By Valerie Gladstone
Tugging on their parents’ hands, nine small children half ran into the Time Warner building in Manhattan recently, eager to get to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Though they checked out the photos of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington on the elevator ride to the fifth floor, their first thought was making it to Webop, the series of jazz education programs designed for children from 18 months through five years. After all, who would want to miss any of the 45 minutes of drawing, singing, dancing, and playing jazz instruments?
Ever since Wynton Marsalis co-founded JALC in 1987 to spread the word on the glories of jazz, he has supported music education at every opportunity, five years ago joining the Music Education Coalition in its massive initiative to help parents and educators appeal to school boards and other decision-makers to keep music in schools. “Jazz music,” he said, “teaches us respect, patience and attentiveness that is required to participate in today's worldwide conversation. It enables us to understand and enjoy the individuality of every person and encourages us to listen to one another with empathy.”
The kids hit the Webop classroom like a cyclone. Soon four and a half year old Isaac was dragging a big, brightly painted drum around the classroom while five-year-old Mica banged away on a xylophone, both of them oblivious to the other children checking out the blackboard, chatting with the pianist and picking up crayons and paper. Parents watched from the sidelines or got down on the floor to encourage their shyer youngsters.
“Welcome, jazz messengers,” said Rebecca Kim, a Columbia University trained instructor. “Are you ready to share your love of jazz?” “Yes,” they replied at the top of their lungs. “Shall we scat like Louis Armstrong?” They hardly needed urging, quickly breaking into the wordless, improvisatory style made famous by Satchmo and banging away in accompaniment. “We’ve been coming for two years,” said Isaac’s father above the din. “You have to register early; it gets booked way in advance. He loves it, talks about it at home all the time.”
The families that rush to sign up for Webop share, with millions of others, enormous enthusiasm and appreciation for JALC’s innovative and effective educational programs. They include introductory courses for public schools and Head Start programs in English and Spanish, the Band Director’s Academy, Essentially Ellington, a high school jazz band program, the Jazz for Young People concerts and the www.jazzforyoungpeople.com companion website to the Jazz for Young People™ Curriculum. And that doesn’t even count courses for adults.
Programs take years to develop, with many of them the product of research undertaken by Dr. Lori Custodero at Columbia University Teachers College. “Research shows,” she said, “that like jazz musicians, infants, toddlers and preschoolers and their parents are also attuned to each other, singing made-up songs and creating musical conversations. We believe that music contributes to the emotional connections we make over a lifetime, and that Webop can create a model for partnerships that will last a lifetime.”
Parents and educators are particularly interested in how jazz study effects academic achievement, said Erika Floriska, Director of JALC’s education department. “Studies point to a relationship between early instruction in music and brain development,” she said, “and specifically between early instruction in jazz and rhythm and arithmetic. There appears to be better performance in math, science, and on SAT and other standardized tests among children who have been exposed to jazz.”
As far-reaching in its educational goals, JALC’s program Rhythm Road, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, annually sends ten quartets abroad to present original American styles, including jazz, bluegrass, Cajun, country, gospel, hip hop and zydeco music. Since its founding in 2005, over 108 musicians in 28 ensembles have traveled to 90 countries, going to places as diverse as Burma, Kuwait, Turkey and Rwanda. The project, a descendant of the US Department of State-supported Jazz Ambassadors tours by greats Like Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington in the ‘50s- ‘70s, grew out of Marsalis seeing a dire need to accurately portray our culture to the international community.
Selected in auditions and interviews from hundreds of applicants, the groups represent the United States through concerts, jam sessions and classes for foreign audiences who historically have had few opportunities to meet Americans firsthand. “We brief them about the countries,” said David C. Grier, the US State Department’s Cultural Affairs Outreach Officer, “but we don’t tell them what to do or say. The music is the message.”
On their four-week tours, the musicians gain as much knowledge as they share. Last year Ryan Cohan’s Chicago-based quartet traveled throughout Africa; this year, they went to Eastern Europe. “These trips give you a whole different perspective on the world,” Cohan said. “You can make very quick and very real and lasting relationships. It’s amazing how fast you can create a dialogue with music.”
The visits also require great flexibility and sensitivity on the part of the musicians. “In the Congo,” he said, “they were more interested in our driving, rhythmic music, so that’s what we played. In Uganda, we learned some of their folk songs, and performed them in a jazz style. They loved it. You also realize how lucky we Americans are. A 24-year old musician from Rwanda had never had a chance to study music because of the genocide in his country but he learned in minutes from us what it would take most musicians years. Music connects people, all of us, touching our humanity.”
To make sure connections are made even between JALC educational programs and the community, Cohan, like all Rhythm Road musicians, would be playing free, afternoon concerts at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, only steps from the Webop classroom. So if the five-year-olds weren’t too exhausted by their morning adventures in Webop, they and their parents could hear some hard swinging jazz from older messengers who had just returned from spreading the word far beyond our borders.