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Arts

Helping families, using jazz

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 15, 2008 - Jazz history has deep roots in the rich soil of Missouri. Our river system worked as a musical highway bringing the sounds of the riverboats into the streets of the city. Far removed from its "Golden Age," the new millennium finds the art form sustaining itself through education.

In the early days there were community bands and road bands touring the country. There were more apprenticeships for musicians. For guys like Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Blanton and Clark Terry, jazz education meant getting "schooled" on the bandstand. Today, there are many high school and college level jazz programs devoted to education and the preservation of its history and tradition. We've seen clinics and summer camps crop up providing one on one access to a variety of professional players. Another key element of raising the profile of any art form requires that its teaching physically make it into the community.

That teaching can occur at nontraditional places. Look, for instance, at the Community Women Against Hardship center in midtown. This nonprofit human service organization was conceived while its director, Gloria Taylor, was working for late UM-St. Louis Chancellor Marguerite Ross Barnett. Taylor read a report featuring statistics of St. Louis citizens living at or below the poverty line. This report also included the working poor of the city.

"The realization of how much poverty is at our back door and we either don't see it, or, we chose not to see it. It just blew me away. That was the beginning point. To say, well, maybe if I can get a group women together, there's something we could do to make that difference."

Two decades and countless volunteer hours later, the CWAH has provided personalized assistance to families with basic living needs. Although the process has improved, the city continues to struggle with high numbers of poor citizens.

"It's the fruit of the labor that keeps the hope alive. That is, we know that people can make steps," Taylor said. Not only is hope alive, it has manifested and expanded into the development of a new jazz program.

"Jerome Harris came to me in terms of his dream. He had a vision. And I listened to that dream and vision and thought how can we utilize the talent of this remarkable musician?" And Taylor said that soon after Jerome "Scrooge" Harris came to her and offered to work with the young people who come to the center, a bandstand was constructed.

Harris is a world-class drummer. He's from an impressive group of musicians who studied at Sumner, Soldan and Vashon High Schools in the 1950s. A family friend of Miles Davis, Scrooge describes his father and uncles as "jazz fanatics" and influences. In the late 1960s, he was part of an innovative movement called the Black Artists Group. "I learned through BAG and playing so-called free music, that it's possible to create something out of nothing."

As the artistic director of the Institute for the Advancement of Jazz Study and Performance, Scrooge offers his personal experience and insight. "We get kids from all walks of life. We try to stress that certain things you have to do. You have to study. You have to practice. You have to learn to communicate with others. All of those little components come into effect when they go to school and in their everyday life."

The institute is based at the center and provides an after-school and weekend mentoring and music education program, primarily focused on grades 7-12. 

Twice a month, students file into the "lab" for a first-hand account of jazz through the eyes of Harris and his faculty. For Scrooge, this is an opportunity to give back and fulfill the wishes of his mentors. "They always stressed to me, after all is said and done, it's imperative that I pass it on the way they passed it on to me. So, that's what I hope to do."

Dennis Owsley, Author, City of Gabriels: The Jazz History of St. Louis 1895-1973 and host of "Jazz Unlimited" on KWMU , agrees. "Studies have shown that SAT scores of young people who seriously take up artistic endeavors average 50 points higher than those who don't."

And Taylor says, "It's that feeling of self-gratification that often times leads these young people into improvement overall academically. I could say to the board here's another opportunity for us to impact people and what a beautiful way in terms of the music and what the history of that music is."

Christian Cudnik is an Emmy award winning producer based in St. Louis. 

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