Free Workshops Offer Youths a Lesson in Jazz

Jazz guitarist Bruce Forman started a music-mentoring program called JazzMasters Workshop six years ago because he was frustrated that kids weren't getting the opportunity to play with established players. The program has rapidly expanded, and in five years his project has provided over 1,500 workshops to kids of all ages, abilities and backgrounds — free of charge.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This week, a group of mostly young jazz players will gather at the community center in Carmel, California to jam with veteran musician Bruce Forman and other pros. Sessions like this one are taking place across the country, all part of Forman's JazzMasters Program. They're free and open to all young people, whether they've been playing the oboe for years or just picked up their first set of drumsticks. Producer Amy Standen went to one of the workshops.

(Soundbite of music)

AMY STANDEN: Bruce Forman has been a fixture on the international jazz scene for two decades. He's recorded 13 albums of his own and played on many more, and he remembers the day as a young musician that jazz took over his life.

Mr. BRUCE FORMAN (Jazz Musician): I was just playing stuff - blues and rock, whatever was around - and a friend of mine who was a jazz bass player played a Charlie Parker record for me. I just couldn't believe music like that existed.

(Soundbite of music)

STANDEN: Forman started hanging out in jazz clubs, playing guitar along with whatever bands would let him share the stage.

Mr. FORMAN: I realized it was all about the song, learning the song and being able to keep in with the music and get the feeling of it going, because if I got lost in the song, they wouldn't ask me back. My whole philosophy was how can I stay with these guys, and it was almost a preservation scheme.

STANDEN: Playing with musicians better than he was is how Forman became better himself, but it was also an entree to a community and a musical tradition, and now Forman fears that tradition is on the wane.

Mr. FORMAN: People spending the time to sit and play the music together seems like an experience that got lost in the shuffle, and I just wanted to make sure that that connection to the music was still available to kids.

STANDEN: Forman had done some teaching, and he knew that school music programs were being cut. He also knew plenty of musicians who loved playing and who cared about seeing their music pass down to a new generation.

Mr. FORMAN: I saw this pool of resources and this grand need, and that's what started all this, was I just said, okay, enough complaining, I'm going to sit down in this community center and I'm going to let everybody know - I'm going to let the schools know, I'm going to let the music stores know, I'm going to let the media know, I'm going to let the private teachers know, that I'm here, anybody who wants to come play with me, they can come play.

Just strings. One, two, one, two, three. Just strings.

(Soundbite of music)

STANDEN: Today there are about a dozen JazzMasters workshops across California and in New York and other similar programs that Forman helped start, including workshops in Chicago and New Zealand. Forman fundraises to pay the musicians for their work, but that's pretty much the only expense there is. The workshops are open to everyone, and they cost nothing to attend.

(Soundbite of music)

STANDEN: Thirteen-year-old Alex Stram(ph), who's been playing guitar for about four years, is among the student musicians tonight.

ALEX STRAM (Student Musician): This is like more of what the real world is in jazz, because someone, when you're on the bandstand, just calls out a tune, tells you what the key is, and you don't have a piece of music to look at for every single note. So here he kind of tells you the chords. You've got to keep the general idea in your head, and when you take a solo, it's just kind of every man for himself, so to speak.

STANDEN: Tonight the band includes three trumpets, two saxophones, two keyboards, three violins, half a dozen guitarists and two drummers, including one who picked up her first pair of drumsticks yesterday. And yet when everyone comes together to play Honeysuckle Rose, it's not half bad.

(Soundbite of song "Honeysuckle Rose")

Mr. FORMAN: I'm just presenting the music, and I'm saying play with me, and I do explain quite a bit of things, but I try to always put it in context of we're right here, you need to get this one step down pat. I'm not building a method around it, I'm not telling you that you need to listen to this style or that style. You need to feel what it's like to play with me and the other guys, the pros here that you're playing with. You're part of this experience now.

STANDEN: On the tenor sax tonight is Brittany Satler(ph), who's been playing with JazzMasters for two years, ever since Forman came to teach a class at her middle school. She studied with Forman at jazz camp, and last year she raised $75 for the program at a bake sale.

Ms. BRITTANY SATLER (Student Musician): We have some kids in here tonight that are, you know, he's asking them to play a solo, and they're like no way, no way, because it's their first time. But when I came in, you know, he wants everyone to at least try. I mean, if you just get whole notes out from the chords, at least you tried. You can say that, well, at least I made some noise my first solo. It's not just a serious thing that you have to play the notes right, you have to do everything correctly. No, it's loose, it's jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

STANDEN: For those who stick with the program, eventually Forman's encouragement pays off.

(Soundbite of music)

STANDEN: That's Noah Freedman(ph) on the violin. He's a high school sophomore now, but he started playing with JazzMasters in middle school. Forman says he's watched Freedman grow both as a person and as a musician.

Mr. FORMAN: I do see these transformations where they get it. And it's really probably the most rewarding part of doing this, because as much as I know it's the right way to do it, as much I know that it's the time-honored method, to have it proven to me is always great to see. This music I've devoted my life to. The other musicians who are with me, who are doing this work, we have a lot at stake here, and we're taking responsibility for it.

STANDEN: For NPR News, this is Amy Standen in Carmel, California.

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