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D’JAM: Making a Great Jazz City is a Family Affair

Dallas Jazz Appreciation Month (D’JAM) is well underway. And as you can tell from the list of jazz shows on Art&Seek, North Texas offers plenty of opportunities to check out the music, in whatever  style suits you.  But the area still has a long way to go to compete with New Orleans, says guest blogger Vicki Meek. And getting kids involved early in jazz  is one thing that sets that city apart.  Meek is an artist, educator and director of the South Dallas Cultural Center. Her thoughts first appeared on her blog, Art & Racenotes.

I started off D’JAM (Dallas Jazz Appreciation Month) cheating on its purpose a bit! Conceived by a DFW collaborative, the purpose of D’JAM is to celebrate and support local jazz events during April, the official month for celebrating Jazz as per the Smithsonian Institute’s mandate.

I ventured west to Fort Worth because Scat Lounge was presenting jazz elder statesman Ellis Marsalis with my friend Adonis Rose on drums. Given Mr. Marsalis’ age and, I admit, his jazz prowess on piano, I didn’t want to pass up an opportunity to hear him play!

Needless to say, he didn’t disappoint me and the evening’s set, which benefited the Adonis Rose Endowment Scholarship for jazz students at UTA, was magnificent. But besides hearing some inspiring music, the evening got me thinking about the way in which jazz takes hold in a city, particularly as we begin this month long celebration in Dallas.

Adonis Rose

There is only one city I’ve been to where jazz is ingrained in the very fiber of its core and that’s New Orleans. Yes the Big Apple is the jazz capitol of America from the standpoint of performance venues but part of the reason New York can claim this designation is that musicians flock to that city from around the world so there’s never a shortage of excellent players.

But does New York provide a fertile ground for growing it’s own jazz talent like you find in New Orleans? I’d have to say no since the streets are not bubbling over with little kids playing jazz (literally in the streets!) like you can find on many street in New Orleans. I can remember one of my first visits to New Orleans in the mid-’70s was so amazing because I experienced so much jazz just roaming the streets of Treme and Uptown.

I saw a little “shawty” playing trumpet in The Funky Butt Club on Ramparts Street. He was just a 9-year-old kid and the musicians put him on stage to blow for the audience, and boy did he blow. The place went wild and I knew that this was just one of the reasons so many New Orleans kids loved playing jazz; they got such an enthusiastic response from adults! Jazz was a regular part of the school offerings in New Orleans and kids expected to play it not only in the band hall but on the football field for the half-time show, in the streets during an impromptu second line, for parties that their parents threw, and just about every social event.

Photo: Art & Racenotes

That you have whole families of jazz musicians like the Marsalis Family is not unusual in New Orleans. Jazz legend Kidd Jordan’s children Marlon, Kent and Stephanie are all jazz musicians and so is acclaimed saxophonist Donald Harrison’s nephew, Christian Scott. The tradition of nurturing young jazz players is deep and historical in New Orleans with the emphasis being placed where it should be, learning the music of the jazz masters. It helps that there was an institution of higher learning, Southern University that provided the formal training in jazz. Both Trumpeter Kidd Jordan and jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste ran jazz institutes and mentored countless musicians at their respective Southern campuses, musicians all jazz fans know like Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Dirty Dozen Brass Band members, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, and Fort Worth saxophone virtuoso Quamon Fowler.

So I wasn’t the least bit surprised when a mom whose family relocated to Dallas because of Katrina jumped right on our newest offering at the Cultural Center, the Thriving Minds Youth Jazz Orchestra. She told me that her kids were upset because they joined the band at their school and expected to play jazz but were sorely disappointed when they found out jazz was not played at all! Although she lives in Richardson, she drives her kids and a few other New Orleans transplants to SDCC every Saturday so they can play the music they love and that has been a part of their life for as long as they can remember. Jazz is a family tradition in New Orleans which is why I proclaim New Orleans as the Jazz Capitol of America.

Here’s a video of Joanna St. Angelo, head of Sammons Center for the Arts,  announcing  Dallas Jazz Appreciation Month.