When I woke up this past Sunday morning, something was different. There was no 8 am lobby call, no scheduled school visits, JazzU classes, or artists to shuttle to all corners of the city. It was, after all, Sunday. However, more notable, was that it was the first day in a week that I was not spending with the members of Arts and Crafts: Matt Wilson, Terell Stafford, Gary Versace and Martin Wind.
Although extremely fulfilling, Residency weeks are one of the most involved and exhausting aspects of my job as director of education. This program is very unique, and thanks to the generosity of many of our supporters, I am able to do three each season, the last of which was this past week with Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts (A&C). In all, more than 1,000 students and teachers participated in the week’s activities.
The band arrived in St. Louis after midnight on the morning of March 19. Earlier in the evening they had performed two sets at Murry’s in Columbia, MO as part of the We Always Swing series. I, along with the rest of the JSL staff, had just finished at the Touhill Performing Arts Center where we presented Herbie Hancock earlier in the evening. Needless to say, neither myself, nor the members of A&C, were particularly looking forward to the 8:30 am breakfast/meeting that was just around the corner to kick off the week.
We started that morning with a rather disappointing experience at the Soulard Coffee Garden, then hit the road for our first school visit at East St. Louis Senior High. It is difficult to prepare guys for their experience at ESL because the band is so good. There aren’t many students in this age bracket that sound this mature. Heck, there aren’t a lot of adults in the area that can play this well. Despite their talent, there will always be ways to improve, and having musicians of the stature of A&C for two hours is a rare treat for ANY high school. This means that instead of having to spend time working on notes, individuals’ sounds, time, feel, etc… the guys were able to address higher-level concepts, such as the group’s concept of sound, how the lead trumpet and soloists fit with the drummer’s ride cymbal pattern, and how each section’s lead player shapes the overall concept and feel of the section. Matt’s comment after the session was “Wow. What a way to start the week!”
After a break, the band worked with four of our JazzU combos in a four-hour teaching marathon (Monday is always one of the busier days of the residency). Our youngest combo worked with Wilson and pianist Gary Versace on the creative process, composing a piece on the spot that involved contributions from all of the students. The point being that sometimes we think so much about how and what to play in jazz that we can’t forget how fundamental and fun the creative process can be. It can even be collaborative! I walked in on the middle of the tune to find all the students involved, and what appeared to be Egyptian hieroglyphics scrawled out over every inch of the white board. Matt was wildly pointing to different sections, directing the ensemble to play, then pointing to students to improvise. At the conclusion, Wilson, searching for a name for the piece, looked out the window. After seeing the blue lights of The Fieldhouse across the street, he exclaimed, “we’ll call it ‘Blue Light Fieldhouse’!” I still have that melody stuck in my head…
Meanwhile, the Jazz St. Louis All-Stars were getting put through the ringer by Terell and Martin. The details are too gory to divulge, but the educational content was high and just what they needed.
We ended the evening at 8 pm and headed to find some much-needed nourishment, which we found in the form of Pi Pizzeria in the Central West End. This place never disappoints and the guys in A&C were blown away. I highly recommend the North Beach Classico and the Central West End.
Tuesday was another early morning, departing for Seckman High School at 8 am. At Seckman, A&C worked with all three of their jazz bands. We found an amazing amount of talent in that district. In between sessions, I watched as Matt rummaged through the band room, finding all sorts of percussion instruments and noise makers. His concept and pursuit of sound amazes me. To him, anything can be a musical instrument.
After a great lunch at Blues City Deli, we headed to the University of Missouri – St. Louis, where Terell and Gary worked with Jim Widner’s jazz ensemble. At the same time, Martin and Matt visited my jazz appreciation class where they played for my students. They discussed the evolution of rhythm as seen in the transition between New Orleans jazz – swing – bebop.
We ended the day with two more JazzU classes…not sure where dinner was that night.
Wednesday began with a morning performance at St. Louis Children’s Hospital in the Child Life Playroom. These performances can be tough, as some of the children that attend have potentially terminal illnesses. Afterward, Terell Stafford said, “this was the most rewarding musical experience of my life.” It doesn’t matter what troubles you encounter in life, when you see a child fighting for their life, it makes all other problems seem so insignificant.
The day concluded with a session at Normandy High School led by Terell Stafford and our final JazzU group led by the remaining members of A&C.
That evening, Martin and Gary decided to catch the NY Knick’s game, Matt attended a play at the Rep with his brother, and Terell joined myself and Adaron Jackson (JazzU instructor) for an unbelievable dinner at Niche.
Thursday was a marathon day. We began with a morning performance at ESL Lincoln Middle School where many of the students had never heard jazz or even met a professional musician. We continued a world away to the suburb of Webster Groves, where the band worked with three jazz combos under the direction of their band director, Kevin Cole. The students, which had just returned the night before from a trip to Ireland, were groggy, but eager to learn from the master musicians of A&C.
A short drive led us to our next session at Webster University and then to the Benton Park neighborhood where the group finished the day with an incredible, free community performance at Saxquest. There, more than 50 eager listeners packed the house to experience jazz surrounded by new and vintage saxophones. The guys even took a few minutes to check out their amazing saxophone museum located on the second floor.
The amazing energy continued after the performance with dinner at Brasserie. An amazing meal, surrounded by equally amazing individuals. It was clear that the love and honesty these guys emit from the stage is reflected in their general being.
The week was quickly wrapping up. It was already Friday morning! We ventured to the ‘burbs this time, where the group played for nearly 200 students at St. Charles High School. The energy was infectious. Matt even had students join the band on stage where they acted out a scene as aliens that were charged with traveling to earth to learn about jazz, return to their native world, and perform a jazz concert. The experience added humor to the concert while teaching the students to approach their instruments in completely different ways. After the concert, I received an email from the band director:
“Please pass my thanks on to Matt, Terell, Gary, and Martin. I was so inspired both as a musician and an educator. I was moved by their music and their approach to musical creation was inspiring. We are so thankful to have had the opportunity to welcome them into our musical community at SCHS. My students learned more today than they will ever know. Thank you all so much for sharing your music with us today!”
This is why I love my job.
Saturday was our final activity with the band. From 9 am – noon, all of our JazzU students (55 in all) came together to experience these musicians one final time before their residency ended. This session was different from others in that we were joined by two jazz bands from the Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
After a short mixer, A&C began with a tune and opened the floor for questions. We then broke into instrument groups for an hour-long master class. Rhythm instruments worked with Matt, Gary, and Martin; Terell Stafford took the trumpets; JazzU instructor, Cody Henry worked with the trombones; and JazzU instructors Aaron Lehde and Andy Ament worked with the saxophones. We finished the Saturday Session (and the week) with an epic jam session that consisted of a 45-minute version of “C-Jam Blues.” Although considered a “rally” by anyone’s definition, the jam session illustrated many positive aspects of jazz—the best being that two separate groups of people, who until that morning had never met, can come together through the playing of a simple tune like “C-Jam Blues.”
A&C finished up the day with their final performance at Jazz at the Bistro, thus, ending their stint in St. Louis.
This leads me back to the beginning. Sunday morning. No musicians, no activities scheduled. Just a book, brunch, and some much needed rest.