Kids are pretty people

You might think it would be hard to top all the amazing music that’s been happening here over the past 10 days, but you’d be wrong. Tonight I saw something that was every bit as inspiring, and gave me a lot more hope for the future.

My friend Spero Michailidis teaches fourth grade at Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS). Tonight his class presented the results of their most recent “expedition” — a multi-month project that involved hands-on learning and field studies (not, as the kids are quick to point out, field trips), and resulted in a 35-minute film made by the students.

The film was truly magical. The expedition centered around the topic of personal power and community involvement. What was particularly fascinating was how every element of their education revolved around these concepts, from physical education to music to field studies.

In one of the most striking storylines of the movie, the students mobilized around a real issue — lifting the cap on the number of charter schools allowed in New York State. They met with city and state officials, mayoral candidates, and bureaucrats, even traveling to Albany to lobby state legislators. (The meetings with politicians led to one of the funniest — and most skillfully edited — moments in the film: a droning Bob Duffy campaigning for the fourth-grade vote.) Mind you, this wasn’t simplistic, dumbed-down stuff. These kids are smart, articulate and aware, and they brought all those qualities to bear as they pressured lawmakers, wrote and delivered speeches, and analyzed complex issues. (If you want to get involved, check out the Legislative Action Center at the New York State Charter Schools Association.)

Music also provided a platform for the idea of an individual voice and its application to collective goals. A talented teacher (Carrie Haymond-Hesketh) taught the kids about jazz and improvisation. The final result — a contrefact (zing!) based on “Three Blind Mice” — featured hip solos on the vibes, new lyrics and a real understanding of the music. So much cooler than the generic junk that passes for jazz education in most settings.

“Studies in state-sponsored terrorism — also known as gym class.” That’s how Calvin (of Calvin & Hobbes) described physical education. Not at GCCS. Their phys ed teacher, Sarah Morell, is also a dancer and a fan of the Brazilian martial art Capoeira. What? You say your gym experience focused more on getting the snot knocked out of you with a dodgeball? Mine, too. But not these kids. They performed a Capoeira routine set to music, and related the movements to the themes of personal power, community and conversation that were at the heart of the expedition.

All I can say is that I wish I’d gone to a school like GCCS when I was a kid. There are so many different (read: better) ways to learn than the memorize-and-regurgitate style mandated by No Child Left Behind and other standardized-test-based education systems. Genesee Community Charter School is engaging its students in the world around them, and that always results in a deeper understanding of the subject matter, and a greater likelihood that these kids will break free of the Couch Generation and get involved in the world.

If you’ve got a child in the K-6 age range, check out Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS), and be inspired. I was.

Jason at the 2005 Rochester International Jazz Festival (Part 6)

It’s over.

The 2005 Rochester International Jazz Festival has come to an end. And what an end it was.

This year the festival featured two outdoor stages (up from one in previous years), and tonight the streets were jammed with folks checking out the lineup of free music on both stages.

I went with my sister to see the Derek Trucks Band. They tore it up. Had the joint had a roof, they would have blown it off. I knew we were gonna be OK when the band opened up with Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery,” featuring Derek Trucks and his wailing slide guitar. They tackled some other jazz classics, too, including Dr. Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” (one of my faves) and John Coltrane’s arrangement of “My Favorite Things.”

What a joy to see people of all ages and races crammed onto East Avenue, dancing and laughing and singing along. I’ve said it before (see my earlier posts on the jazz fest) and I’ll say it again: the city of Rochester needs to grab this festival with both hands.

And there you have it. There’s still great jazz happening in Rochester the rest of the year, but nothing can top the vibe of the festival. I’m already making my plans for ’06. See you there!

Jason at the 2005 Rochester International Jazz Festival (Part 5)

The penultimate night of the 2005 Rochester International Jazz Festival was a mixture of exhilaration and disappointment.

The disappointment came in the form of the Wallace Roney Sextet. Not because the band was bad, but because the sound was horrible. Kilbourn Hall was plagued with sound problems this week, spoiling a number of shows, including Night of the Cookers, Ravi Coltrane, The Bad Plus, and the Roney band. In truth, Kilbourn may not be the best venue for loud, electric groups, but I’ve seen other electric bands there with much better sound. In this case, the same sound tech was working all of those shows, and I think it’s fair to lay the blame at his feet. At one point during the Wallace Roney show, the pianist actually turned around on his bench to yell at the sound tech. That’s when things have gone way too far.

That said, the band was hip. Trumpet, sax, piano/keyboards, bass, drums, and turntable. I’d love to hear them in a better sonic environment. Or on their new album, Prototype. I’m sure Erik Telford will have some good insight into this show over on Miles Radio.

The real revelation of the night — and of the festival — was singer and guitarist Raul Midon. He’s been mentioned in the same breath as Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder. That kind of hype usually spells disappointment, but Midon is more than up to the challenge. Jen and I saw him at Milestones last night, and we were absolutely blown away. If you get a chance to see this guy, don’t miss it. In fact, you can catch him on The Late Show with David Letterman on Tuesday, June 28. Stay up late and watch one of the best emerging talents you’ll see this year.

Earlier this week, I told you about the death of guitarist Mark Manetta. Sadly, yesterday was also the day of the memorial for bassist Bob Stata, who died after a long illness. Bob was a true gentleman, and one hell of a bass player. He also believed in working with kids and in giving back to his community. He will be missed. A tribute is planned for later this year. Stay tuned.

Jason at the 2005 Rochester International Jazz Festival (Part 4)

Once again, it’s that bittersweet time of year when the 2005 Rochester International Jazz Festival is winding down. Most of the bands have played. Most of the jams have happened. And while there are still some outstanding shows on the way, your thoughts can’t help but turn to the realization that in three days most of Rochester will forget about jazz for 51 weeks.

I worked the door at the Montage Grille again last night. The Moutin Reunion Quartet blazed away inside, one of the hottest acts of the festival. People left raving about the band after the first set, and the word quickly spread, with people coming in as much as two hours before the second set to make sure they got a seat. I heard that the band will be back in Rochester in the fall — don’t miss them. They’ve also got a new record coming out in August, the follow-up to their excellent album Red Moon.

I spent a lot of time last night chatting with some of my favorite jazz people in town. In addition to Erik Telford (whose Miles Radio blog is worth your time), I talked with Gerry Youngman and Jared Schonig of Paradigm Shift. If you’ve never checked them out, do yourself a favor and catch them. You can find out more about the band here, and you can read a review I wrote of their album Shifting Times. If you’ve read the program for the Rochester International Jazz Festival, then you’ve already read most of the review, because it was copied — without attribution — in the program. What’s that Tom Lehrer tune?

UPDATE: Turns out the program notes are provided by the artists, so the festival is not at fault. And of course the Paradigm Shift guys are friends of mine, and I’m sure they meant no harm. But it is important to remember that published work should be credited.

Jason at the 2005 Rochester International Jazz Festival (Part 3)

If you’re a jazz fan, you have to feel like a kid in a candy store during the 2005 Rochester International Jazz Festival. Great names in jazz and world music from several continents. The streets are filled with people. Rochester seems like the center of the jazz world. More about that in a minute.

I got reassigned last night to the Montage Grille, rather than Kilbourn Hall. That was fine with me — although it meant that I missed the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, founded by one of my faves, Kahil El Zabar. Instead, though, I got to see two sets by one of the biggest draws of the festival: the Lew Tabackin Trio. Lew played two sets of mainstream jazz, led by his tenor and flute and featuring Boris Koslov on bass and Mark Taylor on drums. The crowd ate it up like it was the last show they’d ever see. Completely sold-out houses for both sets.

I also took in the first half of the movie Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue. This film focuses on Miles’ 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight festival. The first half of the documentary features interviews with the musicians who played with Miles in that era — Dave Liebman, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, Pete Cosey, Airto Moreira, Dave Holland, and many more — and others who were inspired by him, the most interesting of whom was Carlos Santana. The film also features the usual cast of characters — led by Stanley Crouch — taking potshots at electric Miles. I had to leave before the concert footage came on, but the film is out on DVD, so I’ll get a chance to check it out. It was very capably introduced by my friend Erik Telford, the host of Miles Radio on Jazz90.1.

Now back to the impact the festival is having on the city of Rochester.

I’m not privy to too many insider stories, but from where I sit, I think the city is really missing the boat when it comes to this festival. Let’s face it, folks: Rochester’s manufacturing days are over. Say it with me one more time: Rochester’s manufacturing days are over. If this town has any chance of regaining a slice of its former glory, it needs to turn to other sources of attracting people and revenue. Forget High Falls, where no one lives and no one could live, and focus on things like the Rochester International Jazz Festival.

As an example, just look at Montreal. In 2004, the Montreal International Jazz Festival drew 1.9 million people. That’s right, nearly 2 million jazz fans went to Montreal from all over the world, injecting millions upon millions of dollars into that city’s economy. “Sure,” you may be saying, “but that’s a big city.” Folks, don’t kid yourselves. The Rochester International Jazz Festival is one of the top 10 festivals in the U.S. already, in just its fourth year. Can you even imagine the impact on our city from Montreal-level tourism? If even 10% as many people each spent $100 here, that’s $19 million into Rochester’s coffers. (By the way — Monroe County is $19.5 million in the hole. I’m just sayin’.) And that’s completely achievable — but only if the city takes a much more active role in subsidizing the festival, advertising the festival, and integrating the festival into Rochester’s core image.

Yes, it will cost some money. Yes, it will take some vision and initiative. But it’s worth it. Rochester could be one of the centers of the jazz world. And that will benefit all of us. Let’s make it happen.

UPDATE: For more festival reviews and commentary, check out Erik Telford’s excllent Miles Radio site.

Jason at the 2005 Rochester International Jazz Festival (Part 2)

Last night was another fun night at the 2005 Rochester International Jazz Festival. I volunteered at Kilbourn Hall, part of the Eastman School of Music. Kora player Mamadou Diabate and balafon player Balla Kouyate performed two sets of enchanting music. You may know Mamadou from his work with Ben Allison — he appeared on the album Peace Pipe with Ben in 2002.

My highly skilled job at the show was to count the people with a little clicker as they walked in. Just to make me even more superfluous (zing!), there was an Eastman student standing two feet away doing the exact same job. Huzzah!

Later in the evening, I saw Chick Corea with his new band, Touchstone. If I only see Chick once in my life, I’m glad it was last night. This band hearkens back to Chick’s albums like My Spanish Heart, Touchstone, and Friends, some of my favorite Chick recordings. The band was phenomenal.

Many good friends were in attendance throughout the night, too, which was great. It’s so much fun to see all these folks again, renewing some old connections and catching up with good people.

Tonight, I’m working at Kilbourn Hall again for two sets by the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. I also plan to take in a new movie about Miles Davis’s 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight festival. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.