Once again, jazz is cool Buffs: A new generation is learning to appreciate and perform this music.

April 10, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Put a bunch of teen-agers in the basement of a suburban home on a Saturday afternoon, give them musical instruments, and you've got a potent mix that could deafen the neighborhood with grungy hard rock hits.

But when Tonal Palette, a Columbia teen-age band, starts playing, the tune is slow, soulful, almost sensual. It's "My Funny Valentine."

This group of high school juniors and seniors increasingly represents a new generation of jazz buffs in America. They're young, and they may not fully understand or empathize with the soul of Billie Holiday or Dizzy Gillespie, but they dig it anyway. As 17-year-old jazz saxophone player Konrad Aschenbach sums up: "It's cool."

Jazz has become "cool" to young people, thanks to music educators promoting it in school curricula and -- like it or not -- artists such as Kenny G, who have popularized it in mainstream culture.

"It's become hip again precisely because it's been unhip for a long time," said Chuck Mitchell, president of Verve Records, which has been marketing its jazz releases to young people recently. "The whole nature of how people respond to culture is cyclical. It's about wanting to discover new things, and sometimes old things are discovered as new."

Local schools are jumping on this trend. Music educators say more jazz ensembles exist in local high schools today than ever before. In Baltimore and Howard counties, many middle schools now have jazz ensembles; five or 10 years ago, virtually none did. At the annual state high school jazz festival in spring, the number of bands participating has jumped from 18 to 28 just in the past year.

"It's the snowball effect," said Lee Stevens, chairman of the music department at Atholton High School in Columbia. "Everybody wants to be current and popular. If other kids like it, then it's cool to be in a band like that."

In school

Schools across the country have put greater emphasis on incorporating jazz into curricula. At the annual convention of the International Association of Jazz Educators, the number of participants increased from about 3,000 five years ago to 8,000 last year, according to Chris Vadala, president of the association's Maryland unit.

The Peabody Institute is starting to expand its jazz curriculum by offering a class on jazz improvisation this fall. The Peabody had "virtually no jazz instruction" before this, according to Robert Sirota, the institute's director.

"Back in the dark ages -- during the '50s and '60s -- jazz was looked upon with some suspicion at the Peabody because it was considered less sophisticated than classical music," Sirota said. "There's a more enlightened or progressive view of what jazz is now at the Peabody it seems only logical that the Peabody would have a role in nurturing a new generation of jazz players."

In Baltimore County public schools, increased jazz instruction stemmed from a decision to diversify music classes. A 1990 curriculum analysis report ordered "the inclusion of more multicultural and non-Western music reflecting the varied cultures and ethnic roots of our population."

"You go and visit one of our classrooms and see who's sitting in those classrooms," said Clinton Marshall, Baltimore County public schools' music coordinator. "How can we just teach Bach and Beethoven to them? It's not a true representation. The kids who are sitting in our classrooms represent all cultures. This is an opportunity for [them] to see themselves in the curriculum, in the music that they're singing, performing, studying."

Not all young people are getting turned on to jazz through school. Steve Pieper, who plays the saxophone in Atholton High School's jazz ensemble, first wanted to play jazz when he heard it on television.

"It was one of those Agatha Christie murder-mystery shows my Mom was watching," said the 18-year-old from Clarksville. "The beginning credits had this sax solo on it, and it was really kind of cool."

Trombone player Antoine Lowray, 13, started getting interested at age 6 when he saw a tribute to Duke Ellington on television. Lowray, who plays in the Booker T. Washington Middle School band in Baltimore with his friends Damian Peterson and Marlon Brown, said he's been playing jazz for two years now, and loves doing solos.

Playing from the heart

"It lets me play how I want to play," he said. "I don't have to look at the music, I can play from my heart. It gives you a good feeling, like you just want to get up and dance."

Still, others are drawn to jazz by pop artists such as Kenny G and Harry Connick Jr.

"People who like Harry Connick Jr. have no clue about the real heart of jazz, which is improvisational and artistic," said David Stambler, the Peabody Preparatory's director of jazz ensembles. "But people hear and see this music as it's presented in the mass media and investigate it on their own a little further to discover the real jazz."

And once they have, they're usually "blown away," like 16-year-old Ben Powell was when he first heard a jazz solo.

"It's just the genius of it," said Powell, a member of Tonal Palette. "That someone could just listen to a chord and invent a completely new song on the spot."

"It's spontaneous composition," added his friend Pieper. "Right there, right then, there's no other moment that's going to be the same."

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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