All That Jazz in the Land of Blues

The music we never knew.

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High school is where so many first pick up an instrument, turn it over in their hands, and marvel at the gleam, the valves, the bell and mouthpiece. A reed goes here, a mute there. Blow in this end, let your fingers dance, and away we go. It’s where Shrader first picked up an instrument as did his Mighty Souls Brass Band colleague and trombonist Victor Sawyer, who chose his instrument strictly because he was the one with arms long enough at Ridgeway Middle School to manipulate the slide. He eventually graduated from the Manhattan School of Music and came back home to work and play.

In school auditoriums throughout the city, combos take the stage and what happens can be electrifying. To see those young people stand for solos and applaud each other, cut up and have such fun with music that was first written a century before they were even born is inspiring. These may be some of the best live shows in the city, and the programs are a testament and lesson in teamwork as the kids keep pace with each other, and one of confidence as they take their solos and improvise.

“When we talk about how we prioritize jazz in the curriculum, to me there is no greater musical and intellectual pursuit than watching and hearing a kid in the tenth grade navigate chord changes and improvise,” says Dr. Dru Davison, performing arts coordinator for Memphis City Schools. “It takes everything throughout the history of music progression and it all comes to light right there in the moment, and that’s just the kind of stuff you just cannot capture in a standardized test. You can’t bubble that down; you try and put that in a bubble and the paper will explode.”

The high school band room and auditorium is as fitting a place as any to develop the technique as well as the appreciation of the music style, and the fervor for which the students handle their lines is respectful to names they may never have heard. Jazz greats. Memphians. Buster Bailey. Jimmy Crawford. Jamil Nasser. Hometown girl Lil Hardin would marry Louis Armstrong. A jazz pianist in her own right, she recorded with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, and she dropped dead at the piano during a televised tribute concert to her late husband in 1971.

Current Manassas High band director Demetrius Pearson is another in a sustained note of tradition. While strains of jazz in those hallowed hallways have been quiet as of late, Pearson is in the process of morphing musicians from his marching band into a jazz combo. “Most of the students have some kind of background, either from a middle school program or maybe they played at church and they’re familiar with some of the other instruments like piano, guitar, or the drum set,” Pearson said. “That’s where the initial interest in the jazz band got started. Once that interest was there, I was able to teach them more theory about chord structure and improvising.”

Getting working musicians and experts on theory into the schools is paramount. For students to see and hear that music as a career is more than just folly; that it can be a job, albeit one that takes more heart and tenacity than others, is a priority at the college level and in high schools alike. “We think this is extremely important,” says Gregory Billings, administrator for creative and performing arts and university academies at Overton High School, the city and region’s preeminent performing arts school. His program has produced a big band, the smaller 52nd Street Combo and the voices of the Jazz Divas. In the past year, the school has hosted Ron Carter,  professor and coordinator of jazz studies for the Northern Illinois University School of Music, as well as trumpet player Ingrid Jensen.

“The way you learn jazz is by hearing great jazz artists, and we’ve had a living legend such as Ron Carter who is out there doing it for a living,” Billings says.

Children first begin learning through music, their minds malleable to melody. This begins with wanting to know about the people — why Duke was called Duke, where Jelly Roll’s name came from.

Says Pearson: “They laugh at the names, but once they get into learning about where the songs and titles come from, and the history of the artists, they seem to really enjoy it.”

“The understanding of jazz and the teaching of jazz, it does come a lot from high school,” Billings says. “This music, if it’s not taught, if it’s not continued to be put in front of the younger generation, it’ll die and pass and we’ll lose a treasure that we have. This is the true American music, there is no other music like it.”

This isn’t about one genre being better than another, but all about stitching them together in the rich fabric of Memphis music. At his most recent concert, Charles Lloyd called saxophonist Kirk Whalum — Grammy winner, hometown hero, and current chief creative officer of the Stax Music Academy — onto the stage at Rhodes, and the result was a volley of notes in which only the audience could be deemed winner. “Please understand,” Lloyd said as he thanked Whalum, “this isn’t about competition. We have to keep bringing this music on because we come from a rich place for music.”

The next generation of musicians from Memphis is scooping up a heaping helping of jazz along with their rhythm-and-blues, soul,  and rock-n-roll because music, as it turns out, is not necessarily geographic. Memphis has been blessed with more than its share of great music and great players and innovators, but we aren’t limited to a brand, or what the city leaders promote. We may be hundreds of miles upstream from the spot where Buddy Bolden first stepped out and improvised, but we’ve made our own name and those names deserve the recognition they’ve earned, and Memphis jazz deserves a big, brassy note of its own. 


Richard Alley is a regular contributor to Memphis magazine, The Memphis Flyer, The Commercial Appeal, and many other local publications. His short story "Sea Change" was the winner of the 2010 Memphis Magazine Fiction Contest.


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