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Lend an Ear : For the musicians, it's an unusual gig. But soon the audience is dancing to 'America's own art form.' Jazz Goes to School has come to Carthay Center Elementary, and the children love it.

March 26, 1992|LOIS TIMNICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AREA — Music class. At most schools it means chorus, orchestra, maybe a concert or two. Often less in lean budget times.

But at 14 Los Angeles schools it also means jazz. Dixieland, swing, be-bop, fusion, everything from Buddy Bolden to Wynton Marsalis and the century between them, in a series of free workshops led by professional jazz musicians.

These gigs are far removed from smoky clubs in the wee hours; there are no drugs or bleary-eyed patrons or jazzmen lost in their music.

"It's not too early, just real late," one musician said laughingly as the uncharacteristically chipper group lugged instruments into the Carthay Center Elementary School auditorium shortly after 8:30 a.m. one day last week.

Within the hour, 180 third- and fourth-graders would be dancing in the aisles, clapping on the off-beat, tootling imaginary instruments and trying out the real ones, and asking for autographs--all the while learning about the evolution of what drummer Washington Rucker calls "America's own art form" set in the context of American history.

The musicians playing this particular day included trombonist George Bohanon, Ernie Fields Jr. on clarinet and flute, pianist Lanny Hartley, Louie Spears on bass, guitarist Terry Evans and drummer Ndugu Chancler.

It was fun, no question. But in that hour the kids learned new vocabulary words and how notes are played, reviewed historical and sociological events of the 19th Century, and heard several Dixieland standards that got even their teachers up on their feet.

"That's the whole idea--to teach as well as entertain," said Ruth Roby, executive director of the International Assn. of Jazz Appreciation, which sponsors the "Jazz Goes To School" series. "The idea is to teach the history and culture of jazz as it relates to the history and culture of America."

The itinerant seven-week jazz course is thought to be the only one of its kind. "No one in the country has a program like this, that goes for a specific length of time, has a curriculum developed, teaches music appreciation and demonstrates it with live music," said Dr. William J. Coffey, an Inglewood dermatologist, jazz buff and jazz association founder.

"There are a lot of workshops and caravans, and they're valuable, but ours goes further."

For all its relaxed, improvisational tone, the workshops are carefully researched by Rucker, who has a degree in history from UCLA. The group's musicians--all free-lance professionals who perform in local clubs as well as on records and TV--are as articulate with words as they are with their instruments, and seem at home playing jazz from any era. Rucker prepares lesson plans that are distributed to teachers a week in advance.

Jazz Goes to School began five years ago with a pilot program at four South-Central schools. First targeted at black children, given jazz's African roots, it is sought after by schools of varying ethnic mixes and has won praise from teachers and principals across the district.

"This is something that really got to them," teacher Teresa Fischlowitz said of her combined bilingual second and third grade at Carthay. "They said things like, 'It wanted me to dance.' There are so few good things left in the public schools that this was a surprise; it's a great and exciting thing that goes beyond nationalities.

"We have a diversity of cultures here. Last week, the musicians talked about how Africans were far from home and here was a form of expression. Well, a lot of our youngsters are far from home too and don't know how to get along. . . . This doesn't make them better readers, but I know it makes them appreciate their world."

Said an 8-year-old: "I like it because it teaches me about music that is not rap."

Carthay Principal Wayne Moore calls it "one of the best programs I've seen in 15 years. Not only are they expert musicians and good role models who know how to present the material, they are wonderful with the kids. We've already had children asking about studying instruments, which is what I had hoped."

The series, which Coffey hopes to turn into a videotaped series someday to reach a wider audience, costs about $4,000 per school, including $200 a day for the leaders and $120 for the sidemen. This year, Roby said, the program is struggling on a shoestring budget of about $51,000.

More than half the money comes from the National Music Performance Trust Funds; the rest is a combination of grants from the Hollywood Park Racing Charities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department's performing arts section and Local 47 of the musicians union.

"We don't pay anything," said Don Dustin, director of performing arts for the Los Angeles Unified School district, adding that he is impressed with the quality of the musicians and the program itself. "The response has been very good."

Dustin said the schools chosen for the jazz workshops must have committed principals, flexible staffs and an auditorium and be spread throughout the district. Carthay is the only Westside school selected for the series this year.

"Dr. Coffey and I agreed that we were limiting the program by keeping it in one part of town," Dustin said. "And we began looking at other schools that have been traditionally underserved in the arts. Also, we realized that the black children who were our initial targets are now being bused all over, and that if the program has value it should be for everyone, not just black students."

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