Why This Matters: Jazz education in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is thriving thanks to talented musicians and groups that are teaching and fostering a love of the American art form in the next generation.
By Bernie Petit
Legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘A-Tisket, A-Tasket’ became a standard in the home of Charlotte parents Matt and Gwen Postle soon after their son’s first WeBop class with JazzArts Charlotte.
“He’s been singing (it) ever since,” Matt said.
WeBop is a nationally-acclaimed jazz education program developed by Jazz at Lincoln Center in collaboration with the Teachers College at Columbia University. Children ages 3-5, along with their caregivers, participate in jazz-focused activities that combine movement, language and music to develop preschoolers’ gross and fine motor and memory skills.
JazzArts Charlotte launched its WeBop program in September and is the only organization in the South that offers the program.
“This is something that we’ve wanted to introduce to Charlotte as long as JazzArts Charlotte has existed,” Davis said. “There’s no other program that uses jazz in this way along with all of the other key elements of childhood education and arts education in the way that WeBop does.”
Before the lesson begins, jazz is in the air and kids are free to explore toy instruments to see what they’re drawn to. Then, students and their adults continue their exploration of jazz through movement, songs and storytelling, as well as by playing small percussion instruments.
“We may be touching another Coltrane, another Gillespie, another Ella in this mix,” said Charlotte teaching artist and performer Dawn Anthony. “That’s exciting.”
Providing Jazz Education
We’ve already witnessed JazzArts Charlotte graduate Ariel Mejia become a jazz sensation, sitting in with Wynton Marsalis during Blumenthal Performing Arts’ Charlotte Jazz Festival and touring Asia this summer as part of Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra Jazz.
The next legend could emerge from another of the jazz education programs found in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, such as:
- The Straight-Ahead Jazz Workshop and Concert series by A Sign of the Times of the Carolinas where participants can learn the concepts of jazz improvisation (Oct. 27)
- Visual Art and Music Community Experiences by Arts+ where jazz will influence and inspire art made by families, adults and seniors; multiple sessions will take place in the coming months as part of ASC’s Culture Blocks initiative that provides cultural experiences at the neighborhood level.
- A partnership between Arts+ and Charlotte Community Services Association provides brass instrument and music lessons for children and teens in Charlotte’s Historic West End.
There’s a reason students respond so well to music education, said Arts+ Director of Music Programs Wes Smith.
“Your heart is involved, your spirit is involved, your brain is involved, your body is feeling,” Smith said. “It’s one of the few things that I feel like we have in our world that really encompasses every part of who we are.”
An American Sound
Perhaps no art form defines America better than jazz, which originated and spread from African-American communities in New Orleans.
“Jazz is one of the solely American genres we have and it is an absolute fabric of our society,” Smith said. “Through jazz music, you see the history of America.”
The legacies of famed musicians Dizzy Gillespie (celebrated by Blumenthal Performing Arts at Spirit Square) and John Coltrane, Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk – all from the Carolinas – help “people realize jazz is a part of our heritage,” Anthony said.
Emphasizing the cultural and historical significance of jazz allows students to understand why the art form matters.
“Without education, there is no future in this business,” Davis said. “Building a future audience for jazz and building future musicians is the key to keeping this music alive.”
Through jazz education, young people learn notes and rhythmic accuracy, but they gain much more.
“It develops so many skills in young people that are incredibly powerful,” Smith said. “The ability to have your moment of being a soloist and to develop that confidence in yourself to be a soloist but then the moment to step back and be a part of the group and a team player.”
JazzArts Charlotte’s WeBop classes are accompanied by Charlotte jazz pianist Sean Higgins to better help preschoolers experience and apply what they’re learning.
“It brings an extra life to it that you can’t get from using recordings,” Anthony said. “So if a child is like, ‘I want to shake high, I want to shake low,’ the music can reflect that and they feel like they’re creating.”
Creation is one of the National Core Arts Standards’ primary goals of music education. For Arts+, that means giving students the instruction and tools they need to make their own artistic decisions and be active creators. It makes jazz education especially impactful.
“In jazz,” Smith said, “everyone is a creator.”