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Middle school musicians take a leaf out of jazz veterans’ playbook

  • Gary Smulyan, a jazz saxophonist, performs for a group of seventh- and eighth-grade students during a jazz education program, Monday, at JFK Middle School in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gary Smulyan, second from right, a jazz saxophonist, talks to a group of seventh and eighth grade students during a jazz education program Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 at JFK Middle School. Joining him are Jon Fisher on drums, George Kaye on bass and Paul Arslanian on piano. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jon Fisher on drums, George Kaye on bass, Paul Arslanian on piano and Gary Smulyan on sax perform for a group of seventh and eighth grade students during a jazz education program Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 at JFK Middle School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • George Kaye on bass and Gary Smulyan on sax perform for a group of seventh and eighth grade students during a jazz education program Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 at JFK Middle School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • JFK Middle School seventh and eighth grade students listen as jazz musicians Gary Smulyan, Paul Arslanian, George Kaye and Jon Fisher perform during a jazz education program Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 at the school. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gary Smulyan, a jazz saxophonist, talks to a group of seventh and eighth grade students during a jazz education program Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 at JFK Middle School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • George Kaye, front, and Paul Arslanian perform for a group of seventh and eighth grade students during a jazz education program Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 at JFK Middle School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nevin Labrusciano, a seventh grade student at JFK Middle School, helps out during a jazz education program led by musicians Gary Smulyan, Paul Arslanian, George Kaye and Jon Fisher, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 at the school. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Paul Arslanian, a jazz pianist, talks to a group of seventh and eighth grade students during a jazz education program Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 at JFK Middle School. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • George Kaye, a jazz bassist, talks to a group of seventh- and eighth-grade students during a jazz education program Monday at JFK Middle School. Gary Smulyan, a saxophonist, is in the background. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gary Smulyan, left, a jazz saxophonist, talks to a group of seventh and eighth grade students during a jazz education program Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 at JFK Middle School. Joining him are George Kaye on bass and Paul Arslanian on piano. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Gary Smulyan, left, a jazz saxophonist, talks to a group of seventh and eighth grade students during a jazz education program Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 at JFK Middle School. Joining him are George Kaye on bass and Paul Arslanian on piano. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Thursday, November 01, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — The sound of snapping fingers filled the John F. Kennedy Middle School cafeteria on Tuesday morning.

Gary Smulyan, an accomplished professional baritone saxophonist, stood on the school cafeteria stage alongside about 10 eighth-grade jazz band students and Northampton’s Green Street Trio. Smulyan counted the full stage of performers in, and everyone broke into a song, “Sonnymoon For Two,” playing trumpets, saxophones, pianos and other instruments as hundreds of students listened, some tapping their feet.

This was not a typical Tuesday at the middle school — but it won’t be the last of its kind, either.

The assembly was the kick-off event for a new jazz education program created by organizers of the Northampton Jazz Festival. In three events this school year, they plan to bring in professional musicians to after-school workshops with seventh- and eighth-grade jazz band students at JFK Middle School. Later, the students and musicians will play together for the school.

Claire Williams, the JFK Middle School band director who started the school’s jazz band over 10 years ago, said the program is popular and has about 50 students participating in it.

While the students were on stage with the musicians Tuesday, each one played an improvised solo. A workshop on Monday evening with Green Street Trio and Gary Smulyan helped them practice.

Ava Madden, a trumpeter, and Ciana Cunningham, a saxophonist, were two of the students who performed solos on stage. They agreed, it was intimidating.

“It’s kinda scary — you don’t know what’s going to come out of your instrument,” Cunningham said.

But their classmates were impressed. As Cunningham and Madden walked off the stage after their performance, a trio of excited friends rushed up to them asking, “Can we have your autograph?”

Cunningham and Madden found value in watching the professional musicians play at Monday’s workshop.

“It’s cool to see someone that’s better than you,” Madden said.

“You can see your potential,” Cunningham chimed in.

Williams was impressed by how the students performed. “I do believe that these jazz musicians have really inspired them,” she said. “Some played better than I had seen them before.”

Northampton Jazz Festival raised funds and got sponsorship for the program from Allen Davis and the Davis Financial Group, according to Paul Arslanian, jazz festival producer and member of the Green Street Trio.

The new initiative’s goal: “Just to try to inspire and carry on the tradition of live jazz music,” Arslanian explained. His vision for the program is that it will teach students about jazz in a less academic way and give students the opportunity to learn from professional musicians.

Eventually, Arslanian said, he hopes they can expand the program to the high school.

Smulyan, who lives in Amherst and is a friend of Arslanian, was the first musical guest of the program and played with Green Streen Trio — Arslanian, George Kaye and Jon Fisher — at the assembly, too. Smulyan has won several baritone saxophonist of the year awards from magazines such as JazzTimes. Arslanian said the group plans to bring in other guests at future events, the next one likely in 2019.

Green Street Trio and Smulyan worked with the students the night before the performance, playing for them and teaching them about learning music by ear and practicing improvised solos.

Williams said some of that was new for students — they’re used to reading sheet music.

Jamie Harte, an eighth-grader who plays bass guitar in the jazz band, said he enjoyed learning about jazz theory at the workshop. “It’s nice to have professionals work with you specifically,” he said.

“I learned about chords and how to solo in certain keys,” August Douglas, an eighth-grader who drums in the jazz band and played in the event Tuesday.

Smulyan and the trio played two songs together in the assembly, but they hadn’t played them together before.

“If you understand how the music works, you can play with anyone in the world,” Smulyan said at the event.

Arslanian explained that the two songs were based off other jazz standards, and years of practice and learning the rules and patterns of jazz allow musicians to play spontaneously in a group.

After Green Street Trio and Smulyan played together in the assembly, Smulyan said that it may sound like they were playing a lot of notes that were all over the place, but it’s not random.

He explained to the crowd, “We’re playing with a structure ... It does make sense.”

Those structures are one of the many things the program hopes to impart to young jazz musicians.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com