A smiling Black girl with braids plays guitar. another girl sits to the left of her and a woman to the right.

Seattle JazzED Opens Registration for Free and Reduced-Cost Music Lessons

by Ben Adlin

One of the region’s premier music education nonprofits is now enrolling young people in jazz lessons for the school year, continuing its mission of teaching jazz as “a quintessential Black American art form” and expanding its focus on equitable access and instruction. Tuition is pay-what-you-can, with no questions asked.

Seattle JazzED is signing up students in grades 4 through 12 for classes that run quarterly from mid-October through June. Students of all skill levels are welcome, and instruments are available to borrow free of charge. A blended in-person and virtual program will allow younger, unvaccinated learners to participate from home.

Registration is open online at the organization’s website. Instruments include flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass, and drums, as well as two new options this year: violin and cello.

For those who haven’t yet decided, JazzED is holding a Meet Your Instrument Day on Saturday, Oct. 9. It’s an opportunity to learn more about each instrument from the musicians who play them and see which sparks an interest. The event is open to all youth, whether or not they’re planning to enroll in classes. 

Liana Green, a musician and incoming curriculum specialist at JazzED, said the organization’s core goal with the programming — part of what drew her to the work — is to meet students where they are, without regard to finances or other circumstances.

“What they tell teachers is ‘We meet the students where they’re at,’” Green said. “We have kids coming in from all walks of life, right? There’s some kids that just have hours and hours to practice, and there’s some kids that might have to work after school.”

Now in its 11th year, JazzED was founded by parents at Garfield High School who noticed that students belonging to groups historically marginalized by racism and/or sexism were underrepresented in band classes. In recent months, the nonprofit has undergone a period of rapid expansion as it absorbs another equity-focused youth music nonprofit, Seattle Music Partners.

“With that comes additional funding, additional instruments, and the need for additional capacity to be able to bring this program into the fold,” said Nicole Harvey, JazzED’s community and family engagement director. Since July, for example, the number of program staff has more than doubled, from four to nine.

The relationship with Seattle Music Partners has also effectively given JazzED satellite locations at four Seattle elementary schools: Bailey Gatzert, Madrona, Leschi, and Lowell — as well as the ability to add cello and violin to its roster of instrument offerings.

JazzED is also expanding its own footprint in the city in an effort to more literally meet youth where they’re at. The organization is currently based in the MLK F.A.M.E. Community Center in Madison Valley but has plans to break ground on a new site in Rainier Valley this winter. If all goes to schedule, the center will open sometime in 2023.

“Our goal first and foremost is always ‘How do we access the kids that need it the most, and how do we allow them to have the best experience possible?’” said Erin Hill, JazzED’s communications manager, who described the new site as a “central space where students will come and learn and be in community with each other.”

“In terms of our targeted outreach, we are really concentrating on the Central District, Rainier Valley specifically, and extending into South Seattle and South King County,” added Harvey, “and are focusing all of our intentions on really removing access barriers for the students that need it most.”

The goal of expanding access — particularly to marginalized students — is based, in part, on the overwhelming racial disparities in Seattle education generally, as well as the observation that success in music is deeply tied to privilege. JazzED’s intention is to help undo that inequity.

“I was raised in northern suburbia, in Edmonds, by and around a lot of white folks,” said Green, who is queer and identifies as mixed Black and light-skinned. “I went to conservatory, I have a master’s degree in music performance, all that stuff. … When you get up to that level of musicianship, it’s people who had access. It’s the people who were able to have private lessons, like myself.”

On a deeper level, the JazzED’s programming also reflects the group’s effort to recognize that jazz itself is inextricably linked to deep-rooted systems of power and oppression. Its history follows the familiar pattern of white commodification, appropriation, and erasure of Black contributions to American culture.

“That’s one of the big things in history, right, is that not only Black folks but Black folks specifically make stuff and then it gets taken. White folks take it and make it famous and say it’s theirs, and then the original, the originator, is lost to history,” Green said. “In general, jazz music is American history, and I would say that’s another reason for people to make sure their kids are learning this stuff.”

Prompted both by its ongoing expansion and the need to reenvision its programming during the pandemic, JazzED has also recently updated its curriculum, making changes designed to put more emphasis on exploring jazz’s history as a Black American art form and disrupting oppressive power structures. Jazz itself, the organization notes, was born out of Black resistance to systemic oppression and exclusion.

Unlike many in-school and extracurricular music programs, JazzED deliberately avoids workbooks that are heavy on white, Western music or uncritically include songs laden with racist tropes, for example, century-old minstrel tunes that romanticize slavery and caricature Black people. By contrast, this year the organization launched a new program based around teaching kids protest songs, featuring songs by artists such as Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, and Bob Marley — not only how to sing or play them but also the songs’ historical context and what they meant to the communities that created them.

JazzED is also experimenting with getting rid of written exercise books completely — at least at first — and instead emphasizing more traditional learning models.

“When you look at cultures where oral tradition is important, and certainly that’s where jazz music comes from, much learning is done intergenerationally, much learning is done using call and response, a lot of learning is done playing by rote or by ear, without written music,” explained Kelly Clingan, JazzED’s education director. “We’re aiming to not have music written down for a couple of months and then add that as a support. That would just be one example of trying to decolonize our curriculum.”

Though the nonprofit’s outreach increasingly targets communities that have historically lacked access to music education, Clingan said the programs offer learning opportunities that are valuable to people of all identities and backgrounds.

“JazzED is open to whoever wants to come,” she said. “It’s really important that our affluent, white students are learning these things, too.”

While recognizing jazz’s roots in Black American culture, JazzED also works to make space for artists of other backgrounds to express themselves and their own cultural influences. One of the program’s instructors, musician Ed Littlefield, is a Tlingit Native of Southeast Alaska whose recent album, Walking Between Worlds, melds jazz with traditional Alaskan Native music.

“In my work, I try to bring out the specific music of the people that I’m teaching, because I really find that playing the music that you know that’s inside of you, that maybe has been passed on through generations — it’s more important for people to hear that than it is to do a song that was written a hundred years ago by somebody we don’t even know and we don’t have any relationships with,” Littlefield said of his approach as an instructor. “They have more ownership of the music that they play, instead of it just being an abstract song.”

“Music has been scientifically proven to increase so many different human life skills,” he added. “To have a program that a student can sit down and say, ‘I don’t play any instrument,’ and say, ‘That’s OK! We’re gonna learn this together’ — that’s so important. I’ve traveled quite a bit and I haven’t seen a program quite like this.”

While JazzED was initially worried that the pay-what-you-can pricing model would encourage people who could afford music lessons to sign up for free, “that is absolutely not the case,” said Clingan. “Families really feel honored and respected to be trusted in that way, and families are really offering to pay what they truly can. Some families pay full tuition and maybe a little extra.”

Ben Hunter, a Seattle-based musician, educator, and community organizer who has worked with JazzED in the past, acknowledged the nonprofit’s “really intentional approach to equity.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, he recalled, JazzED asked him to put together a two-part lesson on the history of jazz. “I went back to the 1600s. I went back to the transatlantic slave trade,” he said. “I went back to gospel and fiddle-banjo and minstrelsy, to really talk about these issues — and they didn’t balk at all.”

“It’s certainly a good example, especially here in Seattle, of a fairly white-led organization that has made sure to let it be known where this music comes from,” Hunter said, calling the group’s work an example of “whiteness looking at itself” and working to deconstruct systems of racism and oppression.

“I think any jazz player, you know — Wynton Marsalis, even Louis Armstrong or Billie Holiday — would say that this is America’s music, this is everybody’s music,” Hunter continued. “But in one of the whitest cities in the country, and one of the richest cities in the country, and, in my opinion, one of the most falsely progressive cities in the country, they have taken a stance to make sure that there is access to that program. I think that’s pretty amazing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of JazzED Education Director Kelly Clingan and misstated the title of Erin Hill, who is the organization’s communications manager.

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock.com.

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