Jazz Generation: Building a Legacy of Support for Musicians, Note by Note (PART 1)

Encouragement, love and a good marketing strategy only go so far when a community is in crisis. In the jazz world (as for all creatives), we are seeing the results of numerous ripple effects of COVID-19 whose nasty twists and turns have come to impact society in unforeseen ways. The pain felt by artists who can’t get gigs and perform in front of live audiences has taken its toll.

An organization known as Jazz Generation offers programs to help musicians in these post-lockdown times. In addition to helping provide financial assistance for jazz musicians struggling to live and to pay their bills, Jazz Generation reaches out to emerging young musicians in the schools to show them the ropes and foster their love and understanding of music.

President Rob Duguay and one of the organization’s very active members, pianist Richard Clements, agree that the time is now to continue to support, encourage, teach, assist, nurture and play all the notes in between to show up and help out. [Note: Part 1 of 2. Interview with Richard Clements will be posted separately.]

What premise was the organization founded on?

(Rob Duguay) The beginning of Jazz Generation came shortly after our founder, James Polsky, started a fantastic new jazz club called Jazz Standard in 1997. James had a vision that the club shouldn’t be used only for cocktails and late night sets but rather looked at the club as more of a community center of sorts. That’s when he got the idea to spread the music to the youth of New York City through offering field trips to visit the club during off-hours where top-caliber jazz musicians were waiting to perform for them and teach them about the history of the music, about their instruments, and more. This program is called Jazz Discovery. Recognizing that some students were particularly curious and avid musicians themselves, James then created the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra along with our program director David O’Rourke. This program features an educational hour of studying with jazz greats followed by a performance every Sunday during the school year and is a big band composed of mostly high school students. The short answer here is our premise is to expand access to this beautiful world of jazz to people who need it most, as well as keeping musicians actively working.  

How has its mission become heightened now during this economically challenging time?

Keeping musicians working during a time when it’s either unsafe or illegal to work is a trying task. We decided without a flinch that we would continue to support our regular musicians by sending their weekly check throughout the pandemic and we have also added more people to the payroll when we hear they have great need. We have been happy to support outdoor concerts and have also bent the ‘rules’ a little bit in supporting certain gigs 100% whereas normally we sponsor only 50%. This is because we recognize venues are struggling equally.

With broad strokes, what are the different programs?

Our Jazz Discovery Program is a great way for K-8th graders and some high schoolers to learn about the magic music of jazz and blues. A bus picks them up at their school and takes them to Jazz Standard where jazz greats are waiting to put on a show. The event often ends in the kids clapping, singing along or even dancing to the music. Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra meets on Sundays and students get a chance to study alongside greats and, most important, to perform weekly on one of the world’s top stages. The experience is unparalleled compared with what we find in other youth programs. It has become so popular they needed to start a secondary band.

Our most recent addition to JG is called KEYED UP! We create partnerships between local Mom-and-Pops venues and musicians to expand access to the music. You no longer have to pay an arm and a leg to go to downtown Manhattan to check out a jazz show because KEYED UP! is in your neighborhood at your local pub/restaurant. As musicians who are also in the hospitality business, James Polsky and I are sensitive to the fact that local venues need a boost in business and musicians need more and better paid work. One might even say that KU! is a music hospitality business in that we create better playing atmospheres for musicians, expand access to high quality music for audiences in diverse locales, and create scenes that are tailored to each individual venue’s needs.

How do you identify members of the community who need your assistance?

When it comes down to it, unless you’re someone like Herbie Hancock or Pat Metheny, if you identify as a jazz/blues musician then you could definitely use assistance. We have people in our ranks that performed with Miles Davis and Art Blakey and still are being paid terribly for their expertise. So not only do we know hundreds of these people personally, but now word is spreading about our organization and we get many emails/phone calls from players looking for gigs and venue owners who hear of our great success stories.  

What is your connection to music?

I’m happy to say that everyone involved in Jazz Generation is a musician, from Christina Kulick, our piano-playing Jazz Discovery Program director, to Jeremy Crothers, our crooner and website/social media coordinator. I’m personally a bassist/composer and I know what it’s like to hustle for gigs as a bandleader so I’m more than sympathetic to our own cause.

Give an example of how Jazz Generation has helped a member of the community.

One of New York’s most cherished horn players reached out to us during the pandemic saying he and his wife were struggling to pay rent and even get groceries. When players’ only source of income has been stopped due to the pandemic it’s a true emergency, especially when it may take weeks or months to receive unemployment from our somewhat-tattered system here in the US. We received many emails and phone calls of praise for our rapid response, thanking us literally for keeping food on the table. I’m proud of the deep impact we have on our musicians with what I would call a minimalistic approach. In some cases, fifty dollars per week made or broke some of our musicians’ ability to eat, and we can’t stress enough that every donation we receive is going to a good place.

How do you provide reassurance while acknowledging the difficult circumstances they’re going through?

We love the music so much that we’ll do anything to keep it going. We respond to their calls and concerns and I know that’s appreciated. Half of reassuring someone in need is just to listen and empathize with them, even if we can’t completely change their life or economic woes. 

What do you like best about your job?

The music! It’s so much fun to set up a gig for a budding young musician or for one of our elders and get the chance to go and watch them do their thing. Our venues are so diverse and the music at each venue is unique. Some of my favorite nights out on the town would be visiting two or three of our venues and saying hi to the owners and musicians and realize…we had a small hand in making this happen! 

How has your organization grown the most since inception?

Our organization is growing at a rapid pace currently as we expand our efforts beyond the boundaries of NYC into places like Boston, New Orleans and Phoenix. We’ve reached tens of thousands of students through our youth programs over the last 20 years; thousands of musicians have received checks from KEYED UP! and tens of thousands of audience members have enjoyed music free of charge. We are making a difference and like to think that the music is spreading like wildfire. As an organization, we are still a nimble, small and passionate entity and we are currently in the process of expanding our board of directors. Stay tuned for news coming soon! 

What do you think have been the most significant changes in jazz education in the schools?

From what we know, jazz education in the schools (K-12) is truly rare except in specialized schools for performing arts. There are several outreach organizations looking to combat this issue but we realize we have a long way to go. There is so much value to learning about the music, the history that accompanies the music, the dance steps, the poetry, the Harlem Renaissance and the contributions of African-Americans to our society here in the US. Not only is it important but it’s also fun and we think other students will think so, too. 

Other comments?

If jazz and blues are your thing, please recognize that our favorite musicians may be struggling even though they show up to the gigs nightly with a wide smile during their performances. Invite your friends out for a night of live music and support! A donation to Jazz Generation truly goes a long way and testimonials from our players show this weekly. Find us and donate on the web at www.keyedup.org/#donate

PART 2 coming shortly!

For more information visit https://jazzfoundation.org/jazz-generation/.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jazz Generation.

(c) Debbie Burke 2020

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