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KC Jazz Academy calls on students to keep history alive

KC Jazz Academy
Posted at 5:00 AM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-22 09:39:10-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It's a common trait heard in jazz music: call and response. But it's taking on a new meaning at 18th & Vine.

At the KC Jazz Academy, middle and high school students aren't just learning how to play jazz. They're answering the call to keep the history and love of jazz alive.

"Just learning that connection between jazz and blues and Kansas City culture really makes jazz mean that much more to you because it's a local culture and somebody's got to be in Kansas City, trying to carry on the language of jazz," said Aidan Nolte, a student and intern with the program.

Nolte, 17, plays the guitar in the 18th Street Combo, an advanced band that would normally represent the American Jazz Museum and Kansas City in several performance opportunities.

It's one of three combos within the program.

"A huge priority of ours is improvisation," Clarence Smith said. "Our primary goal is for our students to understand the history and to understand the theory."

Smith, a seasoned drummer, manages the KC Jazz Academy. He also is an instructor of music at Metropolitan Community College, with a specific expertise in jazz education and music appreciation.

While teaching improvisation is key, he said he also understands the value of knowing how jazz came to be.

"Jazz has its roots in the combination of European music, African rhythms and African music techniques like call and response and African improvisation," Smith said. "You know, slaves were brought to the country and they basically had to learn how to improvise to survive. They took on the music of their owners and they put their own spin to that music."

Over time, the genre evolved. Smith said there are now four geographic regions of jazz with their own unique style: New Orleans, New York, Chicago and Kansas City.

"The difference between New Orleans style and Kansas City style also has to do with time," he said. "Without New Orleans style, there may not be a Kansas City style. Kansas City musicians came up with what we call head charts or head arrangements. They were able to arrange songs and memorize them in their heads and that was a very unique sound to this region.”

It's all history that isn't lost on his students.

"It's a Black improvisational art," Nolte said. "It is a melting pot of all sorts of different things, but at its most very basic level, it's a very complex and enjoyable art form."

The KC Jazz Academy meets every Saturday in the Gem Theater with an additional piano class at the Blue Room. Students audition to determine which class they should start in.

Tuition for the semester is $60 and scholarships are available for those who need them. For more about the program, visit the American Jazz Museum website.