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John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Have Jazz, Will Travel -

Have Jazz, Will Travel -

The procession that trombonist Kiane Zawadi led into Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park one balmy late-June night took the form of a second-line parade, a New Orleans tradition dating back to the 19th century. But it spoke of a local legacy, born in Harlem and radiant throughout New York City for nearly 50 years: Jazzmobile, the nonprofit music organization founded in 1964 by pianist Billy Taylor and arts patron Daphne Arnstein.

Mr. Zawadi's parade announced Jazzmobile's Summerfest—47 events at 30 locations, from July 6 through Aug. 28, nearly all free of charge.

June's jazz festivals grabbed headlines, but Summerfest stands as the city's oldest continuous summer event devoted to jazz, reaching 100,000 listeners annually, mostly where they live. A wheeled float transported by pickup truck serves as the stage at most sites, setting up shop for a night in one community or another. This summer, the musicians range from elder eminences (pianist Barry Harris) to younger leaders (trombonist Wycliffe Gordon), including local Harlem heroes (pianist Danny Mixon) and ambassadors of further-flung styles (Haitian-born saxophonist Buyu Ambroise).

If presentations of live music form Jazzmobile's calling card, they are hardly the full story. The organization has long been dedicated to jazz education and reflective of a larger commitment to the arts. Mr. Taylor enjoys not just a storied musical career (he was house pianist at Birdland during its heyday) but has served as arts correspondent for CBS-TV's "Sunday Morning" and for National Public Radio. In 1964, after hearing of plans to reduce arts programs in New York schools, he used his then-daily radio show on local station WLIB as his pulpit. "I was pretty upset, so I started yelling about it on the air," he recalled. "But I also set out to do something about it."

Together with Mrs. Arnstein and members of the Harlem Cultural Council, which she had founded, Mr. Taylor created Jazzmobile. "The emphasis was on empowerment," he says. He played the inaugural season's first show, rolling through Harlem streets atop a float provided by Ballantine Beer. He leaned on his friends and colleagues— Dizzy Gillespie's band played the next concert; Lionel Hampton's the one after that.

Beginning in 1968, Jazzmobile began an annual series of lecture-demonstration concerts in elementary, junior-high and high schools. In 1969, the organization started up the Saturday workshops now held at Harlem's Wadleigh Secondary School for the Performing & Visual Arts—open to all ages, with master classes for advanced players.

Through the years, the list of instructional staff has read like a jazz Who's Who. These days, it includes elder standard-bearers such as saxophonist Jimmy Heath and up-and-comers like saxophonist Tia Fuller. For generations, these workshops offered the sort of jazz instruction missing from even well-funded music programs, not to mention the close-at-hand transmission—inspired by what Mr. Taylor enjoyed with his mentors, pianists Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson—that has become less common over time.

Trumpeter Roy Campbell, now a mainstay of the avant-garde scene, recalls learning first-hand from Lee Morgan and Kenny Dorham in the early '70s. But not all Jazzmobile students are musicians-in-training. Entranced 35 years ago by the stories Mr. Heath told during workshops, Joseph McLaren went on to co-author "I Walked with Giants: The Autobiography of Jimmy Heath" (Temple University Press), published in January.

"These days, you have all sorts of nonprofits and schools promoting, presenting and teaching jazz," says Robin Bell-Stevens, Jazzmobile's CEO & executive director. "But what Billy started 46 years ago wrote the script for them all." She knew Mr. Taylor long before the two collaborated on jazz festivals in the '80s for the Jackie Robinson Foundation; her father, bassist Aaron Bell, left Mr. Taylor's band to join Duke Ellington's.

Now, she reports, Mr. Taylor's dream has grown to a year-round endeavor with a $1.2 million budget. This year's Summerfest includes the seven-concert Harlem International Jazz Festival (July 6-11); a concert on Central Park's Great Hill (July 10); and a Vocal Competition (July 26)—"American Idol," only with judges such as Messrs. Taylor and Harris. Ambitious future initiatives include a commissioned piece by Mr. Gordon for an Oscar Micheaux silent film, to premiere in 2011.

Yet Jazzmobile's clearest impact is educational—from teacher to student, and often back.

"What's unique about these workshops is that they're community-based," says 33-year-old trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, who has taught them for three years. "So the class runs the gamut—from music students and professionals to older folks, former musicians or retirees or just people who want to share in this. I can teach them theory, but they impart the sort of knowledge I'd never find anywhere else."

—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal.
Jazzmobile is a wonderful organization. Some of my most memorable moments listening to live jazz have come from their free concerts on the streets of Harlem and outside of Grant's Tomb across the street from Harlem's Riverside Church. I have seen dancers filling the street while Horace Silver wailed away, Dexter Gordon and Woody Shaw sending waves of energy through a throng of people and Wynton Marsalis taking the break on "Cherokee" giving me a heading spinning Exorcist like moment. Jazzmobile is a major, community based cultural institution in New York City. It runs a longstand musician education program where musicians have the opportunity to study with the masters of the craft. If you are ever in New York City during the sumer check out "The Village Voice" weekly calendar for the Jazzmobile schedule of events.  Here is a link to the Jazzmobile Calendar of Events.

John H. Armwood

The late Benny Powell and Friends performing on the Jazzmobile.

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