Young and in love with jazz

While most of their peers only have ears for hip-hop and rap, five teen-agers have dedicated themselves to a different and demanding musical form.

February 14, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

Byron Morris, 19, is frowning. His quintet is lurching through Horace Silver's classic tune, "Song for My Father," and he has forgotten the opening sax riff.

The five teen-agers press on, sounding more than a little ragged. The opening theme comes around again. Morris misses it, then catches it on the third try. He smiles , but he's not satisfied.

"That was rough," he says after the instruments fall silent in his family's basement club room.

Last fall Morris and his friends, who call themselves Just Us, won the Eubie Blake Jazz Institute's competition for young artists. Today, they get their reward, opening for legendary drummer Max Roach.

"He's very, what's the word, pumped?" says Byron's mother, Juanita Morris.

The Baltimore County high school students are at the beginning of their musical lives. Yet they speak with the voice of seasoned musicians. Listen to Roach, 75, and Just Us trumpeter Marlon Winder, 15, on the hard work of mastering your instrument.

"Some of my colleagues say it's like drugs. You become addicted," says Roach, on the phone from New York. "Night and day. Day and night. You're constantly working, honing your craft."

In the Morris basement, Winder says: "Every time you pick up your instrument with the band, you're learning."

By bringing them together today at Coppin State, the jazz institute hopes to inspire young artists, create a bit of magic and pass the baton from one generation to the next.

"What we try to demonstrate is that regardless of what generation you come from, jazz is eternal. It's a part of our legacy and our culture," says Leslie Howard, the institute's executive director.

Most of today's youth don't know that legacy. The demise of basic arts education in public schools, coupled with the incredible popularity of rap, hip-hop and sports, has pushed musicianship aside.

Only in the past decade or so have young musicians returned to jazz. Wynton Marsalis was the first and most visible. Then came people such as trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Christian McBride and others. In the mid-'90s, Nicholas Payton, barely in his 20s, teamed up with fellow trumpeter Adolphus "Doc" Cheatham, who played with Ma Rainey in the 1920s.

"Society does not push these activities on teen-agers," says Winder. "They push rap or singing."

For Morris, the music was inescapable. Every time he rode home from school with his father, the radio was tuned to Morgan State's jazz show on WEAA-FM.

"I couldn't stand it," says Morris, a clean-cut young man, with a whisper of a mustache. "It didn't have any words."

But the music intrigued him. Soon, he asked to join the school band. By the time he showed up, the only instrument left was an alto saxophone.

"He came home and didn't know anything about the horn," says his mother, shaking her head over the months of squeaks and squeals. "I never did stop him from playing. The boy would practice every day. He just fell in love with the horn."

Soon he found heroes in Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Lester Young. Soon he was part of the marching band and the jazz ensemble at Milford Mill Academy. It wasn't glamorous, or popular. Learning to improvise forced him into an entirely different level of musicianship. Roach, with more than 50 years in the business, knows all about those early steps.

"Those who are musicians and who are serious about participating in it as musicians, I say to them usually, 'It's not easy. It's a lot of work, and you have to dedicate yourself to it,' " he says. "Anything that you dedicate your life to, you have to be serious about. You can't become Louis Armstrong or Art Blakey and not work at it."

At Milford Mill Academy, the student response to jazz is weak, says Morris.

"I think they like it when we have an assembly and they get to get out of class," he says, adding that the students prefer tunes with a strong beat. "If we play 'Satin Doll' everybody is like, well, you know." He brings his hand to his chin, assumes the pose of a bored student slouching in a auditorium chair.

Dontae Winslow, a semi-finalist two years ago at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, knows all about fighting to get young audiences interested in jazz. Winslow, 24, is completing graduate studies at Peabody Institute in classical trumpet. He has also released CDs of rap and ballads and has a release coming up of a live set at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"My goal is to make it appeal to the mass audience," he says. "If I can make it in the genre of rap music, I can expose jazz to a whole new generation."

This afternoon, the new generation gets its chance on the stage. It's the kind of experience that can change a young musician, giving him or her a glimpse of what might have seemed impossible.

Eight years ago Winslow was in the same position. He opened for trumpet legend Freddie Hubbard at Morgan State University. Winslow was 15 at the time and could barely hold his own with a horn. What mattered that day was being with one of his heroes.

"That affects you for the rest of your life. It connects you with the past and the greatness," says Winslow. "I look back on it as such a divine experience. It doesn't even matter whether he spoke to me or not. Just to be in that situation inspires you to great things."

The young men of Just Us aren't sure if they'll try for a place in the history of their chosen music. Morris wants to enlist in the U.S. Marines, then become a state trooper. He's already executive officer in his ROTC unit. For now, though, he has a date with a legend.

"Max Roach?" he says, breaking into a broad smile, his eyes lighting up. "I mean, he's the man!"

All that jazz

What: Intergenerational Jazz Lovefest

When: Today, 3:30 p.m.

Where: James Weldon Johnson Auditorium, at Coppin State College

Tickets: $28, students $15

Pub Date: 02/14/99

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