“You need to be willing to agree, yes let’s do this, and not resist. The magic is the agreement. It’s always interesting to see how a community can be formed and empowered through discussion of the civil principles and civil shared experiences and simple tools that make creation, creating and creative process easier.” — SJAI Participant 2017

The 2017 JPI Summer Jazz Arts Institute reached new milestones in its size, scope and impact. With a record 40 participants over three days, this year’s institute shared Jazz Power Tools for cross-modality teaching focussing on the theme of storytelling. The intent was to show how teaching artists can use the lessons and traditions that the jazz arts provides to create meaningful connections to identity and storytelling. While maintaining a commitment to diversity by race, culture, gender, age and experience, this year’s institute attracted a large number of students from the music and theatre departments of LaGuardia Community College in Queens and Lehman College in the Bronx. Both colleges are part of the City University System which serves over 500,000 students city-wide. The input of these students added to the vitality of the experience in significant ways.

This year’s Summer Jazz Arts Institute was led by JPI Artistic Director Eli Yamin, JPI President Shireen Dickson, JPI Board Member and Associate Professor of Music at LaGuardia Community College Tom Dempsey, and joining us for the first year was Associate Professor of Theatre at LaGuardia Community College Stefanie Sertich. In addition, award winning jazz singers and JPI vocal teaching artists Antoinette Montague and Marion Cowings and tap teaching artist Max Pollack of Rhumba Tap led sessions. LaGuardia Performing Arts Center Director and dancer Stephen Hitt helped facilitate the first day venue logistics and the student performance at LAGCC. Returning for the second year in a row was award winning author and musician James McBride who created a custom masterclass for the institute entitled, Re-harmonizing Your Story.

The institute commenced on July 5 th at LaGuardia Community College with a presentation by Eli Yamin called“What is a Teaching Artist?.” This introduction to the practice segued into a discussion led by Shireen Dickson on the “Developmental and Behavioral Stages of Development.” Through these two presentations, participants began to see what goes into the foundation of a teaching artist’s practice and process. The next stop on the journey was an experiential learning segment led by Antoinette Montague introducing Jazz Power Tools through a performance of the swinging blues tune “Let the Good Times Roll.”

The afternoon session moved into a more complete review of the Jazz Power Tools and a group activity where participants began to use these tools in practice. Eli led an activity around groove utilizing the stomp/clap and shuffle. Shireen led a group activity centered around syncopation. Antoinette followed up with an activity based around creating a soulful sound. And Tom closed out the activity with an activity based on improvising on a theme. For many participants new to jazz and blues, these hands-on activities provided was a unique opportunity to foster connections to the art form.

In the next activity, participants were treated to a performance of “Intersections” by the students of the theatre department from LaGuardia Community College led by Stefanie Sertich and Stephen Hitt. The devised theatre work centered around themes of power, privilege and societal systems. Developed by the students and faculty of LAGCC, “Intersections” weaves three different stories that intersect in curious circumstances and random ways. In the work the interconnections and diversity of our communities are on full display. Following the presentation, a discussion took place about the work which led to an activity where participants envisioned how they could use the Jazz Power Tools to deepen the narrative. How could this story be told using some of the tools discussed earlier in the day. Participants spit into groups that and presented themes represented in the works using the Jazz Power Tools.

On Thursday, July 6 th the SJAI moved to Lehman College in the Bronx. We began the institute with a vocal activity led by Eli Yamin. In this presentation, Eli modeled important techniques for healthy singing based on Somatic Voicework,(tm) the LoVetri Method and recent collaborations with voice therapist Darrell Lauer. The next activity was led by JPI teaching artist Marion Cowings. Marion masterfully demonstrated the art of storytelling through song and you can get a sense of what he did in this video.

Marion’s workshop proved to be the perfect spring board for the next activity which introduced “Don’t Go Back On Your Raisin” from “Holding The Torch For Liberty,” JPI’s musical about the fight for women’s suffrage. In this activity, participants learned JPI repertoire while connecting to the story of Women’s Suffrage. The afternoon session began with an activity focused around choreography led by Shireen Dickson. In this session participants learned key tools for building choreography in their practice as a teaching artist. Shireen connected many of these tools to the Jazz Power Tools previously introduced. We then moved from dance into theatre. Stefanie Sertich led a presentation around her work in devised theatre practices. While many of the participants were unfamiliar with these concepts, they walked away with new ideas of how this could be put into their practice as teaching artist. The sum of these workshops nicely cued up the closing activity for the day where the participants utilized the various activities presented and created work devised from these experiences.

The final day of the institute began with a speech and vocal warm-up led by Eli Yamin.  Next we were joined by award winning writer and musician James McBride. With the focus on reharmonizing a story, James broke down his approach to telling story in an effective way and how to approach it as a jazz musician does by varying the harmony to communicate a wide range of emotions. Participants were encouraged to find all the information about the story. According to James, there “is no reason to get stuck if you have enough information”. This led to an activity focused around a current event in New York; the assassination of police officer Miosotis Familia. Participants were encouraged to get deep into information about Officer Familia’s life. The biggest mistake one can make said McBride is to focus on her death. Instead you want to focus on her life. Participants discovered an inspiring women who left nursing twelve years prior to become a cop. She had just switched to the night shift on duty as a police officer so she could spend more time with her family.  Participants considered various perspectives and emotions with which to “harmonize” the story including resilience, courage, and devotion. The activity culminated by participants breaking into groups to tell this story utilizing Jazz Power Tools. McBride provided meaningful critique to all the groups.

In the afternoon Antoinette Montague led a presentation on singers and the vocal tradition of the music. In this presentation, she shared some of the singers that had a deepest impact on her life as an artist including Carrie Smith, Joe Williams and Etta Jones and the lessons she personally received from these jazz masters. Antoinette also highlighted some stars of the younger generation including Breanna Thomas who joined us in person.

Tom Dempsey followed this presentation with an exploration into improvisation and how he relates it to storytelling. He began with a presentation of from the “Sound of Jazz” in 1957. After a discussion of the performance he contextualized telling the story of the connection between Lester Young and Billie Holliday, historically what is going on at that time, and the general state of mass media in their portrayal of black culture. The institute ended with an activity that brought together the skills presented and allowed an opportunity for reflection and deepening connections. The Summer Jazz Arts Institute 2017 successfully introduced the practice of teaching jazz arts to burgeoning teaching artists and stimulated new ideas and pathways for those who have been teaching for years. Through this year’s institute, the Jazz Power Initiative was able to codify and deepen pedagogy related to the Jazz Power Tools while spreading JPI teaching practice to a wide array of artists.


Tom Dempsey, September, 2017