UPDATE: Come see the students perform at the residency-ending recital on Friday night at 6 p.m. at Sutton Middle School.
About 40 APS students have been joined by a handful of others at this week’s Juilliard Summer Jazz Residency, which launched its third year in its third home Monday, at Sutton Middle School. The program, a partnership with the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City, continues to grow and evolve as it offers a range of music instruction from some of the best jazz educators in the nation. The program started with six instructors in 2008, increased to eight last year, and now features 12 instructors.
The students appear to be evolving at the same pace. Just take a look at Young Middle rising seventh-grader James Robertson (pictured, middle row left). He’s been with the program every year, but it wasn’t until this year that he’s really started to shine, according to Reginald Colbert, co-program director with Natalie Colbert. Reginald is the Academy Leader for North Atlanta High’s Center for the Arts while Natalie runs the music program at Sutton, and they’ve both marveled at the development of players like Robertson, whose saxophone can be heard in an earlier video we posted. “He was really just walking around and carrying his instrument and attending classes the first two years,” Reginald Colbert noted of Robertson, who’s barely bigger than his saxophone. But this year (as you’ll see from watching this video), Robertson has matured tenfold, bringing a rich tone to his playing. What happened? “He practiced all year,” replied Colbert, whose gotten to know James’ parents (both of whom are musicians). “Now his dad says he has to send him to bed at night, he’s practicing so much.”
It’s developments like this that show the value APS students are getting out of this program, which takes creative steps to bring top-flight instructors down from New York City and still keep the budget at about $30,000. We use what we call an Artist Diploma program, which is like a doctoral program without the academics where we can bring these students down to provide instruction and save money in the process,” said Laurie Carter, Juilliard’s executive director of jazz studies. That innovative approach extends to the instruction. “‘What we do is adjust to meet the needs of our students,” Carter said. “Each year we’ll now see a mix of returning students and newcomers, so by now we have a pretty clear picture of where the students are when they come in terms of their performance level. We’re so appreciative of Atlanta Public Schools, because they provide students the opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have. I really applaud APS. It’s a sound investment during tough fiscal times.”
Just ask Robertson, who feels like he’s getting the best of both worlds as he studies and gets to play at the same time: “It’s almost like a school day,” he said as he prepared to switch from his Big Band class to the Improvisation class. “It’s more fun, though. I really like the Big Band class and the jam session because in the jam session you can play anything you want to.”
That mentality, that desire to keep playing, is fueled by studying under such masters as in-demand jazz bassist Ben Wolfe (pictured, top row right), who teaches Robertson in the Big Band class. (Watch Wolfe teach here.) The more Robertson practices, the more he studies under seasoned professionals, the better his chances will be of making it to Juillard full-time someday, and becoming a professional musician himself. That notion might seem unimaginable to some students who struggle in other urban school districts. But not here. “This program exists to let these kids know that a place like Juilliard is attainable,” Reginald Colbert said. “We’re finding every year at this residency, diamonds in the rough. And then we spend the rest of the year polishing them.”