A Jazzy History Lesson : A Program for Elementary and Secondary Schools Is Giving a New Generation . . .
After a bubbling version of the old jazz standard “Jersey Bounce” by the B Sharp Quartet, the band’s drummer, Herb Graham Jr., got up from his drums and walked out in front of the band to greet his audience.
The crowd consisted of about 150 10- and 11-year-olds in the auditorium of the Arminta Street Elementary School in North Hollywood on a recent rainy Monday morning.
Graham said, “Today we’re going to talk about--" and paused while his colleague, saxophonist Randall Willis, held up a large piece of white butcher paper bearing three words.
“The Swing Era,” responded the children en masse, reading the words.
“Swing music primarily grew out of the other forms we talked about--blues, Dixieland, ragtime and stride,” Graham went on. “This music was played by--" and again he paused. Willis held up a sheet of paper, and the children, seeing the two words, responded loudly, “Big bands.”
“And why were they called big bands?” Graham asked. “Because the bands got--"
“Bigger,” the children chimed in, reading yet another giant cue card.
Graham, Willis and their cohorts--pianist Eliot Douglas, bassist Reginald Carson and guest trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez--were at Arminta as part of a program called “Jazz Goes to School.”
The program, which is sponsored by the Inglewood-based nonprofit International Assn. of Jazz Appreciation and is now in its fifth year, offers a history of jazz and its various styles to Los Angeles area schoolchildren one day a week for seven weeks.
This year, two bands--the B Sharp group, and a band led by drummer Washington Rucker, who devised the program’s curriculum--will visit 14 elementary and secondary schools, among them Arminta, the Strathern elementary school in North Hollywood and Hyde Park elementary school in Los Angeles. The program, which runs Mondays through Thursdays, began in early March and continues until April 16. The B Sharp group returns to Arminta on Monday and again April 13.
To demonstrate the music of the Swing Era, the B Sharp crew delivered an up-tempo version of “One O’Clock Jump,” the theme song of the late bandleader Count Basie. Here, Rodriguez, a sterling soloist of modern jazz persuasion, played with his knees bent, delivering one scintillating phrase after another. The children clapped enthusiastically when he had finished.
Warm applause didn’t mean that all the children were swept away by the sophisticated sounds the band offered. Some sat still, looking distracted, bewildered or bored. Others looked intently, but straight-faced, at the musicians, obviously interested in what was happening. Many, such as George Felix, James Nghi and Marq Sugii, all in Ellie Doud’s fifth-grade class, frequently broke into smiles as the group played.
The three were interviewed after the program. “It gives you a beat, makes you kind of hyper, makes you want to stand up and move around,” said James, 10, who plays keyboards.
“Yeah, like you to wanted to dance,” added George, 11, who plays drums.
Marq, 10, who is studying clarinet, thought the music was “cool” and liked the trumpet “because it was loud,” he said.
After the Basie tune, Graham informed the children of some of the sociological aspects of the Swing Era, such as the fact that black musicians often suffered indignities such as being required to enter a nightclub through the service door or having to sleep in segregated hotels. He pointed out that Benny Goodman was the first white bandleader to integrate his ensembles.
“Goodman was important because he would not play places where his white and black musicians did not get equal treatment,” Graham told the youngsters.
Graham, who was an elementary school teacher for five years before turning to music full time, received a lot of response when he said his band would now play “Satin Doll” as a ballad. He defined the style as a slow song “that you could dance with your loved one, that puts you in the mood for . . . luuuvvvv.” This pronouncement brought forth a chorus of laughs and giggles.
To complete the hour, Graham and company discussed, and played, the style of be-bop and fielded questions. One youngster asked Rodriguez why he bent over when he played, and the trumpeter said, “That’s the magic of be-bop. You get to express yourself.”
There is magic in “Jazz Goes to School,” said Marsha Cholodenko, the principal at Arminta for four years, who attended the session.
“These musicians are charismatic,” she said. “They not only offer the music, but they can relate to, and react to, the children. This is one of the best free programs I’ve seen, and I want them to return next year.”
Dr. William Coffey, a general practitioner, founded the association and “Jazz Goes to School” with an altruistic desire to foster jazz listenership. He said he knew that since “the younger population had no knowledge of jazz, the best place to start would be in the school system. If 1% of graduating high school seniors liked jazz, then the music would be supported.”
Coffey said that although increasing the popularity of jazz is his association’s main thrust, support has come from everywhere--including the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, Hollywood Park Racing Charities, the Playboy Jazz Festival and private donations--yet “record company support has been minimal,” he said.
“Jazz Goes to School,” with the B Sharp Quartet, will be held from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Monday and April 13 at the Arminta Street Elementary School, 11530 Strathern St., North Hollywood. Call (818) 765-5911. The program is held the same days, but from 9 to 10 a.m., at the Strathern Street Elementary School, 1939 St. Claire Ave., North Hollywood. Information: (818) 765-4234.