WBGO Announces Fall Season of Jazz Concerts for Kids

With the “Is Jazz Dead?” argument being waged in the press for the umpteenth time, it’s good to know that some folks in the jazz community are taking a more proactive stance and building audiences from the ground up. The noted jazz radio station WBGO FM in Newark just announced its fall season of free concerts for young people. The Robert Rodriguez Quartet kicks off the series on Saturday, October 10 with a performance at the Jersey City Museum. “Our Kids Jazz Concert Series is directly related to WBGO’s core mission to promote the legacy of jazz,” stated WBGO General Manager Cephas Bowles in a recent press release. “These kids represent the next generation in jazz audiences and performers – they are the future of jazz.”

Brandy Wood, marketing manager at WBGO, confirmed that it’s not about garnering listeners now, but later. “Part of WBGO’s mission is to develop the next generation of listeners and fans. This series is a big part of that mandate,” Wood said. “We do three shows in New Jersey and one show in New York City.” The variety in destinations is key, because WBGO feels it’s important to bring the music to places untouched by the excellent jazz for young people programs at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Wood said that the radio station is passionate about this program and its effect. “We’re trying to educate and excite kids.” Yea, that’s what they used to tell me in elementary school when another boring assembly was announced. Wood laughed. “Actually, they’re held on Saturday afternoons so it’s elective.”

For Wood, it was a performance by singer Robbie K that opened her eyes to how jazz could connect with a younger generation. “She just really had a way of connecting to the kids. She got the kids dancing, singing and clapping to the beats.” Wood attributes the strength of the programming to WBGO’s Dorthaan Kirk who has been organizing the series for many years. According to Wood, it’s crystal clear when a performer connects or doesn’t connect with a young audience, to whom swing means a thing. “The kids don’t lie about their reaction. They know what’s swinging and if it’s not, they’re not interested.” It turns out that, besides participation, rhythm is key. “Jazz appeals to them mostly through the rhythm of it. They may not respond to Eric Dolphy, but they do already have a rhythm within them.”

Do you teach the kids to clap after solos, jazz style? “No,” she laughed. “But adults come with the kids and of course they applaud after solos. It’s really about participation.” Wood explained that vocalists tend to do better, because there’s a clear focal point. Kids are used to responding to the human voice. But a performance last year by Winard Harper showed that it helps to give the drummer some, as James Brown would say. “He was really great. He talked about how the drum comes from Africa where it was used to communicate across distances greater than the human voice. He then had an African drummer demonstrate on the djembe by playing the rhythm that was his family’s name. They got the kids repeating the rhythms. The kids really responded to them.”

It does take a village, or at least the funds of a village, to pull this outreach off. The series is sponsored by Prudential, NJPAC’s Wachovia Jazz for Teens and the New Jersey State Council for the Arts.

Here is the schedule of performances:

Fall Program 2009

October 10

Robert Rodriguez Quartet
The Spirit of Jazz – Improvisation

Jersey City Museum

350 Montgomery St

Jersey City, NJ

October 17

Mala Waldron featuring an all female ensemble
Jazz with a Feminine Flair

Newark Museum

49 Washington St

Newark, NJ

October 24

Steven Bernstein Band
Baby Loves Jazz

Maplewood Middle School

7 Burnett St

Maplewood, NJ

October 31

Ali Jackson Quartet
How to Listen to Jazz

George Faison Firehouse Theater

6 Hancock Place (at 124th St)

New York, NY

For more information about the series, go to WBGO’s web site.