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Jazz program hopes to strike a chord with Seattle kids

Seattle Jazz Ed Advanced Ensemble
Charla Bear
Students in the Advanced Ensemble of Seattle Jazz Ed practice under the direction of Clarence Acox every Sunday

Seattle public schools have some of the best jazz programs in the country.  Student ensembles dominate at national competitions and perform all over the world.  But many kids don’t get to participate because the bands only exist in a few schools.  Now a new program aims to give every middle and high school student in the area an opportunity to learn from renowned jazz teachers.

At the the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, 20 young musicians fidget as they wait for practice to begin.  They clutch saxophones, trumpets, and other instruments in a spartan, white room.  Once a week, this basement transforms into Seattle Jazz Ed, a place where aspiring musicians can play their little hearts out.

Angelou Dunton says even though she's only 12-years-old, she's wanted to play the saxophone for many years.   She's been in school bands since the fourth grade, but until now, she hasn’t really been able to play jazz.  She says she's drawn to the music, but doesn’t exactly know why.  Maybe it’s because her dad flips on jazz radio sometimes.  Or maybe it’s because the local high school bands rock. 

"I went to see one of the Garfield performances and there was a saxophone solo," Dunton says. "They were beyond mind blowing. I just really wanted to play in a band like that."

Home Address Is Key To School Bands

Unfortunately for Dunton, she lives in the wrong neighborhood to go to Garfield or Roosevelt High Schools, where the city’s top jazz programs are.  She’s also outside of the boundaries for Washington Middle School – one of the main feeders for the Garfield band.

Clarence Acox, director of Garfield's jazz program, says he's wanted to do something for kids like Dunton for a long time.

"I was acutely aware of the fact that there were a lot of kids in the Seattle area that wanted to have an opportunity to play just like the Garfield and Roosevelt kids," he says.

So he jumped on board when Laurie de Koch told him she wanted to start citywide jazz band ensembles.  Her two children took jazz classes from Acox and Robert Knatt, who taught at Washington Middle School before he retired a few years ago. 

"It seemed like there should be a way to make this accessible to all kids," she says.

Striking Up All-City Bands

De Koch and Acox convinced Knatt to come out of retirement to direct the beginning and intermediate ensembles.  Acox took the advanced group.  To fund the program, the organizers decided to charge $750 in tuition, and give scholarships to families who can’t afford it.  Kids can also borrow instruments and get to rehearsals on the bus. 

This fall, Seattle Jazz Ed accepted its first 60 kids.

Every Sunday afternoon, the advanced ensemble gathers at Cornish College on Capitol Hill.  Schuyler Karr, a 17-year-old senior, furrows his brow and bobs his head as he plays the bass.  He says he has his heart set on being a musician and this program could help him get closer to his dream. 

"You need to have a group of musicians who are inspired and inspire each other, like this group," Carr says. "People have to come from all over the city to work with Clarence Acox. It’s a really great opportunity."

The opportunity goes both ways.  Acox gets to reach more young musicians than he could before. 

"It’s what I’ve done all my adult life, work with young people and put ensembles together," Acox says. "Some people are doctors, some lawyers, accountants. I work with kids."

The adults behind Seattle Jazz Ed admit there's a lot of work to do.  They say they're just scratching the surface in terms of the number and diversity of kids they want to attract.  But they say they hope the program will continue to grow, so more kids will have a chance to become part of Seattle’s rich jazz legacy.

Upcoming Performances:
Seattle Jazz Ed launch
Date: December 9th.
Location: Northwest African American Museum

Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.