According to local musician Rudy Volkmann, many elementary school students in the CSRA don’t know what jazz is and have never had the opportunity to see live music.
“We’re often told that not only are we the only jazz kids get, but the only live music they’ll see all year. Period,” Volkmann, who also owns and operates the Augusta Fencing Club, said. “They’ll never see anybody play something. It’s sad.”
Volkmann’s quintet The Augusta Jazz Project (AJP), however, aims to change that through a series of school assemblies.
“We try to find schools that need us the most,” he explained. “Our goal is actually to hit all the elementary schools in the CSRA, which includes South Carolina and the outlying areas as well, once every three years so that no kid goes through grades 3-5 without seeing live jazz once.”
The AJP is not a new organization. In its previous incarnation, it was built upon the Augusta Symphony’s business model. It held large ensemble concerts, smaller chamber concerts and had an educational arm. That version of the organization ended in 2003.
“We basically ran out of funds so we kind of went on hold: hibernation, as it were, but I kind of expected someone to pick up on this educational stuff we did in the schools because there are lots of jazz groups around. But no one really did,” Volkmann explained. “And I just watched the funding for the arts [in schools] go down and down and down and it’s getting less and less and less of anything other than the three Rs which, without application, are relatively meaningless.
“So I reactivated the educational arm of the AJP and went out and tried to find some funding,” he said. “I was very lucky to get some help from Queensborough [Bank] and from the Knox Foundation, who’ve been very generous, and put a quintet back in the schools. We revived, essentially, our educational programming.”
That was in 2010, which makes this the AJP quintet’s fourth year of presenting educational programs. The group, made up of Volkmann, Joel Cruz, Travis Shaw, Not Gaddy and Karen Gordon, plans as many programs as their funding will allow. Some years it’s as little as five shows; this year, they did two shows in the fall and have 10 shows planned between January 10 and March 12 in schools from Richmond and Columbia County to areas that include Clearwater, South Carolina, and Louisville, Georgia.
During the 30-45-minute shows, the musicians do everything from talk about jazz instruments and history to introduce concepts and styles that include syncopation, swing, Ragtime, Dixieland and improvisation. They then demonstrate the concepts by playing, usually a song like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” that all the kids are familiar with.
“We have them sing it and then we have them think about it and then we play the background,” Volkmann explained. “Now, the background holds it all together and I then improvise a melody over the background and let them hear how that happens, and then we play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as a jazz tune. We start it off very straight and simple and then get fairly wild with it and have a good time.”
All this happens in the midst of the group of kids, and for good reason.
“Typically we try to get on the same level as the kids instead of way up on the stage and far away from them so that we’re not playing at them, we’re playing with them,” Volkmann said.
So why jazz? Volkmann, who has a symphonic background and was, in fact, associate conductor of the Augusta Symphony under Harry Jacobs, says it’s more than just that fact that jazz is America’s only native symphonic music. It’s because it’s fun, and he and his group want kids to see how much fun playing music can be.
“It just feels so good to play,” Volkmann, who plays with Savannah River Brass Works, laughs as he explains his love for musical style. “The idea that this is all very important and precious stuff didn’t used to be a part of music. Jazz is more like the Globe Theatre, where people would hoot and holler when somebody did something neat. Now we politely sit on our hands until it’s all over. Not jazz. You do something neat, people let you know immediately and you know it and the people you’re playing with know it. If someone does something neat, everybody reacts. Generally things shift. Everything shifts because of something you do. It’s the instant creative process. The unpredictability. Some of my nicest licks have come from making a mistake.”
And what does The Augusta Jazz Project hope students take away from these educational programs? Many, many things, Volkmann said.
“I hope they get excited about seeing people have fun playing music, that music is made by real people and not MP3 players, and that there is a relationship between live people and music, and jazz particularly, and that it’s historically important,” he explained. “We stress that a lot. It’s America’s only native symphonic music. It largely has African American roots and, in some of these schools, that’s a real eye opener for them. We’d just like them to get excited about music in general.”
The Augusta Jazz Project held two educational assemblies last fall and have 10 more planned for January, February and March, the first of which is Friday, January 10, at 10 a.m. at Glenn Hills Elementary School. For a full schedule of class programs or to donate to the AJP’s mission, contact Rudy Volkmann at 706-722-8878 or firstname.lastname@example.org.