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New jazz group matches budding musicians with legendary teachers

Seattle JazzED, led by legendary local band directors Bob Knatt and Clarence Acox, hopes to fill the gaps left by public-school jazz programs.

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Bob Knatt's intermediate band plays at JazzED's launch party.

Seattle JazzED, led by legendary local band directors Bob Knatt and Clarence Acox, hopes to fill the gaps left by public-school jazz programs.

Lucy Halperin is an eighth-grader at Seattle Academy who plays the trombone and recently discovered she loves jazz, a form of music that practically requires playing with other musicians.

Seattle Academy has, among its students, many gifted singers and dancers and actors, but not very many jazz musicians, and no jazz band to speak of. Without peers at school, Lucy often played alone in her bedroom along with recordings of jazz, usually “some kind of blues,” turned up loud on her portable stereo, she said.

So she was naturally very excited when this fall she auditioned for and joined a jazz big band led by Bob Knatt, the legendary former band director at Washington Middle School. That band performed for the first time Thursday night (Dec. 9) at the Northwest African American Museum during the launch party for Seattle JazzED, a privately funded, fledgling organization that provides jazz instruction for students all over the Seattle area.

Garfield High School band director Clarence Acox, another local jazz legend, teaches JazzED’s advanced band; Knatt teaches the beginning and intermediate bands. Halperin, the only trombone player in the intermediate band, said she did not mind being a one-girl section, although she told members of the advanced band, which also performed several songs Thursday night in the museum’s “After Hours” exhibit, that they should “spread the wealth” considering their band has several trombone players.

Spreading the wealth is exactly the concept behind JazzED, started by a small concern of savvy, resourceful, and grateful parents of current and former student musicians at Garfield High School — which along with Roosevelt High School has fielded some of the best high school jazz bands in the country. Roosevelt has won the prestigious Essentially Ellington competition in New York three times; Garfield has won it four times, more than any other school.

Both bands are fed by middle school programs led for many years by Knatt at Washington (he retired in 2008) and Moc Escobedo at Eckstein Middle School. But until this year, if you happened to attend school elsewhere in the Seattle School District and wanted to learn jazz, you were likely out of luck.

“We thought, 'Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had that opportunity,'” said Shirish Mulherkar, co-founder and president of JazzED. “Conceptually it was a no-brainer.”

Mulherkar's son Riley, a trumpeter, graduated from Garfield last year and now studies jazz at The Juilliard School. Co-founder Laurie de Koch's son, Willem, is a senior at Garfield and a trombonist in the band. The two parents lobbied other parents and foundations to start a jazz education program that would be open to students all over Seattle and in the surrounding suburbs, which also have prominent high school jazz programs at a few schools like Edmonds-Woodway, Mountlake Terrace, and Newport High in Bellevue.

“We have an incredible legacy in our region but it is limited to being in the right school and the right program,” de Koch said.

JazzED receives no funding from the school district or the city, although Deputy Mayor Darryl Smith, who grew up in a musical family, attended Thursday night’s launch and addressed the 150 or so who came. JazzED’s annual budget of about $140,000 pays for a small office, a small staff and instructors. Some of that money is generated by tuition — $750 per student for the year — but most of it was donated by individuals. The goal of the program is to give half its students at least some scholarship money, lest the tuition become yet “another barrier,” said Lucy’s father Mike Halperin, a director on JazzED’s board.

“We want socio-economic diversity,” he said. “We want ethnic and geographic diversity. We want to level the playing field.”

Halperin, a physician, and board member David Zapolsky, an executive at Amazon.com — his son Ian Zapolsky plays piano in the Garfield jazz band — were founding sponsors of JazzED. The rest of the board is made up of Bob Roseth, a University of Washington administrator whose son Ben graduated from Garfield eight years ago before attending the New England Conservatory of Music, and John Gilbreath, executive director of Earshot Jazz.

The 60 students in JazzED’s three bands each rehearse once a week for two hours at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center and at Cornish College of the Arts. In January, JazzED will start a fourth ensemble for advanced students interested in modern jazz, led by composer and jazz heavyweight Wayne Horvitz. In future years, de Koch said, JazzED hopes to add an elementary school band and vocal instruction.

Thanks largely to the success of Seattle-area high schools at the Essentially Ellington competition every year, Seattle has grown a reputation nationally as a hotbed for jazz education. The area has exceptional band directors, the explanation goes, as well as supportive parents, access to good private instruction, and a long tradition of performance in clubs and schools — one that replenishes and perpetuates an innovative culture of jazz in Seattle. Call it Swing 2.0.

“It’s not just the school district,” said Bob Roseth, “it’s a civic treasure.”

  

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New jazz group matches budding musicians with legendary teachers