To many, Black History Month would not be complete without mentioning jazz.
As a distinctly home-grown sound, jazz has evolved and thrived, inspired and educated, soothed and enraptured scores of fans all over the world. Thanks to the Los Angeles Jazz Society, children within the Los Angeles Unified School District are getting to know the music made famous by trumpeter Louis Armstrong, band leader Dizzie Gillispie and singer Ella Fitzgerald.
Students at Grand View Elementary School in Mar Vista were some of the beneficiaries of “Jazz in the Schools,” which seeks to introduce jazz to students at a young age and teach them about the contributions made by African-Americans to this international form of music.
“No other organization in Southern California is providing a jazz education program at this level in our schools,” states Los Angeles Jazz Society President Flip Manne, who added the organization is presenting an average of five in-school jazz concerts a day in February. “We are making a tremendous impact and have enriched the lives of more than 460,000 elementary school children since we launched ‘Jazz in Schools’ more than two decades ago.”
Students at Grand View were treated to a variety of jazz disciplines, including New Orleans jazz, Latin jazz and swing music Feb. 14. To help prepare students for the performance, schools received a curriculum package consisting of a teaching outline on jazz history and a CD representing the artists and music presented in the outline.
Saxophonist Charles Owens says introducing jazz to elementary school students is a joy.
“I’m perpetuating what I do and passing it on to the next generation,” Owens, who leads the Charles Owens Quintet, told The Argonaut. “It’s a real blessing and a joy to be able to do this for Black History Month.”
The quintet, comprised of Owens, pianist Louahn Lowe, bassist John Belzaguy, trumpeter Rahnlee Davis and drummer Clayton Cameron, entertained the students during two hour-long shows.
Lois Saffian, the director of the “Jazz in Schools” initiative, mentioned that the society’s program helps to fill the gap for school districts, which typically slash arts and music programs in the face of budget deficits.
“We’ve had teachers that tell us ‘thank God for the Jazz Society,’ because they haven’t had any music all year long,” said Saffian, who is also the vice president of the Los Angeles Jazz Society. “Unfortunately, we can only provide one concert a year and hope that these children might get turned on to a music form that many of them might not be familiar with.”
Principal Alfredo Ortiz said there were multiple reasons that he wanted to have the music education initiative at Grand View Elementary.
“The reasons are actually twofold,” Ortiz explained. “February is Black History Month and we’ve been celebrating African-American History Month and their contributions to American history.
“Secondly, we’re an arts school, and music is big here,” the principal continued. “Bringing jazz to the school actually lends itself to what we already do here, which is the promotion of music and the arts.”
Grand View students do receive some arts education through P.S. Arts, a nonprofit organization that works to educate and empower classroom teachers through arts-related workshops, but having professional jazz musicians like the Owens Quintet at the school was special, Ortiz said.
“Something with this kind of focus, you don’t get anywhere,” said Ortiz, who described himself as a jazz fan. “We’re very, very fortunate to have (Jazz in Schools) here and I think our staff recognizes that.
“We’re very excited to have the program here.”
Saffian said it is “a shame” that there is a dearth of music in public schools.
“Music is so important to children,” she said. “We hope that with our program, they will become interested in jazz and listen to it and maybe even learn a musical instrument.”
Ortiz said he noticed many of the students enjoying the music and paying attention to the musicians’ instructions and playing styles.
“Jazz definitely enriches the soul of this school,” he said. “What’s important for me is that my students recognize where it comes from and the contributions that African-Americans have made to our culture, particularly in music, and the appreciation of the art form and its beauty.
“It transcends all boundaries, and it is a unique American music form.”
Hearing how much the school enjoyed the concert was music to Owens’ ears.
“Maybe some of the youngsters will turn out to be musicians,” he said with a smile.
Students at Braddock Drive Elementary School in Del Rey were treated to two concerts on the following day.
The jazz society, a nonprofit organization founded in 1985, underwrites the entire cost of “Jazz In Schools,” which this year will cost $58,000, according to the organization.