Nurturing the Legacy of Kansas City Jazz
By Claire McDonald
Every Saturday afternoon, the lobby of the Gem Theater is filled with the sounds of chord progressions and wavering crescendos. One musician switches back and forth between an alto saxophone and a trombone. A drummer stretches his arms wide to play on two drums kits at the same time, keeping a steady beat. As players warm up with chromatic scales, the sound of a single trumpet playing the theme from Star Wars rises above them all. The sights and sounds of these middle and high school students warming up for their Kansas City Jazz Academy lesson at the American Jazz Museum provides a glimpse into the future of Kansas City jazz.
The main focus of this particular class was musical notation. Students had to hand write their instruments’ part from memory for Duke Ellington’s “C-Jam Blues” on blank staff paper. As the instructor tested students on the notes for alto saxophone versus trombone, the teens eagerly jumped in to respond and help each other write the correct parts. This collaboration highlights one of the many exceptional aspects of the Academy. Not only are students given the opportunity to improve their musical skills and work with some of the top musical educators in the area, but they unite as an ensemble and learn from and teach their peers.
Clarence Smith, the director of Kansas City Jazz Academy, thinks of an ensemble as a team. It provides each young musician an opportunity to bring something to the table and respect the contributions of others. “I think it’s the ultimate activity for students, the absolute best activity for young people to be involved in,” he muses. Students in grades 7-12, like those described above, play in different ensembles like Big Band, Combos, and in improvisation classes.
Jazz Academy specifically emphasizes improvisation. “The biggest challenge for middle school and high school jazz students is the ability to improvise. My goal for the Academy is to give students the tools they need to have a better understanding for playing solos.” The importance of thinking on your feet and leading the charge in a solo is one of the most obvious traits separating jazz from other forms of classical music. Confidence, individuality, and creativity are the products of jazz improvisation. When teens are finding their own voices in the world, KCJA helps lay that foundation.
KCJA creates an educational pipeline, instilling an interest in music from a young age. Classes are offered to two young age groups: toddler/pre-K and elementary school grade levels. Fundamental musical elements are introduced through song, movement, storytelling, and beginner instrument work. In one elementary class, children sang solfège as they played on mallet instruments. While practicing “Hot Cross Buns,” they paid attention to their classmates so they could maintain a group pace. Basic listening skills and group dynamics complemented more advanced musical lessons, like defining jazz vocabulary words and finding notes on the scale using instruments.
The fact that KCJA is located at 18th & Vine, one of the most important locations in jazz history, is truly special. “The museum location is an important educational piece. Frankly, I think that we need to be in the lead in providing opportunities for anyone interested in learning about jazz, whether it’s performing, research, or preserving the history. 18th & Vine should be the catalyst for all things jazz,” Smith proposes.
Executive director, Cheptoo Kositany-Buckner, couldn’t agree more. She started Kansas City Jazz Academy in 2016 when she noticed that the museum lacked a formal jazz education program. With the museum’s proximity to several Kansas City Public Schools, Kositany-Buckner felt that Jazz Academy could be an asset to those lacking arts programs. In a district that provides all students with free lunches, an affordable program was essential. “The mission of KCJA is to provide Kansas City youth with a state of the art education program that is culturally relevant,” Kositany-Buckner explains. The aim of the program isn't just to cultivate the future Charlie Parkers. It also creates a love of jazz in younger generations. The students who attend Kansas City Jazz Academy are the next jazz ambassadors, advocates, and civic leaders who will make preserving Kansas City’s jazz heritage a priority. As Kositany-Buckner says, “We can always use more people on the side of jazz!”