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Jazz Ahead!

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In March, I was fortunate to be one of two dozen musicians under the age of twenty-five attending Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Residency Program at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Betty Carter’s band has long been known as a finishing school for young jazz musicians, particularly rhythm section players. Active since 1955, Carter is perhaps best-known for her collaborations with Ray Charles, and for work in the 1980s and 90s. She is credited with nurturing the talent and kickstarting the careers of many of the most important players of the last 30 years, including Gregory Hutchinson, Taurus Mateen, Xavier Davis, Benny Green, Clarence Penn, Kenny Washington, and Cyrus Chesnut.

Carter’s direct style of mentorship is well-documented: if you could survive Betty Carter’s band, you could survive anything! She would call the fastest and slowest tempos imaginable, and she could switch on a dime. Lewis Nash has explained to me that, to this day, he hears Betty’s voice in his head while he’s playing, encouraging him to find a more creative approach to the music.

In 1993, Carter began an educational program at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called Jazz Ahead, and it was moved to the Kennedy Center by Dr Billy Taylor in 1998, the year that she unfortunately passed away. The program has continued annually, and this year’s faculty was made up of a diverse group of alumni of either Carter’s band or Jazz Ahead: director and pianist Jason Moran, saxophonist Craig Handy, bassist Dwayne Burno, trumpeter Peven Everett, drummer Nate Smith, pianist Marc Cary, and vocalist Carmen Lundy, whose brother Curtis played bass with Carter for many years.

Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead is, like its namesake, one-of-a-kind. This year’s participants came from all over the world: USA, Canada, Israel, Georgia, Serbia, and Australia. One of the things that makes the workshop so unique is that it comes with a full scholarship. Financial situation was not a consideration for any applicant, which levels the playing field.

On the first day, the faculty put us together into various configurations and had us play standards together. To be perfectly honest I was a little tentative at first. Playing in a situation like that, with a bunch of people you just met, while being evaluated by a faculty of some of the top musicians in the world, can be a little uncomfortable. As a result, however, I learned one of the most valuable lessons yet when Carmen told me to “play like your life depends on it—because it does!”

This would become a common theme throughout the workshop, as we learned to bring it every time, together. Jason also had a very valuable lesson for us on the first day: record everything. He added that when you don’t record yourself, you’re not really dealing with how you actually sound, but rather “a fantasy of how you sound.”

These types of lessons were very typical throughout the week. None of the faculty held back; they all told us exactly how they felt. This directness was never malicious, but always coming from a place of complete investment in, and implicit support of, each participant’s musical growth.

Once we were placed into three 8-piece ensembles, our days consisted of a one-hour listening session, followed by six hours of coached rehearsal. The listening sessions were led by a different faculty member each day, with music ranging from Art Tatum to The Police to Buffy Sainte-Marie to Doudou N’Diaye Rose. The workshop is oriented entirely around original compositions, which would make up our entire repertoire, and each day of rehearsal was hosted by different groups of faculty members. Our groups performed three final concerts on the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and everyone in the program had at least one original composition performed.

Since the Kennedy Center is such a cultural hub, we were given the opportunity to check out a few great concerts while we were there, including the NSO, WNO, Jack DeJohnnette (whom we all got to meet backstage), and Charles Lloyd, who was celebrating his 75th birthday. The Charles Lloyd concert was a fitting finale for the workshop, as he performed with a rhythm section made up entirely of Jazz Ahead alumni: Jason Moran, Eric Harland, and Reuben Rogers. This affirmed to us that we had just taken part in something truly special.


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