Wynton Marsalis makes a noise with the kids

Wynton Marsalis, who leads the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Friday at the Orpheum, is known for his considerable skills as a trumpeter and bandleader, but he’s delighted to talk about his other role, that of artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC).

JALC has been around more than a decade, staging concerts, sending American bands on the road to exotic locations and running education programs. Two of the latter programs are aimed at youngsters: Jazz for Young People concerts are designed for school-aged children, while WeBop! gives pre-schoolers and babies as young as six months a chance to groove.

Marsalis says the purpose of these programs is to provide children with a musical environment, and, more important, to make that enviroment fun for the participants.

“Kids like anything that makes noise,” says Marsalis in an email interview. “In the WeBop classes, the teachers and the little kids use toy instruments. We like to make WeBop and the young people’s concerts purely fun. We play music for them, then let them play music.

“It’s important for parents to understand that reading music has nothing to do with playing an instrument. You learn how to talk before you can learn to read, so you shouldn’t start off by reading music but by playing around on the drums or the maracas. It’s all about children getting in and playing.”

Children are the next generation of jazz concert-goers and record-buyers, and while it’s important to keep the music alive with new generations, Marsalis feels there is a larger need for these programs.

“Listening is an important skill to teach our little ones in this age of global communication,” says Marsalis. “When we’re on the bandstand we’re listening to the soloists. We have to then make a decision on how to respond. So teaching jazz is teaching how to listen in everyday conversation.”

Are the programs creating a new audience for the music, one which stays with it years after the courses?

“Definitely,” Marsalis answers. “When I go on the road and even when I’m walking around in New York, I always have people come up to me to tell me how they’ve been affected by Jazz for Young People concerts that we did 10 years ago. They might not have become a professional musician, but it’s affected their lives positively.”

Another JALC program, Rhythm Road, sends American jazz groups abroad, but not to proven jazz-receptive countries like France or Japan, but to places like Togo, Albania, Kuwait, Sri Lanks, Slovenia and Tuekmenistan. The program gets jazz into countries where the music is largely unknown, and allows the musicians, some of them quite young, to act as cultural pioneers.

After a February concert in Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Geof Bradfield, a saxophonist with the Ryan Cohan Quartet, reported a euphoric experience.

“The audience clapped and yelled their approval when things were cooking – [they were] so much more extroverted and engaged than a typical American audience,” Cohan said after the show. “We closed with Caravan, and they all clapped the clave with us, danced, and then some of them leaped onto the stage (one young man did a flip onto the stage!) to dance. They did a popular Congolese dance called Comb Your Hair, which apparently is a compliment meaning that you are winning or playing well. We didn’t know at the time, but made the gesture back to them and the room really exploded.”

Vancouver’s more reserved audience aren’t likely to flip onto the Orpheum stage tonight, but you never know.

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at the Lincoln Centre Orchestra appear Friday, 8 p.m., at the Orpheum, the only act on the bill.


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