The Jazz Academy: Bringing Jazz to the People

October 28, 2009

Columbus Jazz Orchestra at the Lincoln Theatre.
Columbus Jazz Orchestra at the Lincoln Theatre.

The Jazz Art Group was formed in Columbus, Ohio in 1973 and is America’s oldest not-for-profit arts organization dedicated to producing, performing, and promoting jazz. Within the organization is the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, boasting the largest subscriber base of any jazz orchestra in the country. In addition to the Orchestra, they have developed programs such as Musicians’ Services, helping jazz musicians find employment in the Columbus area. The other component of the organization is their Jazz Academy.

Jazz Arts Group’s executive director, Bob Breithaupt, began laying out the groundwork for the Jazz Academy back in 2004. In 2006 they began to offer some pilot courses, mostly lecture and improve classes, at a local university. The Academy has two parts, as Bob explains: “One is jazz in schools, and two is jazz in the community. Jazz in schools provides teacher training, residencies, concerts for students, and integrated arts programs. The goal is to get students actively involved rather than just give students a jazz history presentation. Jazz in the community is the outreach segment of the Academy.”

A few months ago, the Jazz Academy moved into a new home – the recently refurbished Lincoln Theatre in Columbus’ Near East neighborhood. The Academy occupies all 5,000 square feet on the third floor. The new space includes rehearsal rooms, a keyboard/media studio, recording lab, and multi-functional instructional classrooms. The theatre itself seats 570 people and houses a grand ballroom.

In the new facility, the Jazz Academy has been able to expand their program. This past summer they hosted a Rock Camp, Blues Camp, and Jump for Jazz Camp. With the exception of the Jazz Camp, which was specifically for kids between seven and 10 years old, the ages of the Rock and Blues Camp students ranged from nine to 70. As Bob points out, “The Academy is for all ages, for the community.” They also offer lectures, playing lessons, and even a Pro Tools certification program. “Within the Academy we have a recording lab where we are able to teach recording technology. We had a Recording Camp this past summer. Also, every one of our Camps has a culminating recording experience.” In addition to the Camps, a pre-school program and a wellness program are in the works.

Behind all of this growth is a true passion for jazz. As Bob explains, “It is not and can’t be, in our case, a place where you have an Art Blakey ensemble and a Horace Silver ensemble. While that is great stuff, it wouldn’t fly in Columbus. This is also about pathways. For example, we have turntables in our recording lab, and we have hip-hop guys coming in and doing DJ stuff. That is an entry point. In hardly any U.S. city will you find a jazz infrastructure; there is usually a symphony orchestra, a community concert band, and choir, centered on classical or European music. Through our Academy we are trying to create that jazz infrastructure here in Columbus.”

Bob would not only like to see this happen in Columbus, but every U.S. city. Ultimately it is the preservation of jazz, a true American art form, that guides the Academy. For Bob, keeping jazz alive is not going to happen by opening more jazz clubs. “Kids can’t go to bars, families won’t go. A lot of us do go to the clubs and play in them. Clubs are certainly a component, but it’s not the key.”

Bob also realized early on in his work with the Jazz Art Group that just having a jazz orchestra isn’t enough either. “Most jazz orchestras are perceived by the public to be old people, playing old music. When we do concerts with our jazz orchestra, we don’t get too many young people coming to see it.” That is exactly what the Academy aims to change through education and community outreach. The Academy employs local musicians to teach the courses. They also get visiting musicians like Wes Anderson, who stopped by the “J is for Jazz” class and played with a group of 10 year old students and even recorded with them. Grammy Award winner Earl Klugh is planning a visit to the Academy this fall. Since expanding the Jazz Academy into the Lincoln Theatre, not only has enrollment rapidly increased, but 50 percent of the new students had never had any connection with the organization in the past.

How did they get the word out? According to Bob, “We advertise to our existing audience base in print and e-blasts. We have collaborated with other organizations that would be able to reach folks. We don’t market in a demographic way, but a psychographic way, meaning we look at individuals who would be interested in certain kinds of programming. We look at parents and go to, for instance, Columbus Parents magazine. It’s very targeted. Finally, we are trying to make as strong of a connection as we can with the local music community. Whether it’s blues musicians or hip-hop guys, we are inviting them in to see what this is.” Bob is not looking to reach jazz audiences; as he says, “It’s like preaching to the converted. Why waste the time and energy? We are looking for an audience that is open to creative arts and music.”

To find that audience and keep them requires hard work and money. Funding for the Jazz Arts Group comes from various sources including sponsorships, corporate donations, and individual donations. Some of the contributions have come in as specific funding for the Academy. They also received NEA funding for start up costs. Even with the endowments, it is still a challenge to keep things running, especially in a poor economy. “We couldn’t have picked a worse time to expand our offerings,” Bob admits. “But, we’re doing some great stuff, and the Lincoln Theatre is such an incredible facility. It was closed for fifty years and it’s having such a wonderful rebirth.”

The Lincoln Theatre is one of a few remaining African-American theatres – designed and conceived distinctively for the African-American community. The location of the theatre is very significant as well, as it was once known as “The Cradle of Jazz,” during 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. The streets were lined with jazz clubs, and the area was abuzz with activity. Directly across from the Lincoln Theatre once stood the hotel where all of the black entertainers stayed because they were not welcomed downtown. During the 1960s, the East Side area began to decline, which was fast-forwarded by the construction of the freeway, further dissecting the city of Columbus. With the area sinking deeper into ruin, the Lincoln Theatre closed its doors.

The rebirth of the theatre reflects the rebirth of a neighborhood, one with a rich history, deeply rooted in jazz. Appreciation of history can sometimes elude young people, and changing a young person’s perception about things, particularly music, can be challenging and, at times, impossible. Even though hip-hop may be rooted in jazz, it may be difficult to convince a teenage hip-hop DJ to join a Jazz Academy. Yet, many have, which can be attributed to Bob’s and the Academy’s community outreach. “I contacted a DJ I knew and invited him to the Academy and, not long after that, we had a large crew of hip-hop guys wanting to come in. They are a very creative group of young people who now feel really connected to this space,” explains Bob. Part of the Academy’s lease agreement with the city is contingent upon the fact that they provide scholarships and educational experiences for Near East Side kids. As Bob says, “Via the nature of the deal, we are connected to the community, and we know that we are going to save some kids’ lives. And we won’t save lives if we bring kids in here and say, ‘Okay, now we are going to talk about Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; sit there and listen.'” Bob is a straight ahead jazz drummer and admits to not listening to very much hip-hop. But he does recognize that if jazz is to continue to have a life, there must be a way to help people understand that jazz is their music too.

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