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.

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."

Five of these street-wise young people are sitting in Ted Dunbar's advanced guitar class. Wearing sleeveless denim jackets, faded shirts, and sneakers, they are as still and attentive as students in any conservatory in the world.

"These books don't teach you to play," their instructor is telling them. "We are going over these books for musical reasons, like reading, speed, fingering, and technique. But the ultimate is, can yoh take the book and be creative with it? Can you make ideas out of it? What does it mean to you?

"You have to reach the point where everything becomes a raw material to you. The whole thing is, if you can take a scale and make something out of it in your imagination.

"Just remember how vast this thing it. You are dealing with a music which demands that you know x number of tunes, that you know your instrument, that you can compose. Jazz is a strong music, but there is a sensitivity to it, like Japanese art."

Not a word passes unnoticed. These young men are in earnest about what they are learning. They are getting this for free; but, in exchange, a high level of commitment is expected from them. And they seem to know it.

Their instructors mean business. They are paid the bare minimum they would get for a New York club date. But they work hard for it.

Drummer Freddy Waits whips his beginning class along, demanding that they keep us with what he requires. When he is finished with them, Charli Persip, once Dizzy Gillespie's drummer and now head of his own band, leads them into the calculus of percussion: double sticking, accented rolls, and improvised cross-rhythms.

In the intermediate harmony and theory class, senior citizens and a six-year-old girl pore over sheets of music, trying to understand the pentatonic scale.

Down the hall, past a bassist bowing his instrument, and two trumpet players working through a melodic line. Sharon Freeman and her class have "just gotten through dissecting" a Miles Davis trumpet solo. Miss Freeman, a pianist, French horn player, composer, and a rranger who has been teaching here for nine years, leads this piano class through four hours of "harmony, theory, reading -- everything."

Elsewhere along these battered corridors, there are classes on ensemble playing, Afro-Latin percussion, mallets acoustic bass, and more.

If everybody, including the students, does everything properly, graduates will emerge with what Jazzmobile executive director David Bailey calls "entry level skills into the profession," as well as "the values -- the nontechnical, the spiritual elements -- that are so essential to this music."

In its short, 15-year existence, the Saturday workshop has produced, among others, such graduates as Howard King, who plays with Roberta Flack; Kenny Rogers, a highly sought-after saxophonist; Kenny washington, now with Betty Carter; Linda Williams, music director for Natalie Cole; and other well-known performers.

Musicians who learned to teach here have branched out to positions in area colleges, including one nearby university which, according to Dave BAiley, practically built its jazz department from Jazzmobile instructors.

Nobody is more serious about the Jazzmobile's business (which seems to be nothing less than the future of jazz itself) than the soft-spoken, affable Billy Taylor.

On this particular Saturday, he is wandering the halls of I.S. 201 in a sheepskin coat and jeans, looking in on classes, meeting with the faculty, and chatting in the halls with the students, who are frequently unaware of the caliber of musician they are talking to.

A highly acclaimed jazz pianist, widely recognized as an elder statesman of jazz, Mr. Taylor hosts a weekly radio program and works almost constantly in concert halls, night clubs, and colleges. He also does arrangements for television shows, writes his own compositions, and is the author of a dozen books on jazz piano.

He holds a doctorate in music education from the University of Massachusetts, as well as many honorary degrees, and has had teaching engagements at such schools as Yale, Stanford, Brown, C. W. Post, and Howard Universities. He is also a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation, and has served as a member of the National Council on the Arts.

Somehow, in the middle of it all, he has found time over the years to establish and build this organization, which has helped him to become "the single most potent force for jazz music today," in the words of legendary jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, who says that "Billy Taylor deserves tremendous credit for what he has done."

Right now, well-deserved credit for the Jazzmobile is not Billy Taylor's main worry.

Recently, he was honored at Gracie Mansion, the mayor's residence in this city -- 50 blocks and a word away from I.S. 201 -- along with such other cultural heroes as I. M. Pei, John Cage, Robert Motherwell, and Andre Kertesz. The Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture for MR. Taylor specifically praised the Jazzmobile's contribution to the cultural life of the city.

During the illuminati-thronged awards ceremony, Mr. Pei observed that it was nice to see that New York City cherished and supported its culture, and then quipped, "I hope Washington will take notice."

His words might have been inscribed on Billy Taylor's office wall, if Mr. Taylor's wall were not already adorned with similar sentiments.

Up there, among the pictures of himself with other jazz greats, the plaque from Richard Nixon, and the various awards, is a bright red sign that reads: ARTS ARE BASIC.

"That is actually a bumper sticker," Mr. Taylor explains. He got it from the manager of the Fargo, N.D., Symphony, which was fighting a funding battle over a Proposition-13 type tax cut. The symphony won its battle and got its funding, and the slogan has become something of a credo for the unflagging Billy Taylor who faces similar threats in his efforts to keep his cultural institution funded.

Much of the money for the Jazzmobile comes from New York State and, to a lesser extent, from the federal government. But the deep cuts in federal funding of the arts proposed by the Reagan administration will inevitably affect the Jazzmobile's multifaceted cultural programs for the poor.

Mr. Taylor says the Jazzmoble's basic programs -- the summer concerts, Saturday workshops, and lecture-demonstrations -- will continue despite the cuts , but many other programs, such as special concerts and arts enrichment programs , will go.

Needless to say, he thinks that Reagan's approach of more money for defense at the expense of the arts is misguided.

"It's not an 'either-or' thing," he maintains fervently. "You don't defend yourself with weapons alone. You defend yourself with the people who man some of those weapons. And the poor are the first people to feel this kind of cut. Because, in many cases, the one thing they have is music and the free aspects of culture. And when you take that, you make less of a person to man that gun, or to feel that he owes something to his country."

Even accepting the fact that the arts are going to be cut, Mr. Taylor argues that, based on the government's past performance, his chosen art is going to be unfairly singled out. Jazz is always the stepchild in cultural grants, he complains, because the American public has been educated to think that the term "art" applies in some special way to European- derived classical music and visual arts. Such African-rooted arts as jazz are thought of as "frivolous and somehow unserious."

Nothing, he says, could be further from the truth.

Most of the people who listen to him play need little convincing on this last point.

At a recent performance on a college campus in Hartford, Conn., after he had spent the day counseling students, Mr. Taylor and his trio brought an appreciative evening crowd of adults and students to their feet several times with the serious, lyric, classically intricate musical forms he has evolved in his 40-plus years as a composer and performer.

Performing his own compositions, including a concerto originally commissioned by the Utah Symphony, as well as a suite of Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn compositions, he moved easily from the complex harmonic architecture of his most intricate compositions to the sweet lyricism he picked up during years playing with such jazz immortals as Lester Young and Billie holiday.

Billy Taylor looked on, rapt and smiling, as his drummer, Keith Copeland, worked through a beautifully involved solo. It was smile of utter enjoyment and involment in the music.

But, while billy taylor was smiling, the young drummer. had an earnest, intent look on his face, as thouth everything in the world depended on what he was doing.

It was a look faintly reminiscent of the expression on Kenny Singletar's face when he was reaching for the perfect note in that cold classroom. A look that says, this is what it's all about, this is everything that matters.

It all goes back to McCoy Tyner: "Music's no plaything. It's as serious as your life."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Harlem's Jazzmobile: where learning jazz is 'as serious as your life'
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today