Thelonious Monk Institute launches week of jazz at four HISD schools

A weeklong celebration of jazz kicked off at Waltrip HS on Feb. 29, as the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz brought its “Peer-to-Peer” jazz education program to HISD. HISD was one of only six school districts selected nationwide this year to host the program.

The program started with what the Institute dubs an “informance” — a performance and lesson combined — performed by a group of gifted students from the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA).

“We’re here to share knowledge about jazz, but also, I guess, more importantly what jazz represents,” said LACHSA student and percussionist Austin Kim, 15. “The American values it teaches,” interjected LACHSA student and pianist Jamael Dean, 17.

“One of the things that is missing in the age of iPods and YouTube is that connection between performers and the audience,” explained HISD Fine Arts Curriculum Manager Walter Smith. “And for them to get that at this level, we want kids to leave this feeling inspired. Kids performing for kids and hearing them speak is more meaningful.”

The student quartet was joined onstage by acclaimed tenor saxophonist and composer Don Braden, nationally-known vocalist Lisa Henry, and renowned jazz educator Dr. J.B. Dyas, allowing students to listen to professionals at their peak. One Waltrip student was even called onstage for a little practice in scat singing and improvisation. Band students also participated in workshops after the performance that allowed them to work one-on-one with the pros and get a glimpse of what life is like for working musicians.

“[The workshops] are synchronous with jazz music at its very core.” said Braden. “Jazz music has always been this music that we share with younger people, the generation after us. Benny Golson, who’s in his 80’s, tells me stories of hanging out with John Coltrane as 14- or 15-year-old kids, bugging the older guys with questions.”

The weeklong tour includes visits to Pershing MS, Westbury HS, and the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. It will culminate in two performances that are open to the public on Friday, March 4, at 9 and 10:30 p.m. at the Houston jazz club, Cezanne.

“We’re planning on touring the world and playing — and not having to ‘work’ an actual day in your life,” said Dean. “Or at least, not feeling like it, because we love the music so much.”

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