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Sunday, April 13, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jazz hits a pale note: Despite roots, it's a mostly white activity in Seattle schools

Seattle Times staff reporter

Last spring, Seattle's Roosevelt High School Jazz Band snagged first place at the Essentially Ellington Festival in New York. Garfield High got second, and the kids from both schools were thrilled. The competition is the World Series of high-school jazz.

But Angela Maxie, an African American, was perplexed. Her son, Clifton "Scooter" Maxie, goes to Garfield and plays music, but not in the jazz band.

"How," she asked her son, "could Roosevelt beat you guys, when you've got all those black kids in the band?"

"Mom," Maxie answered with a sigh, "there aren't any black kids in the band."

Nor are there any black kids in the jazz band at Roosevelt. Or at Washington Middle School. Or at Chief Sealth High School.

About 23 percent of all students in Seattle public schools are black. But of the 611 students who play jazz in the city's middle and high schools, only 43 — or 7 percent — are black.

Many black students have been priced out, or are opting out, of an art form that has its roots in African-American culture.

The majority of the district's black students are from low-income families who can't afford private music lessons. And music has become an expensive luxury at budget-strapped public schools forced to cut programs and staff. Some also say jazz no longer appeals to young black students, that hip-hop is a much more powerful draw.

Clarence Acox, black director of the Garfield jazz band, which made the Ellington finals again this year, says cuts in elementary-school music instruction mean low-income kids never get a chance to start.

"For our sons and daughters not to have the opportunity to play and appreciate music that is part of their heritage is tragic," he says.

Now some teachers and parents are working to give black kids that opportunity and to diversify school jazz programs.

One of them is Marnie O'Sullivan, who is white and whose son, Sam Schlosser, made this year's Garfield jazz band as a freshman, playing the trombone. When Schlosser entered Washington Middle School, O'Sullivan says, she was stunned at how few black kids were in the musical ensembles.

"Who are we as a society to say, 'You're passionate about music — you may be Quincy Jones — but we're not going to let you develop that because it's a luxury'?" she says.

It's easy to assume jazz programs should attract African Americans because of the music's history. But some argue that the word "jazz" is a red herring in a discussion really about money, class and access.

"It has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with economics," says Ramona Holmes, who heads the music department at Seattle Pacific University and has launched many local band directors. "It has to do with availability of music instruction to people of lower socioeconomic levels. Most of those people in the top (jazz) groups are taking private lessons on very expensive instruments."

Take Ben Roseth, Garfield's lead alto saxophonist. His father, Bob Roseth, estimates that by the time Roseth graduates this spring, the family will have spent $25,000 on his musical career.

That's out of reach for many. Sixty-five percent of African Americans in Seattle public schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 69 percent live with one parent — both leading indicators of poverty. If parents can't afford an instrument or private lessons, it's unlikely that music performance will ever become part of a child's life.

Middle school too late

"Very few kids start on an instrument in middle school," says Seattle Music Educators Association President Megan Cleary, who teaches at Whitman Middle School and Nathan Hale High School. "It's too late."

"The top jazz musicians in high schools didn't start out as jazz musicians," agrees Roosevelt band director Scott Brown. "They started out learning band instruments in elementary school."

Of Seattle's 69 elementaries, just over half — 35 — have a general music teacher. Seven Central District elementary schools with high African-American populations — Gatzert, Leschi, Madrona, MLK, John Muir, Rainier View and Thurgood Marshall — are among the have-nots. A survey by Cleary's group found that the Central District has the lowest percentage of elementary students involved in music.

Almost all Seattle schools offer Elementary Instrumental Music (EIM), an optional program of free, weekly half-hour group lessons, starting in fourth grade. But the district's number of EIM teachers fell from 15 to 13 this year, and some have to cover as many as six schools. Five schools, including Rainier View and MLK, have no EIM. The district's 2003-04 budget will reduce EIM from a full day to a half-day for schools with the program.

In a recent inventory, the district determined it needs 247 new instruments. There is almost no budget to repair instruments.

"There is a kid at Stanford who was so excited to play the flute but went out crying because I didn't have a flute for him," says Carla Becker, who teaches EIM at John Stanford and Summit schools.

Superintendent Joseph Olchefske says the availability of early training is "critical." But with large budget deficits, he says, "our focus is on the core academics of reading, writing, math and communication."

To get an idea how all this plays out in real life, compare the progress of two young Seattle musicians.

Garfield freshman Schlosser, who is white, started on piano in second grade. At St. Joseph School and Lowell Elementary, he had general music; in fourth grade, an EIM teacher started him on trombone. His mother immediately signed him up for private lessons.

Schlosser plays in the Seattle Youth Symphony and was a star soloist at Washington Middle School, whose band traveled to Reno, Florida and Moscow, Idaho, for the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. In January, he traveled with the Garfield band to Toronto. He may go to New York four times in the next four years and European festivals at least twice.

Though scholarships are available for band trips, no one subsidizes the private lessons Sam now takes from two different teachers, or the price of his excellent instrument.

Garfield sophomore Maxie, who is black, is a talented musician and athlete whom several kids in the jazz band describe as an "awesome" keyboard player.

But when Maxie auditioned this year (one of only two African Americans out of 97 at Garfield who did), it turned out he couldn't read music. He had learned by ear, from his uncle, at the Unity Church of God in Christ. Maxie went to Dunlap Elementary, where there was no general music teacher. At Hamilton Middle School, he played drums in jazz band but dropped out.

Two years ago, Maxie and several friends started the variety band As One, which plays hip-hop, R&B and jazz. He says he would like to take lessons, but they are expensive, and now varsity football takes up most of his free time.

"Cost is a factor," says his mom, Angela Maxie. "Instruments are extremely expensive."

Jazz may have been born on the poor side of town, but in Seattle, it has become an upper-middle-class game. And that game gets played at the highest levels only in the district's top academic schools.

In fact, Garfield High and its feeder school, Washington Middle, are Accelerated Progress Program schools, designed to attract the smartest kids in the district. Roosevelt High and its feeder, Eckstein Middle, are both in the high-income, high-achieving North End.

"You can't just jump in" to these bands, says Cleary Clark, a black student at Roosevelt who performs in the hip-hop group Hipnotize. "It's the varsity team."

At schools where jazz band isn't treated like a varsity sport, more African Americans participate. At Meany Middle School, for example, 12 black kids play in jazz band, three times the number of any other district school.

But jazz programs don't exist in a vacuum. They are part of the culture at large, which has changed drastically.

A 1992 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, conducted by the National Endowment for the Humanities, revealed that the audience for jazz concerts is 80 percent white. Only 16 percent of African Americans say they like jazz "best of all" genres of music.

In the past, hip-hop kids like Maxie and Clark might have been playing jazz — a popular, rebellious, oral tradition performed by community-tutored musicians in black neighborhoods. Today, jazz is an American classical music, accounting for less than 2 percent of total U.S. record sales.

"I stopped to watch several videos on MTV recently," says Dan Castro, who is white and directs the competitive jazz band at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.

"I didn't see one band member playing a musical instrument," Castro says. "Three men were rapping on mikes, one was using a deejay machine, and there were 10 young ladies dancing in bikinis. This, in itself, sums up our struggles."

Maxie cites the same trend.

"I guess (jazz) is not their type of music anymore," he says of his African-American friends. "A lot of them don't play instruments, they play sports. Some of them play keyboard a little, but just so they can make a beat."

Garfield flutist and pianist Meghan Swartz, who is white, says that's not just true of blacks: "In high school, jazz is not the culturally hip thing for anyone."

The low number of black students in jazz bands may also reflect Seattle, where just 8.4 percent of the population is black. In cities where there are more blacks, bands are more diverse.

Houston, whose schools are 31 percent African American, routinely sends a band that's about 50 percent black to the Essentially Ellington competition. In the South, a strong tradition of black institutions, particularly marching bands, has endured.

"You don't have that here," explains Washington Middle School band director Bob Knatt, who is black and, like Garfield's Acox, came to Seattle from Louisiana. "You can go to places where there's an all-black basketball team, baseball team, symphony orchestra, and an all-black marching band and jazz band.

"And it's quite as challenging as the sports program, because there's a heck of a lot of pride in it."

Seattle, by contrast, has few deeply rooted black cultural institutions. The ones it does have — churches, Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center, the Total Experience Gospel Choir, the African-American Academy — don't stress jazz.

"There aren't a lot of opportunities to affirm your identity as a black person here," says African-American jazz pianist Darrius Willrich. "Sometimes, people take it as an affront if you do."

"Where do African-American kids make music?" asks Patricia Kim, who taught music at Cleveland and Sealth high schools for nine years and is now director of education and community programs for the Seattle Symphony. "They're singing in gospel choirs. They're making music in the places that they identify as their culture."

Clark, Maxie and their friend Corey Overall, who also plays in As One, all dropped out of jazz band in middle school but continue to play gospel music and hip-hop.

Lack of access to instruments and music lessons may be more tangible reasons for the decline in black jazz students. Several individuals and organizations are trying to address those obstacles.

"This is not fair," says Garfield parent Marnie O'Sullivan. "We need to start at fourth grade, or earlier, teaching these kids to read music."

For the past three years, O'Sullivan has run a volunteer tutoring program at Leschi Elementary School, which is 79 percent black and has no general music teacher. O'Sullivan's program offers free lessons, taught by secondary-school musicians, several of whom play in the district's esteemed jazz bands. In any given week, 14 to 16 tutors are in the program.

"There are kids at Washington who started at the Leschi program who are now in junior orchestra," she says.

Also involved is Music Works Northwest, a private, nonprofit community music school originally based in Rainier Valley but now in Bellevue. Three years ago, it returned to the old neighborhood, opening a branch at Seattle's New Hope Baptist Church.

Through a seed grant from Social Venture Partners and a partnership with musical-instrument chain Kennelly Keys, Music Works Northwest provides 70 low-income kids with $4-an-hour music lessons.

The Seattle Symphony Orchestra and the Seattle Rotary Club also kicked off an initiative in January to raise money for instruments districtwide.

Over at Washington Middle School, Knatt is recruiting minority kids for beginning instrumental music and offering an intensive summer program. He and a group of parent activists, Friends of Washington Music, have raised $130,000, including $75,000 to buy and repair instruments.

But Knatt says that without student and parent commitment, all this comes to nothing.

"I can arrange for you to work with a professional," he says, "and the Friends of Washington Music would pay. But it's not a gift. And don't come to me and notice that there are no minority kids in the program, but your kid isn't involved."

At Garfield, Acox and orchestra director Marcus Tsutakawa have started an after-school program for beginning instrumental music, with an eye toward recruiting more minorities.

"We've got to do something," says Acox, "to open the doors for more kids."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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