Keeping the Beat – NJPAC’s Jazz for Teens 25th Anniversary

 Jenifer Braun • JazzEdSeptember 2022 • September 5, 2022

By Jenifer Braun, New Jersey Performing Arts Center

When the multiple-Grammy-winning alto sax player and jazz composer Mark Gross was only 21 years old and starting out as a musician, he had a chance to tour with Lionel Hampton. As the youngest musician on the tour’s roster, he sat at the very back of the tour bus. 

But the back of the bus was also its smoking section. And on his first ride, Gross realized the guy sitting right in front of him, relaxing with a cigarette, was Dizzy Gillespie. 

“I’m sitting there, looking at the back of his head, thinking: That’s Dizzy! Right there!” Gross recalls.

Gillespie was friendly – “Call me Diz!” — and offered to share his smokes and his memories of playing in the 1930s and ‘40s with his young bandmate. Gross didn’t smoke, but he was happy to take Gillespie up on the offer of a trip down memory lane. “I’m smiling like the Cheshire Cat, soaking it all in, and finally I said ‘Mr. Diz, I’m an alto player. Can you tell what it was like to play with Charlie Parker?’ He lit up like a lightbulb, and for the next two weeks I got stories about Charlie.”

NJPAC events. 10/12/19 Photo by John O’Boyle

That was the first of many encounters Gross had with legends in jazz. As his career thrived, he went on to tour and record with a roster of greats, including Buster Williams, Nat Adderley, Dave Holland, Wynton Marsalis and many more. “I had those kinds of experiences with Adderley, with James Moody. Those legends poured so much into me I almost feel like – well, if I don’t pour what I’ve gathered from being around these masters into young people, they’ll never get it. They won’t understand the full impact of these artists.”

Which is why, despite his Grammy Awards, busy touring schedule (he was supposed to have been touring both Ukraine and Russia this spring, a trip abruptly canceled by the outbreak of hostilities) and multiple stints on Broadway, early on a blustery Saturday morning you’ll find Gross in a classroom of the Center for Arts Education on the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) campus in Newark, preparing to teach dozens of teens everything he knows about jazz, from music theory to how to listen to Charles Mingus.

Since 2015, Gross has served as the director of jazz instruction for the Arts Center, running its acclaimed Jazz for Teens program, which has helped thousands of high schoolers from Newark and beyond learn not only how to play, but how to compose, perform in public and advance careers in jazz. The program, one of the first of the many arts education programs NJPAC developed for young people in the Greater Newark community, will celebrate its 25th year this fall. 

In addition to Gross, a roster of more than a dozen working jazz musicians including GRAMMY-nominated artists saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and guitarist Alex Wintz (himself an alumnus of the program) as well as celebrated percussionist Alvester Garnett and acclaimed, Russian-born trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, a jazz messenger, to name a few — make up the Jazz for Teens faculty. 

Even more bold-faced names, including eight-time Grammy-winning bassist Christian McBride, the Arts Center’s jazz advisor, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and MacArthur “Genius” and Doris Duke Artist award winner Regina Carter offer master classes, working directly with students. Field trips to Rutgers University-Newark’s remarkable Institute of Jazz Studies, the largest archive of jazz-related materials in the world, are regular treats for students.

Teens studying percussion, guitar, bass, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, piano and other instruments, as well as jazz vocal performance are invited into the program via audition. Throughout the school year, they fill “the CAE” at NJPAC every Saturday, turning its hallways into a festival of sound, with beats and melodies spilling out of every doorway. 

NJPAC events. 10/12/19 Photo by John O’Boyle

During day-long sessions, students take classes in listening, jazz history, theory, composition, and technique. They can also opt into one-on-one instruction, and all rehearse in several student ensembles. While the program typically has 60 students enrolled at a time, those numbers were reduced in 2021 and 2022, to make it possible for students to remain socially distanced during instruction. Although the program is not free, scholarship assistance keeps it accessible to talented students regardless of their financial circumstances.

Critically, the students also perform publicly together, both at semester-ending concerts and at events throughout the year, both on and off NJPAC’s campus. Solo, or in quartets, trios, and larger ensembles, they have paid performance opportunities before Arts Center main stage acts, at special events, and even could take jobs at private or corporate celebrations. The most advanced students become members of NJPAC’s elite jazz ensembles, the James Moody Jazz Orchestra and the George Wein Jazz Scholars. 

The latter not only play together, but annually visit Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival, where they meet headline performers. “It’s a kid in a candy store experience, they come back over the moon,” says Gross. Until his passing in 2021, the trip also included a conversation with Wein, the legendary jazz impresario, who had strong ties to the Arts Center through his decades of work with both McBride and with NJPAC’s President and CEO, John Schreiber, who spent many years of his career at Wein’s Festival Productions.

The Jazz for Teens program was launched by acclaimed bassist, composer, and educator Rufus Reid, who was commissioned by the Arts Center’s founding director of Arts Education, Philip Thomas, to create a jazz program for middle and high school students, along the lines of the successful jazz program Reid had run on the collegiate level at William Paterson University for 20 years. “I was adamant that if we did it, we had to do it a certain way, so the students would really benefit from it,” says Reid, who has now retired from full-time teaching, but still tours and records.

That included making sure high-quality instruments and amplifiers were made available to the students, some of whom came from financially challenging circumstances, and the faculty were made up of working professionals. “The teachers can play, all the teachers we hired or that are hired today. They are in the trenches of making music, this is what they do. To me, that’s why the program has been successful,” says Reid.

The program drew students with a love of music but few resources to pursue their musical education “out of the woodwork,” Reid recalls, one young tenor sax player came to his audition prepared to play along with a recording, the only accompaniment he’d ever had access to. “I said: You have a real live piano, bass, and drums here to play with you! And he almost had a heart attack, he was so happy.”

One of those early students? A young drummer named Tyshawn Sorey — who would go on to become a MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and an acclaimed composer whose work spans both classical and jazz music. “He could play the drums, trombone, and piano — and he had the energy of 10 people. Everyone just wanted to be around his energy,” says Reid.

Reid handed the program over to sax player Don Braden when he retired. Trombonist James Burton briefly ran Jazz for Teens before Gross stepped in to lead it almost eight years ago. The original outline of the program remains, but Gross made some refinements, dividing students into beginner, intermediate and advanced classes, with approaches geared toward their level of musical understanding.

Because NJPAC arts education programs embrace the maker philosophy — which holds that students learn best by creating their own works of art, at every level of instruction — composition and improvisation are emphasized as skills available to all. 

“If you’re a beginner student who’s just learning key signatures, scales and note names, we can say: ‘Let me show how you can make a two-bar melody with C-D-E-F-G. Let’s make a melody out of that.’ If you’re an intermediate student, you know a little more, I would say: ‘Let’s put some block chords and a simple groove to that melody, and at the advanced level, I’d say: ‘Write me a song in the style of Charles Mingus.’ And the student would bring in a song that has all these ideas in it, and I can help shape it. In two weeks, it’ll have parts for all the instruments, sections that are improvisational, and all the components,” Gross said.

All students record their own compositions together in a studio setting, an annual highlight of the program. 

Like all NJPAC’s educational programs, the skills and training offered to students are scaffolded with multiple layers of social and emotional support; Arts Center programs are designed to offer support to both the students and the ecosystem of those who surround them, from parents to classroom teachers. Social workers from the Mental Health Association are embedded in every NJPAC education program, with their services made available to both the students and their families. A program called Creative Coaching allows students to work one-on-one with teaching artists on projects of their own design, and those teaching artists are supported with training in trauma-informed care and other techniques that allow them to meet all a student’s needs.

“Especially now, after the pandemic, we have to be ever more cognizant of where our students are socially and emotionally,” says Gross. “If that piece is not intact, it defeats the purpose of showing them how to do something that requires their spirit. Jazz requires you to be in the spirit, to be creative in that space.”

Jazz for Teens students are also invited to join NJPAC’s free In The Mix program, where students from all genres meet weekly to create new works of art inspired by their activism and passion for social justice. The program was launched in 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, when students craved both an outlet for the emotions stirred by worldwide protests, and a vehicle for their own activism. The most recent cohort of In The Mix students launched their own podcast; the first episode featured an interview with McBride and performances of student-composed music.

The Arts Center’s commitment to celebrating social justice work, and supporting students’ social and emotional learning, is integrated throughout all the Arts Education programs, from faculty training to individual music lessons. For example, Gross points out his semester-long focus on the music of Mingus is inspired not just by the artist’s centennial, but by how Mingus responded to the events of his day. “We want students to know the iconic recordings, yes, but also, we want them to know Mingus used his music as a platform to bring awareness of how he viewed the world, and how he wanted things to differ for the better. We listen to his composition Fables of Faubus and ask: What does that mean? How does that relate to the fact that in 1957, the governor of Arkansas, Orval E. Faubus, was behind the National Guard’s prevention of the integration of Little Rock Central High School. He disallowed Black kids to attend a public school. We talk about this. We want to empower students so that, whatever they’re thinking about or experiencing, they can use music as a platform, as a release. It doesn’t always have to be a performance; it can be: ‘I need to vent; I need something to help me work out how I’m feeling.’ Ok, then — let’s put that in a song,” said Gross.

Students who wish to study music at the university level are guided through the application process — starting with prompting to advance their studies through summer university programs where they can further hone their skills. In 2020, five Jazz for Teens students attended Berklee College of Music’s acclaimed summer program for high school students, the Berklee City Music Five Week Summer Program; currently, 12 Jazz for Teens alumni are enrolled at Berklee pursuing university degrees, several on full scholarship. “We help them with the audition process and help them record or videotape whatever the school is asking for. We have really formed a partnership with a lot of these colleges and universities,” says Gross. 

Students are also encouraged to take the skills they have in jazz performance to different genres. For example, current Jazz for Teens students were encouraged to take part in City Verses, a free NJPAC summer program — run in partnership with Rutgers University-Newark and funded by the Mellon Foundation — that brought together students with both musical and creative writing backgrounds, to create new works of jazz poetry in the tradition of Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, and Amiri Baraka (father of Newark’s current mayor Ras Baraka).

“NJPAC’s programs have allowed me to grow, to see I can do more than one thing,” says Clay Hudson of Maplewood, a 16-year-old percussionist and composer in the Jazz for Teens program who also was a part of the original City Verses cohort. That program is currently in its third year. “I’m a poet, I’m a jazz drummer, I’m a rapper, I compose — I can incorporate all aspects of myself into my work. There are lanes for everybody now. For me, being a part of Jazz for Teens, it’s not just about being better at the craft, even though I’ve made relationships with established musicians, and played gigs with faculty. Here, it’s more like commitment to myself, to this art form, and letting it take me wherever it goes.”

Music has taken the program’s alumni far indeed: In addition to the remarkable success of Sorey, many other “JFT” students have and are building careers in jazz performance. But the program’s goal is not simply to serve as a pre-professional launching pad.

“There are a bunch of students I have taught here who’ve gotten scholarships to go on to Berklee or NYU or the Manhattan School of Music, major conservatories. I started teaching here 10 years ago now and I’m seeing quite a few of my earlier students out in the New York City jazz scene working professionally,” says Wintz, the guitarist. “But I think there are some of my students who just want music to be part of their life forever, even if not professionally. They understand music can bring a lot of light into your life.”

Gross echoes that thought. “Whether they go to a higher-ed program or not, whether they play professionally or not, we want to give them a love of music, and through that, a sense of what life is about. That’s why we celebrate International Jazz Day, right? It’s not just a made-up day. It’s about the common thread we share through music. I could go to Italy or to Angola, and I may not know the dialect, but once we get up on that bandstand, we all speak the same language. Jazz breaks down all barriers and gets us to the essence of humanity.”

Jazz for Teens Alumni

Tyshawn Sorey
Composer, conductor, and multi-instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey, perhaps the best-known Jazz for Teens alumni working today, won a MacArthur “Genius” Award in 2017 and has since gone on to win raves for his compositions that bridge classical music and jazz. In February 2022, he debuted a new piece, Monochromatic Light (Afterlife), which was commissioned by the Rothko Chapel in Houston. That piece will be recorded and staged at NYC’s Park Avenue Armory later this year.

Other Jazz for Teens graduates who’ve gone on to careers in music told us a little about what the program has meant to them:

Lusine “Lucy” Yeghiazaryan
“I’ve often talked about how instrumental Jazz For Teens was for me, because it gave me an opportunity to work with a solid rhythm section long before most singers get a chance in the real arena. This gave me the confidence and strength I think audiences appreciate in me today. I think this more than anything was extremely helpful for me as a young musician.”

Lucy, a rising jazz vocalist and arranger, has received a grant from the Women’s Fund of NYC for a project entitled In Her Words with vocalist Vanisha Gould. The piece will be performed at Caramoor Jazz Fest in Summer 2022, and the recording of In Her Words was ranked #20 among vocal albums of the year in the 16th Annual Jazz Critics Poll.

“One of the things I always try to impart to my current students is the idea that you benefit by being challenged by your peers. The more you do that, the better you’re going to become…and if you seek out programs like Jazz for Teens, you get a taste of what other people sound like, which is both humbling and inspiring. When I first came to NJPAC, that really inspired me to want to keep practicing. I thought I was pretty good for my age, but there were kids a few years older than me who knew all these tunes by Parker and Ellington. That really inspired me to keep working.”

Alex Wintz
Alex is a jazz guitarist and teacher who performs with multiple groups and ensembles, including the Terraza Seven Big Band; he was nominated for a 2020 Grammy Award for his work with Terraza. Last year, Alex released his latest album, Alex Wintz Trio: Live to Tape, and continued to perform at top venues across New York and New Jersey. Additionally, he now teaches guitarists in the Jazz for Teens program.

“The music theory taught at NJPAC most definitely impacted my work. When I first started the various programs at NJPAC (like Jazz For Teens and various songwriting courses), I barely understood music theory. But by the time I finished those programs, my understanding of music theory was so good that I aced my Berklee College of Music audition and was awarded a full four-year scholarship. Also, I’ve felt my songwriting, composition, and playing skills improved dramatically while attending NJPAC. In other words, I [was able] to apply what I’ve learned through other musical mediums of my choosing.”

Ricky Persaud
Ricky, a guitarist and vocalist, is currently working on his ninth studio album, which will be released in June 2022. He’s also preparing for a performance at Carnegie Hall. But his biggest milestone, he says, was that he graduated summa cum laude from the Berklee College of Music in June 2021. 

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