LOS ANGELES—At a recent afternoon practice, jazz drummer Zach Harmon assumes the role of mentor for members of the jazz combo at Washington Preparatory High School. The group is off to a rocky start, and it's Harmon's job to help get them back on track. "What happened to your solo?" Harmon asks the keyboard player. "I got lost," the young player answers. Harmon turns to the drummer and the saxophonist. "I didn't hear any communication between the rhythm and the horns. Really start opening up your ears," he tells them, sounding a lot like two of his own mentors, pianist Herbie Hancock and trumpeter Terence Blanchard.
Before reaching the pinnacle of musical success, Hancock and Blanchard were not much different from the young musicians at Washington Prep. Despite being earnest and talented students, they had to rely on professionals like Harmon to point the way. Today, Hancock and Blanchard are expanding opportunities for public school students interested in jazz by connecting them with professional musicians who want to give back. Their Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz features "jazz in the classroom" programs that reach millions of students. "How else are people going to find out about the cultural history of America if they don't find out about jazz?" says Hancock, the institute's chairman.
The short answer is that most schools don't make music education a priority. Despite evidence that music instruction can boost student achievement and improve graduation rates, strapped public schools have been cutting back on music programs in order to give more time to core subjects like math and reading. The current economic slowdown could accelerate that trend.
There is also no shortage of skeptics who say jazz no longer resonates with young people as much as other musical forms, mainly rap and hip-hop. Despite these obstacles, Hancock and Blanchard are not discouraged. Before a recent show at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Blanchard turns to Hancock, just back from a music tour in Europe, and says, "Jazz is still a living, breathing thing. This man is still creating music." At 68, Hancock shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, he picked up his 12th Grammy Award for a tribute album to Joni Mitchell.
Blanchard, 46, also has a successful career as a bandleader and a composer. He has written the scores for several successful Spike Lee films, including the 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. But he worries the entertainment media simply are not paying enough attention to jazz. "There are a lot of young musicians right now who are very talented, who have something to say, but they are not getting the light, as we say in the business," he explains. "I'm talking about young kids who play from their hearts, and they're trying to find their way, but nobody talks about them."
"All-you-can-eat buffet." As the artistic director of the Monk Institute's college program, Blanchard gives gifted young musicians the attention they crave. Every two years, Blanchard helps select seven promising jazz players from all over the world who apply to participate in a two-year, tuition-free college program. One of the students in the current ensemble is Gordon Au, a 28-year-old trumpet player from California who gave up pursuing a career in genetic research. He describes the opportunity to study under Blanchard and other musicians as "a little bit of an all-you-can-eat buffet" where "I'm just trying to absorb all that I can."
Blanchard is also behind one of the institute's most ambitious initiatives: a four-year commitment to help revitalize New Orleans, the city that gave birth to jazz music, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A native of the Crescent City, Blanchard successfully lobbied for the college program to relocate from the University of Southern California to Loyola University in New Orleans. At the time, several Ivy League universities were vying to lure the institute to their campuses. "It was a personal thing for me," he says. Blanchard was a child when Hurricane Betsy battered New Orleans, and music, he says, helped him get through it. "I just keep thinking to myself that there are a lot of kids in this community right now that may not have the verbal skills to express whatever it is that they're going through. And music is one way by which they can find some creative output."
Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who supported the institute's move to New Orleans, says the initiative is producing results there. "The amount of work they've done in the first year has been tremendous," Landrieu says. "You can see the children really get excited about the possibilities." Au and other members of the college program teach jazz classes in the city's public schools. For pianist Vadim Neselovskyi, a native of Ukraine, the experience has been eye-opening. "It's a unique thing to see how musical the kids are," he says. "Even if they don't have an intellectual grasp of the music right now, I do believe it will truly have an impact when they grow up." The work is also challenging. Three years since Katrina shuttered the city's schools, many haven't yet recovered. They continue to lack staff and music equipment.
Back at the Kodak Theatre, Hancock and Blanchard are preparing for the institute's annual benefit concert. U2's Bono, B.B. King, and other top blues and jazz musicians will perform with them on stage. The festivities include performances by musicians under 30 who compete for a $20,000 scholarship. This year's winner, for the first time, also received a recording contract. Blanchard jokes with Hancock about the advice he gives his players. "I always tell them to listen to him," he says, pointing to Hancock. The two of them laugh, and then Hancock adds more seriously: "I always talked to young musicians about the importance of listening and developing a sound."
That's what the jazz combo at Washington Prep High School seems to be doing. After an uneven start, the students seem to be finding their way. "We are all responsible for telling a story," Harmon reminds them. "This is something Herbie is a master of. He creates melodies behind solos and tells a story."
- Click here for more of America's Best Leaders.