Having already traveled to a few foreign countries with the Juilliard Jazz program to perform and teach, coping with language barriers is something I’ve begun to get used to. Words soon become insignificant when you can convey your ideas through sight and sound. But imagine teaching someone who can’t see what you are doing, or how you are doing it. This was the challenge that a group of Juilliard jazz students faced last June at the Georgia Academy for the Blind, as we launched a new Juilliard Jazz Summer Residency program there. We also introduced a weeklong jazz camp at the North Atlanta High School’s Center for the Arts. In both places, our mission was to teach kids ages 10 to 18 how use jazz to tell their stories.
“I’ve got a problem!” yelled the kids in one class at the Georgia Academy for the Blind, where Juilliard jazz students Chris Burbank, James Burton, and I taught, along with Juilliard faculty member Ben Wolfe. This was the name of an improvised blues written by some of the students, but their blues had nothing to do with the obvious impairment that most of them faced. One student’s lyrics continued, “My mom won’t cook me no spaghetti … so I’m gonna go to Church’s and buy a bucket of chicken with a side of hot wings!” Many other students continued along the same vein. It was amazing to witness such high spirits and self-confidence in these children—just one example of the fun times we had at the Academy’s summer camp.
“The response from these kids was overwhelming,” said Mr. Wolfe. “Their engagement and joy were immediately present. When asked if they had questions, hands were always flying. These students made us feel welcome and wanted.”
We taught about six ensembles a day for an hour each, with a culminating performance at the end of the week as our goal. But we faced a challenge that we had not anticipated: only one of the groups actually played instruments! As James, Chris, and I handed out percussion instruments to the kids, Mr. Wolfe was starting the groundwork for the new composition each group would play. I’ve personally seen many adults struggle with some of the rhythms that these children mastered within minutes. In addition, the students were fearless; one girl named Julie was brave enough to sing a solo ballad that she had written. The one group with students who did play instruments was able to learn three different jazz standards in that week, and use basic musical tools to improvise within those standards. As a pianist, I felt a special connection with Darius Mays, the 15-year-old pianist at the camp. I was blown away when I played through a song once—and the second time around, Darius played my exact chords, note for note!
At the end of the week, the students gave an amazing concert that made me (and everyone else in the auditorium) extremely proud. Not only did they play and sing well, but the songs they performed were the groups’ original compositions, including grooves such as calypso, swing, backbeat, ballad—and the blues I’ll never forget, “I’ve Got a Problem!”
At the North Atlanta High School, where we went immediately afterward, we again had only a week to prepare a few different ensembles for a concert—but this camp was for students with previous training on their instruments, separated into groups of high-school and middle-school students. For this camp, Juilliard alumnus and guitarist Lage Lund and Juilliard Jazz artistic director Carl Allen joined us … and again, we were greeted with an amazingly warm reception.
Right away, we faced a few problems; the ratio of saxophones to trombones was 14:1, and we didn’t have the number of students we needed in each section to form the ensembles. But with the help of Juilliard administrators Laurie Carterand Alison Scott-Williams, we put together a new schedule and the program continued flawlessly. The students were separated into two small ensembles and one big band, and we held sessions throughout the day that included theory, master classes, and even individual practice time.
The students were all very eager to learn as much as they could from the program, and were surprised at what they were able to accomplish. Through the week, we could see the love for jazz as an art form grow within each student. Bethany Moore, a talented 16-year-old junior, was the baritone saxophonist in Mr. Wolfe’s ensemble, and she was able to illustrate exactly what jazz is supposed to do. “Jazz describes you,” said Bethany. “It captures your emotions. If you’re mad or upset or afraid, you play that emotion into the music and then you feel better. And because everyone has felt those same emotions, jazz touches everyone.”
At the final concert, the students put on a great show, and many were already talking about returning next year. “I definitely would attend the camp again,” said drummer Kenneth Harris. “It’s not every day that great musicians from New York come to dedicate their time to teaching young students.”
I consider myself fortunate to have participated in both of these summer programs. After experiencing the joy and commitment of the children, I can honestly say that both faculty members and student teachers were truly inspired. As Mr. Allen always tells us, “Jazz is meant to wash away the dust of everyday life”—and I think Juilliard Jazz did some successful dusting in the wonderful state of Georgia.