Harlem's Jazzmobile: where learning jazz is 'as serious as your life'
Nobody has to tell Kenneth Singletar how serious jazz music is. He and his teacher, Frank Foster, are hunched over some sheet music in a cold , damp classroom at Harlem's I.S. 201. It's late Saturday morning, and no one else is in the class. On the walls hang the work of school kids who use this room during the week.Skip to next paragraph
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Frank Foster has been spending his lunch breaks here ever since young Kenny Singletar came to the Jazzmobile Saturday workshops with his alto saxophone under his arm looking for help.
Kenny didn't even qualify as a beginner, but the veteran jazz musician decided to teach him on his own lunch hour, "on the general commitment that anyone who shows promise should not be turned away."
And Kenny Singletar certainly seems to show promise.
As he plays, reaching for the perfect note, his alto sax fills this cold room with sweet, fluid sounds that are pure and clear and that seem to hang in the air moments after he plays them -- the same way he holds onto his own instrument , with a kind of lingering affection.
Kenny is getting something Jazzmobile founder Billy Taylor dreamed about when he started the grass-roots cultural organization 15 years ago -- the chance to sit down with a jazz master and pick up, firsthand, the nuances, intricacies, and demanding craftsmanship of real, serious, jazz music.
This strong blend of musical talent and dedication to learning permeates the halls of I.S. 201 -- a run-down intermediate school surrounded by ghetto streets and burned-out buildings -- every Saturday, when several hundred students arrive with their instruments. Men and women, teen-agers and gray-haired older citizens, come here to be instructed by some of the most versatile, professional , and experienced jazz musicians working today.
They, too, all know how serious jazz is. It's what jazz pianist and composer McCoy Tyner was talking about: "Music's no plaything. It's as serious as your life," a thought which so well captures the essence of new jazz that Valerie Wilmer used it as the title of her book.
Walking these halls on a Saturday is like wandering through the chambers of Duke Ellington's imagination. Fragments of lyric melody collide with erupting drum cadenzas. Snatches of music theory blend with exhortations to "Feel, feel, feel." The pounding, driving rhythms of jazz ("Nothing can manifest without rhythm," one instructor advises) mingle with the explanations of its elegant, ornate musicology.
The best-known business of the Jazzmobile is a series of summer concerts held in various parks around New York and other cities -- over 100 concerts in 100 locations. These concerts, which began in 1964 and were usually performed from a flatbed truck (hence "Jazzmobile"), are given by top names in the jazz world. The concerts attract thousands of listeners who otherwise could never afford to hear these peopple "live." But the Jazzmobile is also involved in other educational and cultural enterprises, such as lecture-demonstrations on jazz in ghetto schools and special musical education projects.
But Billy Taylor maintains that the Jazzmobile is bringing something more than music to the community.
Sitting in his office on the top floor of a utilitarian building across the street from Carnegie Hall -- on the same floor as a dentist, a real estate broker, and a portrait of photographer -- Mr. Taylor argues that what the Jazzmobile has to offer is vital to the survival of the community:
"People who are involved in the arts have a different attitude about self, a different attitude about their relationshi to other people," he maintains. "People who are involved in expressing a culture have a more positive involvement with that culture."
This involvement, he says, is especially important in the poorer communities most affected by the social upheaval in recent decades.
"I feel that, in addition to the drug problem, which is a severe problem, we [have seen] a great deal of traumatic change in Harlem." Much of this wrenching change, he says, came during the '60's when a "disenchantment with the establishment," including church, government, and community groups, helped to unravel the loosely knit community.
Cultural programs like the Jazzmobile give new impetus to community involvement, he says, and produce a different kind of citizen in the city's ghetto.
"Young people that work with us, who are involved in music, visual arts, dance, or something, are different from their peers. They express themselves in their art for art form rather than by breaking some windows or snatching a pursue or something like that. There is a visible difference in these people."