Pass it On


Seven year old Dinerral Shavers walks onto the stage of the Sound Café with a snare drum strapped to his chest. It’s past 6:30 on a Wednesday evening, the hour of the café’s weekly Youth Music Clinic. Neva Joseph, a music education major at Loyola University, instructs Dinerral to “listen to the song and try to put a beat to it.” And he does. Moments later, Dinerral plays the head, the rim, and the side of his drum along to Neva’s singing  of the spiritual, Mary had a Baby.

This weekly musical mentoring session is one of several mentoring programs – both informal and formal, old and new – which are working to provide continuity between generations of musicians and to pass on New Orleans musical traditions. Working with children is only one half of the equation. On the adult end of the clinic, jazz clarinetist and Xavier University professor Dr. Michael White has been mentoring the Hot 8 Brass Band at the café. They discuss volume, dynamics, harmonies, what to wear, and lost features of New Orleans music, such as collective improvisation, which, according to White, is “when everybody is improvising at the same time, while also trying to sound like one voice, so to speak.”

This structure – masters teaching adult students who in turn teach younger students – is a common feature of Crescent City musical mentoring.  UNO’s Louis Armstrong Quintet, which is sponsored by the Louis Armstrong Education Foundation, is now in its fifth year of sending graduate students from the University of New Orleans into public schools to provide supplemental music instruction, including history and theory. The Quintet also gives lecture performances, which they call “informances” to the general student population. The program was designed to promote the study of jazz, but as Jamelle Williams, the Quintet’s site coordinator, explains, “At the very core of our curriculum is the city of New Orleans itself.  While the entire curriculum consists of more than New Orleans traditional jazz, it’s very important as the foundation of the music.”

The Quintet has traditionally worked with students already receiving the fundamentals of playing instruments. “Since the storm, the program has shifted,” says Williams. “We don’t’ have the same quality of music programs. We’ve had to do more history because we don’t have as many kids who are musically capable.”

But even before the storm, many music educators were concerned about the quality of music education in New Orleans. “People are saying we’re not preserving musical traditions, but we’ve been loosing them for years. Katrina hit the final blow,” says Virginia Olander, the Music Education Coordinator at Loyola University.  “The condition of the public schools and the condition of the programs was sad. And that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. There are some wonderful music educators out there working hard to keep music alive. Has it been across the board that all children are getting a music education? No.”

This is one reason why Olander is so excited about the Thelonius Monk Institute’s upcoming move to New Orleans. The Monk Institute engages in jazz education from elementary through college levels. Graduate students receive mentoring from jazz masters, and in turn, they work with students in the New Orleans public schools -- public, charter, and recovery. “It’s an ongoing commitment,” says Tom Carter, the Institute’s president. We’ll select 3 - 5 schools the first year, and it will double the second year, multiplying each year.” On the other end of the musical education equation, a different jazz master will be in residence one week out of the month to work with students from Loyola, the five consortium schools (UNO, Xavier, Tulane, Dillard, Southern), and Delgado.

The Institute’s curriculum includes a history of New Orleans and its importance, but it will expose students to all styles of the music. “Jazz music is a living music and it’s important to grow,” says Carter. “New Orleans is where this music originates, and it’s important to be a part of the rich traditions as well as the future sounds -- the expansion of the music”.
Relocating the Institute to New Orleans is a way, says Carter, “for the jazz community to make a contribution to the birthplace of jazz.  We feel an enormous appreciation to New Orleans not only for being the birthplace of jazz, but also for continuing to enhance it over the years.  This is way to contribute back.” Carter says moving the institute is a way of joining hands with all that is there in New Orleans.  “We want to be a part of the community. The city is meeting and facing so many challenges and hopefully this will be apart of helping to meet those challenges.”

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 © Eve Abrams 2010