Until a week and a half ago, gun violence on the streets of Chicago had not directly touched the jazz band at Kenwood Academy High School, at 5015 S. Blackstone Ave.
But on the afternoon of May 18, Kenwood guitarist Aaron Rushing, a 15-year-old sophomore, was shot in the 1100 block of East 47th Street and pronounced dead at 6:11 p.m. at Comer Children's Hospital, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office. No one has been charged. Rushing's mother and grandmother declined to comment.
The band has been rehearsing since February for the world premiere of Jason Moran's “Looks of a Lot,” which the admired pianist says he created to perform with the students as “uplift” amid the killings as well as a way of “sharing the pain.” Moran and the young musicians now will play the piece Friday night at Symphony Center with one fewer band member.
“That's the first time it's ever happened, that we had a student from band (killed),” says band director Gerald Powell, who has held the post since 2005.
“From a tragic standpoint, man, it's like, you know, yet again, another kid. They're dealing with it,” adds Powell, referring to his students. “But it's kind of scary, so close to home.”
Rushing had transferred to Kenwood from Chicago High School for the Arts in the fall.
The Tribune learned after Sunday's A+E section went to press that Rushing was a Kenwood student and member of the band. In interviews conducted over the Memorial Day weekend and afterward, his new bandmates struggled to absorb what happened.
“I was in shock, because I just saw him that Friday,” says 17-year-old saxophonist Aisha Turay, a senior, referring to the days before Rushing's death.
“I try not to think of it that much,” Turay adds. But “walking into sixth period and seeing he's not there. It takes a toll on you.”
Says 17-year-old saxophonist Jamie Steen, a junior, “Every now and again, when I think of his first performance with us and first meeting him, it really kind of hurts.”
The day after Rushing was killed, Powell broke the news to the students during sixth period. The school wanted to convey what happened “in an intimate setting,” says the bandleader.
But that could soften the blow only so much.
“I don't think anybody's seen that coming,” says 18-year-old bass trombonist TC Ray, a senior. “At first I thought he was shot. I didn't realize he was killed.”
For 12-year-old electric bassist Steven Bowman, a seventh-grader attending Kenwood as part of its Academic Center for younger students, the news was an unanticipated milestone.
“I never had someone (close) killed,” recalls Bowman of hearing what happened. “I kind of had this sinking feeling that lasted the rest of the day. It was very hard to believe that he was murdered. … I think I was probably the most affected person, since I was the youngest.”
When Bowman came home from school that day, he told his parents.
“Steven, he's 12, so he's not really emotionally mature, (but) he's actually very cognizant of the events and the circumstances,” says Dr. Steven Bowman, the boy's father and an ER physician.
“He started an entire series of questions with me: What happened? How did this happen? The whole process of death. … He's never had anyone that he's known that has had a violent outcome like that.”
Now, alas, he does.
Who was Aaron Rushing? The young musicians who got to know him in band observed a startling contrast between his reticence with words and his eloquence with music.
“He was so quiet, his friends called him ‘Silence,'” Steen says. “He barely spoke, but he definitely spoke volumes when he played guitar. All the concerts he would sit next to me; I missed a couple entrances (or cues) because I was so entertained.”
Powell, who does not dispense unearned praise, says Rushing “had a lot of promise.” And 17-year-old trumpeter GianCarlo Jerry, a junior whose musical prowess makes him the band's de facto student leader, says Rushing's playing “was amazing.”
So the students go to Friday's premiere at Symphony Center as somewhat changed young people. They'll play Moran's opus of “uplift” and “pain” no longer as observers of gun violence but as those who have suffered from it.
“I didn't get to become close friends with him,” says Jerry, “but he impacted each and every one of our lives. When he passed, it was like, it was sort of a tragic thought that came to mind: Oh, wow, this danger in Chicago is, like, coming closer and closer to people around me.”
Bowman says he often finds himself thinking: “I wonder where Aaron is now.”
Saxophonist Steen grieves for what could have been.
“He has so much potential,” says Steen, refusing to relinquish the present tense. “I could see him being something great.
“And losing him how we did, and hearing about it — how he died — it definitely hurt hearing about it. I was really, really sad. I didn't get to go to his funeral, unfortunately.”
But Steen and others believe that Rushing will be with them Friday night at Symphony Center.
As she puts it, “We definitely have someone to play for.”
For the first story in the series, "Kenwood's journey," plus video and photos of the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band at work with pianist Jason Moran, go to chicagotribune.com/kenwoodjazz.
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The road to 'Looks of a Lot'
Feb. 20: Jason Moran visits Kenwood Academy for the first time and rehearses with students.
March 13: Students run through Moran's arrangement of Roy Eldridge's "Wabash Stomp."
May 8: Moran, via Skype, and bandleader Gerald Powell rehearse with students.
May 18: Kenwood guitarist Aaron Rushing, 15, shot and killed.
May 19: Bandleader Gerald Powell tells students of Aaron Rushing's death.
May 20: Students return to rehearsing Moran's score.
May 22: Moran returns to Kenwood to work with students.
May 27-28: Rehearsals with Moran continue at Kenwood.
Thursday: Dress rehearsal in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center.
Friday: World premiere of Moran's "Looks of a Lot," featuring the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band.