This I Believe

H. Benjamin - Brooklyn, New York
Entered on July 20, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
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In 1993, I was 26 years old. Three years prior, I’d graduated from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music and before the ink was dry on my shiny new degree, I was on my way to New York City. Like any serious aspiring jazz musician, I was eager to jump in with the best of them and just play, play, play! And play I did. Jam session after jam session, little gig after little gig, I honed my craft into the wee small hours, uptown, downtown, midtown, wherever I could, didn’t matter. Sometimes, there’d be audiences of two or four and occasionally ten and sometimes even twenty or thirty. If we were lucky, the hipper members of our audiences would occasionally break away from their conversations and acknowledge us with a nonchalant nod or a raise of their beer as if to say, “yeah babe, I’m hip, I hear you.” Fully committed to the lofty mission of musical mastery, it wasn’t the audience that mattered anyway. Hell no! It was the noble, single-minded pursuit of virtuosity and earning the respect of my peers that mattered.

After awhile however, I began to assess and challenge myself on this position. Between 1990-’93, I heard numerous well known, widely regarded musicians (in jazz circles) in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s playing in small bars, clubs and restaurants, often going virtually unacknowledged. I though to myself, “if this art form that I love so much and have dedicated my life to has produced icons and creative geniuses, and carries a global reputation for being one of our nation’s greatest, most profound contributions to world culture, why in a city of 8 million (an American city no less!), is a club that holds 148 half full?” Along the way, I also witnessed the rapid emergence of rap and hip-hop and the way it was (in many ways, so negatively) impacting youth culture. Often devoid of melody, harmony and actual musicians playing, the most commercially successful rappers seemingly did nothing more than spit vulgarities into microphones over monotonous drum-beats and looped samples “borrowed” from other people’s records.

I couldn’t help but wonder why it was that so many people so quickly embraced something so blatantly base and lacking in substance and depth?” The long answer is highly complex, subjective and obviously far too multidimensional to go into detail. However, my personal, fundamental conclusion was simply that much of it has to do lack of access to information. You see, though deemed by Congress a “national treasure”, jazz rarely appears in mainstream popular media and the lack of time and funding prohibits from jazz being included in standard classroom curriculum.

So, with this realization, I had a choice. I could continue on my path of self-absorption, unconcerned about cultivating audiences or informing people. After all, I had my one or two people a night raising their beers to me. I mean, it’s the craft that matters, not the audience, right?? I create damn it! It’s not my job to educate or enlighten…or is it?

Through the presentation of dynamic, innovative, LIVE multi-media educational programs for young audiences, captivating main stage concerts for all audiences and informative clinics and master-classes for student musicians, JazzReach is wholeheartedly committed to fostering a greater appreciation, awareness and understanding of this vital American art form.

I am delighted to report that since premiering our debut educational program in 1997, JazzReach’s educational programs have successfully served over 110,000 young people nationwide at some of America’s most distinguished performing arts venues and have received unanimous praise from students, teachers, parents, the media and arts professionals alike.

JazzReach programs tour nationally, are presented in high quality performing arts and concert venues, are all carried out exclusively by the organization’s official resident ensemble, METTA QUINTET, and currently serve approximately 15,000-25,000 young people annually.

My personal goals in music have not wavered. As a member of Metta Quintet, I remain committed to excelling as a musician and challenging the boundaries of my own artistic potential. Earning the respect of my peers also remains a priority, though now it goes beyond just my peers.

JazzReach’s objectives are to provide access to jazz and through our programs, engage, entertain and inform our audiences as best we can so as to spark a greater awareness and understanding. While we do our best to equip our audiences with enough information to nurture their interest on their own, a sustained, ongoing appreciation of jazz and the arts in general, must be a priority for all of us; artists, teachers, parents, the media and civic leaders alike.

I write this essay in the spirit of JazzReach’s mission to illuminate. Like no other art form, jazz provides for its audience a dynamic opportunity to witness highly skilled artists navigate their way through the creative process, in the heat of the moment, souls unfurled, striving with every note to explore the greater depths of their creative imaginations and make a cohesive artistic statement. Jazz also serves as a unifying force, bridging cultural, religious, ethnic and age differences and is a true music of the people, finding its inspiration in the widely divers experiences and peoples that constitute our collective national character.