Even though rock and pop acts that we record get the most amount of publicity, we record a tremendous amount of jazz at Avatar Studios. The great acoustics and large rooms lend themselves to recording jazz acts - from solo piano, piano trios to large big bands. There is nothing like the full sound of a big band hitting you whether it is Christian McBride’s Big Band, Chie Imaizumi’s Big Band or the latest Dave Holland / Chris Potter projects. We love recording jazz. We admire and respect the musicianship jazz artists aspire to and attain, and it is a joy, a challenge and a privilege for us to record them. Our rooms were created to make acoustic recordings like these.
Because of the emphasis in math and science in schools over the years, music education has been grossly neglected if they exist at all. Factors such as the increasing reliance on test scores and budget cuts due to the recession probably will not improve the situation in the near future. It is only through the efforts of passionate teachers who take it upon themselves to inject their curricula with arts, do children get exposed to music other than what they hear in the media. There is very little opportunity to listen to classical music or jazz much less any other type of music from around the world. It is a tragedy that children are unfamiliar with the uniquely American art form called jazz, which is part of our cultural heritage.
I am sure there are many organizations working to bring music education to schools and quite a few of them trying to raise the level of jazz awareness. I was introduced to two such non-profit organizations by an engineer and an educator himself, Jim Anderson at NYU. They are JazzReach led by founder, executive/artistic director Hans Schuman and The Jazz Drama Program led by founder & jazz pianist Eli Yamin. Both organizations needed to make a recording and when we found out what they were trying to do, we decided to donate studio time to aid in their efforts.
JazzReach, established in 1994, presents multi-media educational programs for young audiences, main-stage concerts for general audiences and informative clinics and master-classes for student musicians and ensembles. JazzReach has a few components to what they do. First, they put together a concert centered on a theme and commissions original jazz compositions around that theme. In the past, there were works inspired by the short stories of celebrated American author, James Baldwin, and works inspired by the social dynamism of the New York City subway experience. The latest effort, called “Big Drum Small World”, works were commissioned from prominent, internationally recognized jazz composers hailing from countries as diverse as West Africa, Israel, Cuba, Puerto Rico, India, and the United States.
The second component is the resident ensemble called The Metta Quintet, which performs all the works. Each one of their projects has been recorded to CD and released by record labels.
The third component is the multi-media concerts that they put on, which involves a large screen that displays pre-recorded video footage that complements the live performance by The Metta Quintet. For programs for young audiences, there is a narrator that facilitates interaction between the video, the band and the audience. The narrator encourages audience participation by guiding them to sing along a specific melody or harmony or as part of the rhythm section. The band would go on the road and perform these concerts at 20 different cities.
Last December, I attended one of three JazzReach performances held at Baruch College Performing Arts Center and watched as busloads of children were led in by teachers. The show was for children in grades 3 - 6. During the three days, over 1,000 New York City Public School students were given the opportunity to see the performance for free.
After a brief introduction, short videos were shown before each song was performed. The video was a Q&A between a child and the composer of the piece. Each composer was asked how they got into jazz, what they liked about jazz and what made music in their country or culture unique. The goal of the show was to promote the value of creative collaboration and the unique way that jazz provides a forum to explore our differences, share ideas and discover common ground.
Perhaps, some of the musical ideas were complex, but I liked the fact that they did not “perform down” to the children and allowed them to soak it in. You could see in their faces that they were having a great time and enjoyed participating. Adding a percussionist might have featured more of the richness of some cultures, but I understand the expenses involved with adding another musician. You still have a chance to attend one of their performances. According to their itinerary they have a few shows in April and then they return to perform in Brooklyn in early May. I urge you to take your kids and check them out. “Big Drum Small World” will be recorded at Avatar some time in the spring.
The Jazz Drama Program, established in 1998, was started when jazz pianist Eli Yamin and teacher/writer Clifford Carlson decided to write and develop an original jazz musical written for Louis Armstrong Middle School students after seeing that students’ interest level in jazz or music in general was not what they hoped for after performing standard plays like “Guys and Dolls” or watching jazz musicians perform. The students did not really identify with adult roles they played and the idea of swing or the blues did not really sink in even after a lecture and a live performance immediately after.
Eli and Clifford wrote a story that students could identify with and interwove the blues, bebop and swing around plotlines and situations where they fit. The first play was enthusiastically embraced by students, teachers, parents and jazz musicians who took part in the production as mentors. The highly immersive nature of the play changed students’ perception of what jazz meant to them. There is a saying in Japanese that literally means, “remember with your body”, which might be better translated as “learn by doing.” Your head is quick to grasp an idea, but sometimes, you have to live it to truly understand the full meaning and implications of the idea. That is what immersion does. Another intended goal of producing the musicals was to involve local jazz musicians to participate in the school effort, making it a community event.
They were so successful and the demand so great, they wrote five musicals in five years. They received national attention when NPR aired a story about their efforts. Eli ran workshops around the country using elements from one of the plays called “Nora’s Ark.” Soon, there was interest from schools in Connecticut, Mississippi and New Mexico to put on this play and a reference recording became necessary. This is where Avatar came in. The recording sessions took place on March 6th and 7th. The music was recorded with a jazz quintet and members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus performed the vocal parts. They were very energetic sessions. You can read more about the rehearsals and the sessions here.
According to the last survey by The National Endowment of the Arts, the audience for jazz in America is both aging and shrinking at an alarming rate. In 2002, 10.8% of adult Americans attended at least one jazz performance. In 2008, that figure fell to 7.8%. It would be quite a shame if the jazz audience continued to shrink. Similar to classical music, what is happening here is the devaluing of musicianship, which takes years to achieve. In the case of jazz, the ability of musicians to freely express themselves while playing in sync with a group of other able musicians is a lesson we need to learn for our own lives. If you like music, especially jazz, seek out organizations like JazzReach and The Jazz Drama Program and help support their activities. Unless they discover jazz through you, the parent, or on their own later in life, efforts by these organizations may be one of the few chances your child will ever have getting exposed to this art form in a lasting and meaningful way.
Tip: How to find out more about a particular Non-Profit Organization
If you want to find more details about a non-profit organization you are thinking of working with, check out their annual form 990 tax filings. It will list where revenues came from and what expenses were incurred. You can find these documents at Web sites such as the Foundation Center and Guidestar.