Jazz Week at Wayne: Young musicians hone their chops

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

"Anyone want to come up and play?"

It's the classic jazz musician's invitation, and it did not go unheeded by the gaggle of eager young musicians who'd been listening to a jazz group play the standard "Speak Low." Within seconds, up came a guitarist, a drummer, a saxophonist and a bassist.

The musicians traded solos back and forth, percolating through "Solar" by Miles Davis. After the last notes of the tune faded away, the older musicians put their instruments aside to talk. The subject: What the younger ones were doing right, and yes, what they were doing wrong.

Bass player Rocco Popielarski stressed the importance of listening and watching. "As a bass player, you might be playing with a drummer you don't know. You have to watch him. You want to be airtight as a rhythm section."

"You guys were in two different places," added

drummer Kayvon Gordon, 21, addressing the bass player and drummer. "Do you know the shuffle beat? Play a shuffle."

The drummer does, and Gordon picks up a stick and joins in, keeping the beat where he wants it.

"That's better. That's what I mean," Gordon said.

This was no late-night jam session in a downtown jazz club with older cats schooling the young ones. After all, some of those present were 15 and 16 years old. (Is that a pair of SpongeBob SquarePants socks we see? Yes, it is.) This was J.C. Heard Jazz Week at Wayne State University, and some 45 kids from diverse backgrounds, living all over southeastern Michigan — Detroit, Warren, Rochester, Bloomfield Hills, Fraser, Ann Arbor, Grosse Pointe and downriver — took part in a unique program for young jazz musicians.

It's a weeklong crash course in jazz for students aged 14-18, offered by the Wayne State Jazz Studies program in conjunction with the Detroit Jazz Festival and the J.C. Heard Family Foundation.

(Trunino Lowe, (white shirt) 17, of Detroit performs on his trumpet during class.) We watch as older jazz musicians mentor students at Wayne State.This is part of J. C. Heard Jazz Week @ Wayne, a collaboration between the jazz festival, Wayne State University, and the J.C. Heard Family Foundation. After passing an audition, students pay no tuition. Detroit, Mi, July 22, 2015. (Clarence Tabb Jr./The Detroit News)

The program is unique because it's free. Admittance is through the audition process: If a kid has the chops, or shows potential, they're in, just as it is in the street school of jazz.

"Free is the way to go," said saxophonist Rafael Statin, 25, who attended Jazz Week at Wayne in 2007 and now is playing gigs with eminent Detroit bassist Robert Hurst, and finishing up this fall at New York's New School of Jazz.

"There are other great summer camps, the University of Michigan has one, (bandleader) Scott Gwinnell has one, but you have to pay tuition," Statin said. "I am so ecstatic to see so many kids involved in jazz, keeping the jazz tradition alive in Detroit."

"The fact that it's free means there are no barriers for anyone," said Chris Collins, director of the jazz studies program and artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival. "This collaboration between Wayne State, the J.C. Heard family and the jazz festival is beyond anything we could produce individually."

After breakout sessions in their individual instruments, the students interact with different guest artists each day. On this day it was the Jazz Week at Wayne Alumni Band. Each of the players at the front of the room had been a student musician in the program, some as recent as a year ago.

Wayne State jazz studies professor Russ Miller watched as the student musicians played alongside the alumni.

"Look at the drummer, the sax player — they are in seventh heaven," Miller said. "They're playing with people who are only maybe four, five years older than they are, but they're awestruck. This shows them what we're saying and teaching here can be transformed into action."

And they can see that the alumni have gone on to good schools and promising gigs. Some, like Statin, are in New York, and gigging professionally around Detroit. Gordon is at the University of Michigan, trumpeter Charlie Miller is on his way to Western Illinois University for graduate study.

Unlike most high school or college classrooms, the students here aren't checking their phones or slumping down, bored, in their chairs.

"They all audition to get in, so we don't have any behavioral problems," Miller said. "They're motivated. They work hard all day, and then they have to go home and practice. It's great to see the growth in them, in just four days of instruction."

An experiment this year is the inclusion of vocalists in the program. Steffi Roche, a student at Detroit Country Day, is just 14, but you'd never know it listening to her scat to the jazz standard "Autumn Leaves."

"When I was 10 years old, I was invited to perform at the kickoff of the Detroit Jazz Festival," Steffi said smoothly, as if that's on every 10-year-old's agenda. "I began listening to jazz singers — Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Carmen McRae, Mel Torme."

Her biggest feat at this week's camp was learning how to scat, she said excitedly. "And I'm learning how to tell a story, instead of just singing the lyric. We're learning a lot from amazing instructors: Cheryl Valentine, Chuck Newsome, and we'll have (bassist) Ralphe Armstrong tomorrow."

Derrick Bynum, 18, also a vocalist, was encouraged to apply by Valentine, one of his instructors at Detroit School of Arts. He enjoyed learning musical concepts such as improvisation and jazz theory, but also, "how important it is to be a nice person, how to communicate and network."

There may be a significant gap in chops between the high schoolers and the Jazz Week alumni band, but there's only a difference in a few years in most cases. That is apparent at times, when a precocious question or remark is made.

One of the older musicians asked if the students knew what jazz standard they'd been playing. "Speak Low!" came some scattered shouts.

They know it, despite the fact the song written by Kurt Weill that debuted in 1943 was probably first heard by their great-grandparents. The students' mentors stressed the importance of learning as many standards as possible.

"Make sure you know the melody, too, and know where (the musicians) are at, in any one spot," trumpeter Charlie Miller, 22, told the students. "So if someone hands it off to you, you know where to pick up. And you should be able to play the same tune different ways."

The students' musical knowledge could be startling, and fun to hear.

One asked drummer Gordon, "Who do you listen to? Because I hear Tony Williams in you."

"Lots of Tony Williams," Gordon affirmed. "And Elvin (Jones). Roy Haynes."

On the other side of the room, Kasan Belgrave piped up: "I hear Marcus Gilmore in you."

Gordon laughed. "I don't even know who that is!" (Gilmore, 25, is a rising star as a drummer and the grandson of legendary drummer Roy Haynes).

Kasan, 17, is part of a musical dynasty himself, as the son of trumpet legend Marcus Belgrave, who died at 78 in late May.

Kasan laughs when relating his own musical journey. He started with piano, played drums, clarinet (he sighs heavily when he says "clarinet") then on to saxophone, which he plays now.

"For me it's the easiest," Kasan said. "I like Charlie Parker a lot, I wanted to sound like him, so I emulate what he does."

Coming from the family of a music legend, Belgrave said he's learned the importance of modesty. He also believes that it helps any student of jazz to be learning the form in Detroit.

"There aren't a lot of colleges right in the middle of Detroit, and there's so much rich music history here," he said.

One of the challenges for young jazz musicians today is the lack of gigs, where they could hone their craft in the "street school" as Collins puts it, picking up tips from older musicians.

"At some point you have to take private lessons," Collins said. "But this being Detroit, a lot of the lessons are not that formal, in the Detroit tradition. It's not like classical lessons. The Detroit thing, the street school, it's a constant. Older players teach you. The 'street school' is essential in a jazz program where the tradition of jazz is combined with the academic. We're fortunate at Wayne State being located in Detroit."

The culmination of Jazz Week at Wayne for the jazz students was a jam session at Cliff Bell's — heady stuff for the teenagers — and a performance outside the Volt Lounge at the Marriott Hotel. Then, as a capper, some of the student musicians will perform at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day Monday as the Detroit All-Star Youth Ensemble.

Guitarist Adam Kahana, 18, of Ann Arbor finds Jazz Week "pretty intense."

"I definitely love it. I just love the advanced concepts ... and how to combine it with Western elements and modern hip-hop influences. Jazz has really been an evolving form."

The most important lesson of the week? "Learning how to interact with people who are better than me," Adam said.



J.C. Heard Jazz Week at Wayne

Wayne State and the Detroit Jazz Festival have been collaborating on a one-week jazz workshop for high school music students since 2007. In 2012, the weeklong course was renamed J.C. Heard Jazz Week at Wayne in honor of support from the family of the late Detroit drummer.

For information on J.C. Heard Jazz Week at Wayne, go to music.wayne.edu/jazzweek.php.