In the spacious gymnasium of the Global Scholars Academy, a 5-year-old charter school on Dowd street, jazz musician Al Strong introduced the trumpet to two grade-school girls.
The trumpet is a famously tricky instrument, and the girls were making rather alarming sounds. Patiently, Strong – an instructor with N.C. Central University’s Jazz Studies program – blew on his own trumpet and played a strong, clear note.
“That’s a low C,” he said. “That’s the first thing we’re going to learn.”
Squinting with concentration, the girls followed Strong’s gentle instructions until they matched the note. Their chins lifted, the trumpets followed, and their eyes lit up.
Strong and a half dozen other jazz musicians are at Global Scholars Academy, or GSA, this week for the first ever stArt of Cool summer jazz camp – an educational program of the nonprofit Art of Cool Project, which held its first jazz festival in downtown Durham last April. The summer camp at GSA is the pilot program for what organizers hope will be a larger jazz education initiative for kids in Durham and the Triangle.
The weeklong camp, for students in third through seventh grades, is one of several summer programs offered by GSA, which serves at-risk kids from Durham’s underprivileged communities.
“This program really enhances what we do,” said Leonard Mayo, who serves as GSA’s head of school along with co-administrator Agatha Brown. “There’s a lot of competition out there in the world for these students’ attention, and so – in addition to reading, writing and arithmetic – we want to provide things that will attract them to the school and keep them engaged.”
Down the hall from the gymnasium, several other jazz workshops were being led by stArt of Cool instructors Strong recruited from the local jazz scene. In the library, four kids gathered around a drum kit. In the dance room, students were helping set up electronic keyboards. Other workshops included guitar, bass and saxophone.
“It’s one of my dreams to bring the program out to other schools and to more kids that have not played before or are just starting to play,” said Strong, taking a break between sessions. “It gives them another positive outlook. I didn’t start playing trumpet until high school, but I was in other band programs before that and it sort of kept me out of trouble.”
Free Saturday concert
A total of 23 students, ages 9-13, are participating in this year’s jazz camp. The camp will conclude with a final concert at noon Saturday in the GSA gymnasium. The concert is free and open to the public.
Coming out of the saxophone workshop, 9-year-old Adriana Flores said the instructors were “very nice” and that she was enjoying learning more about the saxophone.
“It’s such a cool place to be in the summer,” she said. “Instead of just sitting on the couch watching TV, you can be at least be learning something.”
Quentin Rountree, 12, has been taking classical piano lesson for a couple of years but said he likes learning about jazz from the instructors. “They can teach you about things that you really don’t know,” he said. “And if you think you know something, then they can teach you more.”
Quentin’s mom, Kyla Rountree, hopes the summer camp will enhance Quintin’s already powerful love of music.
“This is his strong point and we’re trying to make him see that there’s this path in life,” she said. “His strength, his calling, is in music, really. I want to foster that. Right now, he doesn’t think he can make a living doing this, but I think he can.”
Back in the gymnasium, Strong – who also serves as vice president of the Art of Cool Project – said he hopes the summer camp program will not only spark kids’ interest in music, but also serve as a catalyst for positive change in the community.
“It gives kids an alternative to the other choices that might be out there,” Strong said. “Even if they don’t decide to become professionals or working musicians, I feel like we’re still fulfilling the mission of Art of Cool, which is expanding the audience for jazz.
“These students will hopefully grow up to be supporters of live music, and who knows? Maybe some of them will start their own summer arts camps. It’s a cycle that we want to keep going. You get what you give.”