Under the dim lights at Cliff Bell’s, the show was getting ready to start.
One young man in a black and gold vest sat in a corner of the small stage, strumming some notes on his red guitar. Another held his trombone while looking over his sheet music one more time.
While the historic downtown Detroit jazz club is known to host national and local acts like Michael Sarian, Noah Jackson and the Alex Harding Organ Trio, these Thursday morning performers were younger and a little less experienced–the jazz band from Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School.
Nearly 100 students from seven schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District participated in the showcase, with each school’s jazz band or choir performing a few pieces they’ve been working on this year. The bands played a mix of traditional jazz songs like Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary,” and Quincy Jones’ “Killer Joe,” as well as covers of R&B songs such as Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” and the Daniel Caesar and H.E.R. duet “Best Part.”
Besides MLK, the other schools included Cass Technical, Northwestern, Cody and Renaissance high schools, the Detroit School of Arts and the Edward Duke Ellington Conservatory of Music and Art at Beckham Academy.
The Thursday performances were part of the New Jazz Infusion Project, a program operated by the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation that places DJFF artist-educators in DPSCD schools throughout the school year. Each artist-educator is assigned a specific school, visiting twice a week to help with established and aspiring jazz music programs.
The showcase was the first DJFF has hosted since 2019, president Chris Collins said.
“This year, we’re back to this wonderful showcase at Cliff Bell’s,” he told BridgeDetroit. “The students love it, the teachers love it and the students from different schools get to see and hang out with each other. It’s a really beautiful expression of the kind of community spirit that can come from music and art.”
Exposing students to music education
The New Jazz Infusion Project started in 2011 as a way for DJFF to focus on institutions that have deep roots in Detroit and to connect with aspiring Detroit musicians, Collins said. Professional artists in the program this year include bassist Ralphe Armstrong, drummer Gayelynn McKinney, pianist Wesley Reynoso, trumpeter Allen Dennard and guitarist Tom Bartelmay.
Artists visit about six schools each year, with some making repeat visits to larger music programs at schools like Detroit School of the Arts and Cass Tech. But the DJFF also includes schools with smaller music programs or no music education. Collins said the organization works with the district’s Office of Fine and Performing Arts to identify which schools would greatly benefit from the program.
“We’re addressing those students that have displayed their skills and shown themselves to be aspiring artists, but also in those schools that have great jazz programs or are attempting to build jazz programs to make sure that students throughout the district have … exposure to these great teachers and improve on what they do,” Collins said. “And then, for the teachers in the schools to have exposure to these artists and to the Detroit Jazz Festival Foundation, to have new resources, new wisdom to share in order to make the very most of what their school and the jazz community at large has to offer.”
Arts programs at DPSCD took a big hit when the district was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 until 2016, reported Chalkbeat. For the 2016-2017 school year, nearly half — 40 schools — offered neither music nor arts instruction, 55 schools had no art teachers and 51 schools had no instrumental or vocal music teachers.
When Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over DPSCD in 2017, he prioritized arts programs in elementary and middle school. The district hired arts and music teachers in all district schools, revamping the curriculum, and creating training opportunities for teachers.
In addition to artists visiting students in schools, students in the program also perform at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend.
“All the educational bands play on the same big stages with the same sound and lighting crew and expertise that the top artists perform on so they get the same treatment and the same experiences as the top level pros that are playing at the festival,” Collins said. “They really get a feeling for playing in a large festival and being celebrated for what they’ve accomplished.”
Showtime at Cliff Bell’s
Two of the teachers helping students prepare for the showcase performances were Renaissance and Cass Tech band teachers Andrew Vinopal and Victoria Miller. Miller, who has been a music educator for more than 40 years, said the event gives students a chance to hear other schools perform and improve their skills.
The Renaissance band has worked with McKinney, who teaches the teens “fine tunings” of jazz that the teachers sometimes can’t do, like working with each section of the band to make sure they sound their best, Vinopal said.
Meanwhile, Miller’s band is working with Armstrong.
“When I first started teaching my jazz band they said it sounded like a concert band,” Miller said. “So, I had to get some jazz band people in there so that they could help me with that.”
MLK students Brandon Kee, 15, and Edwin Ussery, 16, got to perform after only a few weeks of being in the band. The guitar and trombone players were newcomers to Cliff Bell’s and enjoyed hearing the other music groups.
Both said they like how jazz gives them an outlet to express themselves and improvise with the music.
“You can play however you want,” Ussery said.
Meanwhile, this is the second year Jalin Hill, 17, has been in the jazz band at Renaissance. The trumpet player did a short duet with a fellow bandmate during the band’s performance of “St. James Infirmary.” The high school junior said McKinney played a big part in helping him with his performance.
“We get a lot of freedom with jazz band to express ourselves musically,” Hill said.