because of the skilled teachers and the chance to play and share his passion in the last three years with the Jazz Arts Initiative. Brock uses the experience he gets through Jazz Arts Initiative to supplement his school’s more traditional music education offerings.
Engel, with seven years of drumming experience, does too. “A lot of times you get told what to play,” he said. “Here we can invent our own style.”
“Jazz is not about being right or wrong, it’s about having a voice,” said Lonnie Davis, president and executive director of Jazz Arts Initiative, who added creative independence appeals to young people. “I think they like the freedom to be and express themselves.”
Jazz Arts Initiative also gives students live performance opportunities. The Advanced Ensemble performed at the Romare Bearden Festival in May, and Brock was among the student musicians who wowed the crowd with near-flawless renditions of technically challenging songs by Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock.
“People say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe these are kids,’” said Davis, who organizes the appearances. “I get asked, ‘Where are they from?’ and ‘When will they play again?’” Events are posted on Jazz Arts Initiative’s Facebook page.
In addition to working with students, Jazz Arts Initiative supports local and regional musicians by providing them with paid teaching jobs and performing gigs. Jazz Arts Initiative also sponsors Monday Night Jazz Afterhours, a chance for musicians of all levels to jam at Bistro La Bon in Plaza Midwood. The organization builds community around the topic, even participating in a 2011 applied research investigation on the art and discipline of jazz improvisation. Find more information at www.thejazzarts.org.
When asked what he took away from the May 18 clinic with Marsalis, Brock remarked on the importance of musical quality rather than quantity.
“It’s better to play more tasteful notes instead of a lot of notes,” he said. “The idea is to complement the music rather than show off.”
Marsalis challenged the students to stretch themselves artistically and treat the music “like a conversation.” He told each student to use music to communicate.
“What do you want us to know about you?” Marsalis asked the crowd. “Whatever you want your audience to know, you have one chorus to do it!”
“The chance to learn from someone with so much experience is great,” Brock said. “Marsalis is a monster,” (meant as a major compliment).
Jazz Arts Initiative will host Grammy-nominated trumpet player Christian Scott as a clinician and teacher for the Jazz Arts Summer Music Camp from June 16 to 20 at UNC Charlotte Center City. There is still room for interested seventh- through 12th-grade students. Scott will perform the music of New Orleans in a series called “The Jazz Room” on June 19 with two shows (6 and 8 p.m.). More information on both events is available at www.thejazz arts.org or 704-336-9350.