University of the Streets

I had a cultural education this weekend in Queens, New York, wild and wonderful. Moving in the jazz world of my jazz musician nephew, Tom Zlabinger, who teaches music at York College in Queens leaves me vibrating with a thousand stories I wish I could tell.  7 years ago Tom started the York College Summer Jazz Program, a free 5-week intensive that teaches music to high school aged kids from all 5 boroughs of New York. They spend their summers studying music theory, history and performance, receive private lessons on their instruments, and then give concerts in various venues.

In an upstairs, old historical jazz club in the East Village, I got to see kids from every background come together to play jazz music in a jazz band. If I counted correctly there were 6 trumpets, 7 trombones, 8 sax players, drums, bass, bass guitar, piano, and occasionally some bongos. The night was so hot you started sweating the moment you entered the un-airconditioned room. It was filled to the brim, knee to knee, shoulder to shoulder, everyone sweating in what began to feel like an exotic spa experience. There were pictures all over the walls of historical musical events that had taken place in that large room. A sense of music history entered my bones; people had been shaped by their experience in this room for decades. As soon as these kids started blowing their horns, enlivening their instruments, losing themselves in the power of what they were doing, the pain of the heat and sweat turned into a kind of ecstatic physical immersion into what was happening. The whole room was in the trance of it.

The drummer beat the skins of those drums all night and never once stopped smiling. The pianist went into an obviously altered space, eyes closed, head rolling, body swirling while his hands flew up and down the board. Every color of skin and eyes glowed in this group of women and men playing their instruments shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee.

Unforgettable to me was a dialogue that emerged between a baritone sax and an alto sax player. The baritone was played by a young woman named Rachel, so sassy and spirited my heart went into “Whhooaa” and respect mode immediately. The tenor sax was played by a young man named Aiden, an unflappable young fellow who could match her without question. So there they were, delivering notes to each other with attitude and style, back and forth for a long stretch – and I swear I never wanted the moment to end. I could watch this forever. No scripture ever contained so much information or that many messages of interest, beauty and power.

A couple of days later the band played again at the Louis Armstrong home and museum in Queens. I got a tour of the house where Louis and Lucille lived for nearly 40 years from Tom’s wife, Lesley, who is an archivist for the Louis Armstrong museum (as well as a soprano vocalist and accomplished music teacher herself). The deep root of this style of music, jazz, vibrates in this place where one of its most loved founders lived and died. Landmarks are landmarks for a reason. They enter your bone marrow and tell you stories you can’t learn in any other way or in any other place. It happens automatically because you are there.

I said, and meant, that I have a thousand stories to tell, but will conclude with just two more thoughts. Tom mentioned in both of these concerts his concern that the Grammys have eliminated 31 categories of music this year. He called it the “deforestation” of the diversity of music. One of the categories, Latin Jazz, he particularly mourned, and honored it by including an early piece of composition in that style by Duke Ellington. He said he wanted to continue playing the many styles of music to “hold their feet to the fire.” I want to join him in being an appreciator and supporter for such diversity in music.

And a last anecdote came from a parent named Fred. He talked about how Tom loves these kids, gives his life energy to them, and, rare in Fred’s experience, offers students the opportunity to not just play notes on a page but express their full instinctual and creative selves through the music. His eyes became red and shed tears as he said to me, “He will NEVER be alone. These kids adore him.” One of Tom’s students said as much to me after the first concert.

A role model for me, this nephew, Tom Zlabinger. What joy.


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2 Responses to “University of the Streets”

  1. Josi Says:

    What an exciting post! That program sounds so awesome. Thank you for taking the time to describe your experience so evocatively.

  2. Tayria Ward Says:

    So glad you enjoyed it, Josi.
    Thanks for telling me.

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