Do you all ever get nervous?

Posted on October 6th, 2014 | 1

On Thursday in St. Louis, we opened the Harold and Dorothy Steward Center for Jazz. The Center houses a new Centene Jazz Education Center and a completely renovated and redesigned Ferring Jazz Bistro.

Though sheets of rain beat against the “in case of inclement conditions” gala tents, the business and arts communities showed up in full force to recognize the enormous civic contribution of the Steward family and Jazz St. Louis, the city’s top presenting organization. The Bistro itself was comfortable, classy and filled with the rushing excitement of an opening night deadline that is being met. Both concerts were streamed and a festive time was enjoyed by all.

The next morning, Todd Stoll and I were on the road at 7:30 to pay a surprise visit to Dr. Inda Schaenen’s 8th grade class at Normandy Middle School. Joining us was Dr. Schaenen’s mom, Susan Rudin. (Jack and Susan founded and endowed Essentially Ellington and she is a member of our stellar JALC Education Committee).

After recovering from the shock of seeing her mom with us, Inda got down to business. She brought us into the familiar cacophony of kids from challenging social and familial situations struggling to negotiate the one experience that could help them redirect a generational dysfunction that stretched back to auction blocks, stock markets, and plantations, and that defined the present as poverty, broken homes and prison. Still, the kids were brimming with talent, personality and possibility. Just the energy on this educational cutting edge of our society was itself invigorating. It is. Dr. Schaenen was strong and committed to the kids’ overall education and they responded with love and respect. Todd and I observed and were inspired by how she kept her kids moving forward, ever forward. When she invited us to introduce ourselves, Todd and I spoke our piece and the kids really could have cared less. But when Susan introduced herself their beloved teacher’s mother, they erupted in applause and recognition asking, “Is that your REAL mother? Your BLOOD mother?” When they realized that she was in fact Momma, they were deeply touched and on better behavior.

After the class, we left for Normandy High School. Vincent, Marcus and Chris had been there working with the school jazz band since 8:30. We joined at 10 by the entire JLCO. Band director Bernard Long Jr. had his band set up right beside us. We all participated in one of the best master classes we’ve ever conducted. Each chair of their ensemble had a chance to receive direct and personal attention from our musician occupying the same chair. It was all warm, informal and familial. Mr. Long Jr. was hired last April and has been transforming the program.

Ali Jackson was only 19 years old when he met Bernard’s father, Bernard Long Sr. According to Ali, “Mr. Long Sr. was dedicated to quality jazz education and to creating the best environment for educating. The right environment could be in his house over a meal or in a car ride to a venue. When I was in my early 20’s, Mr. Long Sr. invited me to do a workshop with his students. His son Bernard would often tag along. I would give him (a few years younger than me) pointers on the drums and on music. The instruction though informal, was personal, genuine and most potent. It was meaningful to see Mr. Long Sr.’s work carried on through his son.” Mr. Long’s father is deceased. He would have been quite proud and just as excited about the meal Mrs. Long Sr. prepared for our lunch. That cobbler!

During the question and answer portion that ended the class, an 11 year old boy stepped forward and asked, “Do you all ever get nervous?” As several of us basically said, “Sometimes, yes.” He said, “I guess so, because me, I was nervous even just coming up here to ask this question. I’m nervous now.” He was so direct and honest, some of us started to get full. It really hit us because he implied, “But I’m still up here asking though!”

Some facts:

  • The Normandy School District serves Ferguson, MO. School started 8 days after Michael Brown was shot.
  • In the Normandy School District, 91.7% of students live below the poverty level.
  • In 2013 Normandy High School was considered the most dangerous in the state, with 285 “serious” discipline referrals.
  • It is academically the lowest performing district in the state.
  • It is the only school district in Missouri that has been taken over by the state board of education due to poor performance.
  • David Steward made it possible for us to teach this class.
  • Not one word that was not education was spoken. Mr. Steward did not speak or receive any recognition.
  • There was no self-righteous listing of black folks’ pathologies or politicking or grandstanding or talking down to parents or self-congratulating at expense of kids’ time and attention spans.
  • Nothing took place but music and the pursuit of excellence and mutual enjoyment. It was glorious.

Wynton