Kenwood jazz band journeys to Symphony Center stage

Can a jazz mentor's world premiere change lives?

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The jazz band at Kenwood Academy, a high school on Chicago's South Side, gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- the chance to play original compositions from internationally renowned composer/pianist Jason Moran at Chicago's hallowed Symphony Center.

First in an occasional series

CELEBRATED PIANIST JASON MORAN, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 and directs jazz at the Kennedy Center in Washington, walks into the band room at Kenwood Academy High School and faces a rather tough crowd.

For starters, virtually none of the students in Room 134 has heard of him or knew he was coming. To them, he's this tall, smiling, bearded stranger who's apparently a big deal, because a documentary film crew is following him around.

"I want to introduce Jason Moran — say 'Hello Mr. Moran,'" bandleader Gerald Powell tells his charges, who range from seventh-graders to seniors, on a wind-swept February afternoon.

"Hello Mr. Moran," everyone says dutifully. "He already heard us out at the Jazz Festival," Powell continues, referring to the Kenwood band's appearance at the Chicago Jazz Fest last summer. "He is a renowned jazz pianist. He wants to sort of adopt this program. He wants to put you in a situation where jazz has more exposure."

That's putting it mildly. In just over three months from this moment, Moran will present the 25-member Kenwood Academy Jazz Band in the world premiere of an evening-length work he's going to write for Symphony Center, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Many of these students say they have never been inside the place, let alone starred there in front of 2,000-plus listeners and alongside a MacArthur "genius grant" winner. That Moran also has enlisted the services of eminent Chicago visual artist and social activist Theaster Gates, as well as MacArthur Fellow and Chicago jazz master Ken Vandermark as guest saxophonist, only raises the stakes.

All of which comes as news to the young folks, who have other concerns on their minds: midterms, band contests, AP exams, homework, prom, basketball, the opposite sex.

"He's probably famous; he seems cool," bass trombonist TC Ray, an 18-year-old Kenwood senior, says later. "He's probably really big, but I just don't know it."

Moran steps to the front of the room and tries to warm the place up. He points to assistant band director Bethany Pickens, daughter of the revered octogenarian Chicago jazz pianist Willie Pickens, and begins to speak.

"While I was here, I saw her father," Moran says, referencing last summer's Jazz Fest, where Moran and Willie Pickens made major appearances and spent hours conversing afterward.

"And I love her father," Moran adds. "He said, 'You should come to Kenwood.'"

And so Moran has, in a dramatic way. Having checked out the Kenwood band at last year's festival, he decided to take Willie Pickens' advice and then some.

From February through May, Moran, Powell and Bethany Pickens will lead these young musicians on a journey that's short in geography but large in every other way. Yes, it's just a few miles from 5015 S. Blackstone Ave. to 220 S. Michigan Ave. From the South Side of Chicago, where Kenwood Academy instructs more than 1,800 students, to Symphony Center, where the CSO and other musical luminaries appear on Chicago's most vaunted cultural boulevard.

But considering the vicissitudes of life on the South Side these days — with shootings making international headlines and haunting the lives of everyone in this band room, they say — the journey could be profound. It will culminate at 8 p.m. Friday, when the Kenwood jazz band will share the stage with Moran and his own ensemble, the Bandwagon, plus Gates, Vandermark and others for the world premiere of Moran's "Looks of a Lot."

Powell, Pickens and even Moran realize there's no way the students can understand the significance of what's about to happen.

"I tell my students this all the time, and as an educator we talk about it all the time: the fact that a teenager's mind doesn't fully develop until they're like 22, 23. Their front lobe (is still getting wired)," says Powell. "They can't quite comprehend it.

"And so what'll happen is five years later they'll come back and say, 'Oh, wow, we did perform with Jason Moran, and we did perform at (the) CSO and, oh my God, we did these things.'"

Or as Kenwood Principal Gregory Jones puts it, "Typically, educators — we talk about the outcomes (of schooling) being in many cases four to eight years later. For 14-, 16-year-old students, that's like a lifetime."

Yet Jones hastens to add that this time could be different.

"To sit and prepare and practice and practice, and a short time later to perform on such a big stage, I think it brings an immediate connection to hard work," he says.

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