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.
Moreover, "It gives them hope. It connects them with something, in many cases, students do not see as being possible. Just having a chance to perform a piece that was specifically written for them in the symphony hall. It just allows kids to be in a space of greatness."
That possibility never has been more sorely needed than now, for the gun violence that's playing out on the streets of the South and West sides of Chicago echoes in the psyches of these young musicians. None has eluded its effects.
"Coming from Oak Park, which is relatively violence-free and it doesn't have too many problems daily, and then moving to Chicago, where it's like you hear about it every day, someone dying, someone getting shot, it's definitely very stressful," says 17-year-old saxophonist Jamie Steen, a Kenwood junior who moved with her family into the city last year.
"It makes me nervous if I'm safe to walk outside of my door, because people have been shot in front of their church, in front of their front door," she continues.
Says trombonist Ray, "You pretty much see it on the news every day. As I'm waking up, I hear my mother complaining about it, like, 'Oh, Lord, stop all this killing.'"
Jones emphasizes that "Kenwood and Hyde Park is a very safe and inviting place," and, indeed, the school sits in a scenic residential neighborhood near the University of Chicago campus. But these young musicians' lives, experiences and exposure stretch far wider than that geographical enclave.
A "young lady that was murdered a few days ago was a friend of students who went to this school," Bethany Pickens says. "And some of these students cross these boundaries and are in these neighborhoods where a lot of this stuff is happening, so, yes, it does impact them.
"I have students here who live in the Englewood area, and their mode of operation is to go straight home (after school). They're not hanging out."
The band members say the violence serves as a kind of backdrop to their lives, and that includes 12-year-old electric bassist Steven Bowman, a seventh-grader attending Kenwood as part of the Academic Center program that welcomes younger students.
"We watch this show called 'Chicagoland,' all about bad things that happen in Chicago," says Bowman, referring to the recent CNN series that chronicled some of the mayhem.
"I think it's terrible, really," he adds. "I think it's kind of helped me to get more street smarts and know what to do and not to do, and if I should stay somewhere when it's late or walk somewhere. … One thing my parents taught me (is) that I should always be supervised, someone should always be there who can, you know, protect me."
Along these lines, Bowman a couple of months ago got off of social media because his parents "knew about all the dangers (that) have been happening with that sort of thing."
Such as the teenage Facebook quarrel that turned into violence on April 28, when 14-year-old Endia Martin was shot to death by another 14-year-old girl. The Tribune is not identifying the student charged in the slaying because she is a juvenile.
For the musicians at Kenwood, the band room "is their refuge," says Bethany Pickens, and the students concur.
"It's a really great feeling; I feel comfortable here," says 17-year-old trumpeter GianCarlo Jerry, a junior.
Adds saxophonist Steen, "When I'm in the band room, I don't really think about all that (crime). Because when I'm playing my music, I don't really think about anything else. … Like even when I'm home, and I hear about this stuff on the news, if I just listen to music, you know, I'll calm down and I won't be as stressed. Because music is just my outlet."
As it is for everyone in Room 134.
There's something else happening in this space, something mysterious yet unmistakable, even before Moran begins his first rehearsal with the band on this February afternoon. In effect, cultural traditions steeped in black history are being transmitted across generations, though, once again, the students may not be fully aware of it.
At 83 years old, pianist Willie Pickens stands as one of the sages of Chicago jazz, a repository of decades of knowledge acquired on the bandstand from the elders who trained him. As a public school teacher, Pickens launched the Kenwood band program in the 1960s, setting an exalted standard for the institution. His daughter, pianist Bethany, also attended Kenwood and now, as a teacher there, carries forth his legacy.
The flow of knowledge, then, courses from Willie Pickens, who first told Moran about Kenwood, to Bethany Pickens, who's 51 and continues her father's work, and on through the efforts of three formidable figures: Powell, 42; Moran, 39; and Gates, 40. They're teaching, coaching, shaping students ages 12 through 18, extending a musical colloquy across nearly a century. And they're doing it in an ancestral home of jazz, where trumpeter Louis Armstrong and pianist Jelly Roll Morton (and other New Orleans pioneers) gave this music a foothold in Chicago as early as 1910, when Morton came here.
In effect, a vast sweep of black culture continues to unfold on the South Side and finds voice anew through this venture in Kenwood's band room, with a major league boost from Moran and Gates. The pianist had admired Gates' artistry and struck up a friendship with him well before receiving the Symphony Center commission, which offered a rare opportunity for them to collaborate.
"We both have a history of working with young people and feel pretty strongly that if these legacies are going to continue in black and brown communities, that somebody has to be teaching — and that teaching has to be rigorous," says Gates, who is designing the set for the new piece.
"And so I think we were both kind of in a love for the importance of passing on the work in different ways."
Their input is crucial — as is the work of Powell and Bethany Pickens — because they're sharing information with emerging musicians who otherwise have scant access to it. Jazz and related musical forms have been virtually wiped away from free TV and radio and the popular culture at large.
"You won't even get it from reading a textbook," says Bethany Pickens. "I feel like sometimes some of the things I say (to students) are echoed from what I've heard or reverberating what I've heard in my household."
The oral tradition continues.
Why did Moran take on this enormous venture? Symphony Center had commissioned him to create a major piece as part of its Truth to Power Festival, which explores defiant works of Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten.
Moran zeroed in on what he sees happening in Chicago right now.
"If I turn on the news," says Moran, who lives in New York, "a lot about Chicago is about its violence, the epidemic that's there and all the things that are wrong with that wonderful city.
"That's hard to look at. And I wanted to start to try to think about the world," adds Moran, whose life's work is being chronicled by the film crew that followed him to Kenwood in February. "I didn't want to get nitpicky on death and destruction but (write) more about uplift — but also sharing the pain too."
Powell appreciates the "uplift."
The school, he says, is "filled with kids who are doing positive things, positive things other than shooting themselves. And this is a great opportunity to show something positive, especially on the South Side of Chicago.
"The last big thing coming out of the South Side of Chicago was, unfortunately, the Hadiya incident," adds Powell, referring to 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton.
She was fatally shot Jan. 29, 2013, in a North Kenwood park. A week earlier, Pendleton had performed with the King College Prep band at President Barack Obama's inauguration. Two reputed gang members were charged with murder a month after her death.
Until Moran's premiere, no one will know for sure how his opus addresses life in Chicago. But perhaps it's instructive to observe that Franz Schubert's timeless song "Der Doppelanger" will stand at the core of the evening.
At its essence, the song, with text by poet Heinrich Heine, chillingly describes a man looking longingly at a house where he once experienced love and seeing someone starting out the window in despair. Then the man realizes the sorrowful person he sees is actually himself: his doppelganger (or "spirit double").
That "duality," as Moran describes it, may reflect the duality of these students' lives, inside and outside of Kenwood's band room.
Before Moran begins working with the band, he says a few more words.
Symphony Center "asked me to write some music for them," he tells the students. "I said: What better people to write for" than the Kenwood band he'd heard last summer. "But also have y'all on the stage with me too. I'm excited about that. … May 30. Put it on your calendar. You have a gig on May 30."
With that, Moran listens to the band play some of its repertoire, but he's clearly not impressed with what's happening — or, more accurately, not happening — with rhythm.
"I want to make sure our rhythm section isn't being out-grooved by the trumpet section," he says with a smile. At which point Powell calls for each section of the band to rehearse separately in different areas of the school.
Moran stays in the band room and settles in with the rhythm players, saying softly but insistently, "You got to play it in a way that makes somebody feel something! … Listen to records. Listen to John Lee Hooker and listen to how a shuffle sounds. It's real simple, but it's supposed to feel like a mountain is moving."
Moran goes over and over the concept with the students, and as they get ready to leave he notices that bass trombonist Ray is holding a portfolio of sketches. Moran inquires, and Ray reluctantly shows him his drawings.
"I was like, 'Oh, man, those are great,'" recalls Moran.
Ray was skeptical.
"If somebody says it's great, that's trash," says Ray later, recalling the encounter. "That's not my best. …"
But Moran persisted.
"I was like, 'What are you talking about, man?'" remembers the pianist. "I said, 'Those are great.' … I said, 'Man, you know what you should do? You should just draw everybody in the band.'"
Ray wasn't ready to leap on that idea, but he did remember one thing Moran told him.
"He says that music and art kind of go hand in hand, like they're together. If you do music, art ain't too far away," Ray says. "He told me that I should actually get down to art a little more, because apparently to him I'm really good at it.
"I am, but there was a reason why I stopped drawing for a bit. One, because once you start drawing you become this perfectionist, you know what I mean? And every little line, you're like: 'Let me get that right. No, that's not right.'
"Again. Again. … You have this one clear image in mind, but you can never, like, seem to get it, but the best you can do is as close to it as you can get."
So Moran asked Ray, "Is the music the same thing?"
"I'm like, 'Yeah, it kind of is,'" says Ray.
Not a bad lesson on day one: Whether it's music or art or, really, anything worth achieving, you've got to sweat to make it happen.
Not long after that first meeting with the students, Moran emails Bethany Pickens the first piece he wants the students to learn: his new arrangement of "Wabash Stomp," an ode to Chicago recorded in 1937 by trumpet immortal Roy Eldridge, a Chicagoan known worldwide as "Little Jazz" because of his diminutive height and outsize accomplishments.
Powell and Bethany Pickens work on it with the students week after week, but the music is so historically remote to them that it may as well be Beethoven or Brahms. The romantic style, buoyant sense of swing and ardent lyricism of "Wabash Stomp" largely elude them.
"Get your technology together. Google this and find it," Pickens tells the band one day, with some exasperation. "This was the dance music of the day. They danced as couples."
True enough, but the culture, rhythms, manners and attitudes of that era do not emerge when the students play the notes on the page, as the calendar turns to May. Which is too bad, because soon they'll be having their first rehearsal with Moran via Skype.
On May 8 the students go over and over the piece an hour ahead of the session with the him, and Pickens still tries to drive the point home.
"You need to know who these people are," she says, referring to Eldridge and his peers. "What was the style of music back then? What were hairstyles like? What was it like for people of color?
"It was different then."
Then Pickens clicks on her laptop, which she has connected to a projection screen and, all at once, Moran is up there in two dimensions, his somewhat fuzzy image looking over the classroom as it stares back at him. Saxophonist Vandermark has joined the band for this rehearsal, and soon the musicians are off and running with "Wabash Stomp."
Moran smiles and says, "All right, cool, cool," but he doesn't sound enthusiastic. Then he moves on to a brooding jazz arrangement of Schubert's "Der Doppelganger" — with a smoldering solo from Vandermark — and next asks the students to sight-read a tune he just wrote for the concert, "Big News." The piece exudes an aggressive, hip-hop beat, and suddenly the band turns up the dial. The music jumps.
Finally, Moran shocks everyone by asking them to play the vintage "Wabash Stomp" with the hip-hop beat they just tried out on "Big News," and the piece takes flight. Everyone can see Moran bouncing back and forth on screen for the first time, and it's impossible for anyone in the room to sit still.
Moran has made contact.
"That's it! That's it!" he says. "Save it for when I get there. I think that music all fits together. The way you're phrasing it now, it can fit over that beat, because it's that part of how America sounds. The beat in the 1930s versus the beat in 2014 — it's the same thing!"
In a flash, Moran vanishes from the big screen, and the students are buzzing.
"He was so out there," says saxophonist Steen.
"We'd been trying to relate to something from 1937, which is hard to do," adds 17-year-old saxophonist Aisha Turay, a senior.
"Then it happened."
Yes, for the first time there seemed to be the possibility that these young musicians would be able to speak Moran's language, and him theirs.
But Moran is envisioning something deeper.
"I'm trying to show that they have people who care," he says, lauding their parents above all. "And hopefully that will translate sometime later. Or they'll continue into whatever they continue into, but have some kind of forward thrust."
On this afternoon, at the very least, they certainly have plenty of that.
But is it enough to power them through the intensive rehearsals yet to come, the concert itself and to linger in memory the rest of their lives?