“We can make it if we run!” one of the students shouts as we see the long train approaching the street we need to cross. The band and I bolt up and sprint down the path along the New Orleans waterfront, and across the train tracks to the back patio of Cafe du Monde, barely making it over before the train comes.
It’s only the first full day in the city and this trip with the Bellevue College Jazz Band is already not what I was expecting. These students are daring, fun and enthusiastic.
I remember sitting outside on a wooden staircase in well over 90-degree heat, sucking down a large mixture of peach flavored slushy and condensed milk, what locals called a Snow Cone, and sweating my ass off. I could feel how red my face must have looked and the sweat stains I was leaving on my backpack straps. We had walked about three miles from downtown New Orleans. A light breeze would come and cool me off for a few seconds before dying out again.
In New Orleans, I was trying to find an answer to the question: Is jazz really a dying art? Why is it that throughout my childhood, no one I knew listened to jazz? Jazz is a dinosaur. It was long gone. The relevance of jazz music is put into question when you look at the stereotypes surrounding to jazz musicians. When most people think of jazz, they reference how people attending a jazz concert dress and act. They dress nicely and sit quietly, clapping politely at all the right times. These days people think of jazz as elevator music. Museum music. Who cares, right?
Wrong. After taking this trip to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, it became apparent that this art form is not any less relevant now than it has been in the past. Take into account that at least 80 percent of the BC Jazz Band is made up of high school students in the Running Start program, 17 to 18 year-olds.
These young students have been dedicated to jazz for years. A number of these high schoolers are veterans of the Essentially Ellington competition, the most prestigious high school jazz competition in the country, held at Lincoln Center and organized by Wynton Marsalis. Jazz will live on through the young people who take interest now.
According to Gordon Towell, the Jazz Director at Loyola University, jazz is more alive now than ever. And not just in its city of origin. “People have been saying that jazz is a dying art for 50 years. Jazz is not in the forefront of popular music, but I don’t think it’s dying. I think there’s a new creative spirit, which we obviously saw with the [Bellevue] college band here.” he told me. Towell then went on to explain how hearing the BC band play gave him hope that jazz is going to be kept alive by a new generation of younger players. The BC jazz band is made up of students who play very well, who are eagerly practicing this art form and are obviously excited about it.
One night the jazz band and I found ourselves sitting in the front row at Snug Harbor, one of the most famous jazz clubs in a city famous for its jazz clubs. We were there to hear Ellis Marsalis, the father of Wynton Marsalis, and his quintet. I sat quietly in a small chair and ordered my mandatory drink. The smallest cup of soda you’ve ever seen, and for two dollars and seventy-five cents?
Anyway, the band was fantastic. The whole audience would “ooh” and “aah” and cry out at some tasty and surprising change in a solo. Even I felt moved, and I don’t say that about jazz very often.
“That was one of the most emotionally exciting and moving performances I’ve been in,” said BC Jazz Director Jim Sisko. “And many of the students said the same thing. They said ‘This is the greatest concert I’ve been in’. It was an hour and a half show in a small club. We were five feet from the band. We’re talking about Ellis Marsalis, one of the pillars of jazz in this community and in the world. And we got to experience that.”
“Jazz is very timeless in a way. It brings people together from all ages, all points of view,” Trumpet player and BC student Leslie Kolke said. “Like when we went to Preservation Hall there were kids younger than us in the audience and there were people who were older than my grandparents in the audience. We’re all there listening to the same music and enjoying the same band, and that’s really cool to me.”
Everyone knows that New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, which is why this was such a significant trip for the BC band. The French and Spanish settled there in the 1700s. Two-hundred years later the city was populated with people from all over the world. Early jazz musicians would add “ragged” rhythms to songs that were popular at that time, which inspired lots of new dances as alternatives to the traditional waltz, quadrille, etc. Dixieland was the earliest form of jazz music, established by the African-American community in that area.
“The big thing is collision of African rhythms, European instrumentation, and all of the locals combined to create this really unique art form,” Sisko said. “This is where styles changed and classical music merged into other styles of music and cultures collided. New Orleans is really the launching point for all jazz and modern popular music including blues, punk and all other derivative styles of music. That’s why it’s important to be here.”
Of the many jazz band students I had the chance to talk with on this trip, they all seemed to acknowledge the importance of New Orleans culture to their style of music.
“You’re listening to stuff from the 20’s and 30’s and you obviously don’t know those people, […] but when you listen to them there is definitely a connection. I feel like people who play jazz have to feel that connection,” Alto saxophone player and BC student Madelyn Toll said. “I listen to this music from almost a hundred years ago and I instantly connect with it.”
“The jazz culture here has definitely influenced me in a way that’s more under the surface than on the surface. It’s sort of like seeing the foundation of everything you’ve learned. It’s really digging into the roots of all these complicated, modern techniques. I think it’s going to be like when I learn something new it’ll be way easier to see the connection between the old stuff and the new stuff,” pianist and BC student Max Cannella said.
“Plus, there’s a fusion of jazz now with younger musicians who are really bringing some of the youth music like hip hop and rap into jazz,” Towell explained. When jazz is mixed with other styles of music that are popular among younger people it raises the levels of interest amid teens and young adults.
After visiting New Orleans and really getting exposed to the traditional, pure, jazz scene there, I understand that jazz isn’t a dying art. It can’t be. Because as long as jazz is connected to and intertwined with other forms of music, it’s alive. Jazz was a gumbo from its very beginning. It was constantly changing and evolving. It will always be both traditional and contemporary. As long as jazz continues to influence and be influenced by other forms of music and art and be enjoyed by students and audiences, it will remain alive.
“[I want students to take away] a greater appreciation for an artist’s commitment to music and to a life of music. This shows that there are areas where live music is incredibly vibrant.” Sisko explained. “You have to go to these places and come back really inspired and energized. It’s a great push into the summer, and now they [the students] have something to be constantly mulling over and getting fired up about. It really is a great emotional push for them to want to continue to get better. I’m a teacher, so I live through my student’s experiences. These guys and gals were over the moon, so it was a beyond successful trip.” he said.