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Jazz mentoring hitting the right notes in Midtown














It’s a week before the Community Music School’s annual end of the year recital and the Spartan Teen Jazz ensemble, led by Detroit drummer and CMS Big Band director Sean Dobbins, is having its final rehearsal. As the students are going through the jazz standards "Splanky” and “On Green Dolphin Street" Dobbins is calmly directing the band making sure that the brass section hits every note, even if that means going through the introduction to the tunes five times or more.

"It's really important that you guys get these notes right. Trumpets, you are flat and need to go up an octave," says Dobbins to the student musicians.

Many of the students in the ensemble are already involved in music programs at their school, but some are just learning the basics of music theory. For Dobbins, an Ann Arbor native who leads his own band the Modern Jazz Messengers and has played all over the world with legendary artists, teaching novices as well as experienced students is part of his responsibility as a musician.

"Every musician is a teacher. The reason why I wanted to make it a part of my career is because I wanted to give back the kind of mentorship that I got," says Dobbins on a Wednesday evening in December just before his class started.

Whether it's breaking out the sax to help a student practice scales, conducting private lessons, or leading a band, musicians play an important role in music education and know that the information they have been given is not theirs to keep.

Dobbins is one of many local musicians who educates young music students by serving as a teacher for music programs throughout Detroit.

The Pioneers

Before high level youth jazz programs sprung up in Detroit -- like this Midtown-based subdivision of the Michigan State University School of Music -- local jazz giants like trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, pianist Harold McKinney and saxophonist Wendell Harrison were the archetypes of Detroit jazz mentoring.

Belgrave educated tons of top rate musicians when they were coming up: like drummer Karriem Riggins, bassist Robert Hurst, pianist Geri Allen, and Dobbins. Belgrave was the first director of the Civic Jazz Orchestra when the DSO educational program began in 2000 and he continues to train young musicians. In the 1990s, McKinney held a weekly workshop for young musicians at the Serengeti Ballroom called the Jam and Bread session where he taught music theory and helped musicians shape their craft. Harrison has also mentored countless musicians and still conducts a number of workshops for students through his jazz organization Rebirth Inc.

These musicians were a guiding force in the lives of many of today's leading jazz artists and now that the former mentees have stuck out on their own, they are influencing the next crop of aspiring musicians.

Mentees to Mentors

Dobbins has been teaching students for 17 years and, in addition to working with CMS, he is the executive/artistic director of the Southeastern Music Academy. He also holds faculty positions at various Michigan universities and is the former director of the Civic Jazz Orchestra.

Growing up under the tutelage of musicians and educators Louis Smith, Claude Black and Clifford Murphy, Dobbins learned at an early age that music is not just an activity, but it teaches life skills that prepares adolescents for adulthood.

"If we are really committed to preparing kids for life after school, we do have to keep in mind that music does so much for students mentally," says Dobbins.

Many of Dobbins former students, like trumpeter Anthony Stanco and saxophonist Alex Colista, both products of the Civic Jazz Orchestra, have gone on to attain much success in the music world and have started their own bands.

Dobbins continues to convey his love of music education to his current students, like aspiring drummer and CMS student Michael Gardner, who is the son of renowned bassist and educator Marion Hayden.

Gardner, a senior at Detroit School of Arts, is a member of Dobbins' Spartan Teen Jazz Ensemble and has learned a lot about the art form from his teacher.

"I learned about being really tasteful with my playing" says Gardner. "He (Dobbins) inspires me a lot. I have seen him play and he inspires me every time I hear him."

Gardner, who will be attending the University of Michigan in the fall majoring in jazz studies, says he plans on teaching music to elementary students once he graduates.

Trumpeter Kris Johnson is another music educator who rose through the ranks as a musician and is spreading his knowledge to young people through involvement in music programs.

Like Dobbins, Johnson wears a number of musical hats on top of his already flourishing career as a musician and composer, which includes leading his own band, recording albums, and touring around the world with international acts like the Count Basie Orchestra.

On the educational end, he is a jazz studies lecturer at Ohio State University, so three days out of the week he teaches college students, and then drives back to Detroit to train students in the Civic Jazz Orchestra, where he serves as the director and is an alumnus of the program.

"For me, all of my heroes growing up like Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, the late great Harold Mckinney, all of them never thought of teaching as being something separate," says Johnson.

"Wendell Harrison used to say 'you can't take the music with you to the grave' so for him, you have to give it away and pass it along to the next generation."

Teaching has been a part of Johnson’s life since he was a teenager at Southfield Lathrup High School.

When Johnson was coming up in the late 1990s, there were no youth jazz programs in Detroit. So he would frequent spots like Bakers Keyboard Lounge and Bert's Marketplace to hear musicians like Belgrave, Harrison and McKinney play and try to soak up all of the knowledge he could. He was a part of McKinney's Jam and Bread session and played his first improvised solo to Miles Davis' "Four" in front of McKinney.

"I had no idea what I was doing, but I was hungry for it. That environment was a way to get access to the culture of jazz, just being around him and seeing the way he spoke about jazz, all those things had a profound effect on me," says Johnson.

Following in his idols footsteps, Johnson has continued to impart his passion for music on the younger generation.

In 2008, he co-created a workshop called the Learning Express, which is a hip hop and jazz presentation geared towards students in grades K - 6. The workshop teaches students about different subjects, including science, math, history, and music. The program is a part of the organization Progression Inc, which provides music programs, musicians and performers to school districts.

Johnson says the kids react so positively to the program because he is speaking to them in a language they understand.

Music has a way of reaching everyone and if it can be passed on to our youth, than that will better prepare them for the future. Rhonda Buckley, executive director of the Community Music School agrees that getting dedicated teachers, particularly those who are already musicians is the best way to get through to students on a deeper level.

"One of the things that I love about this position is being able to find individuals who are both great musicians and great teachers and connecting them with our students," says Buckley.  

And as a professionally trained saxophonist, Buckley, like so many other musicians at the school, is truly dedicated to seeing the next generation succeed.

"Knowing what music has done in my own life," she says, "and being able to share that with young people now and to see the difference that it makes in their lives brings me great joy."

Veronica Grandison is a Detroit freelance writer. 

Photos by Marvin Shaouni



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