Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

October 21, 2013

Playing America’s music at McKell Elementary

Mike James
The Independent

SOUTH SHORE — Children filed into the gym at McKell Elementary School to the sounds of the jazz standard “Fly Me to the Moon” and almost immediately started tapping their feet.

When Wheelersburg jazz musician Gary Billups finished the piece they burst into spontaneous applause, and showed the same approbation for each tune he played.

“I like the way it sounds,” said fifth-grader Madisen Conley, searching for just the right term. “It sounds ... vibrant.”

“It’s very lifelike. It sounds more real than on the radio,” said Adam LeMaster, also a fifth-grader.

Many in the audience of fourth- and fifth-graders were hearing jazz for the first time, and certainly few, if any, had had the pleasure of a live jazz performance. Billups, an artist in residence this week at McKell, made sure the children learned the rudiments of America’s indigenous musical genre, and played more standards on keyboards, clarinet, tenor saxophone and soprano saxophone.

“Children seldom get a chance to hear jazz. It’s hard to find it on the radio,” said Billups, a professional musician and retired music teacher.

He made sure to share a wide range of jazz styles, from Scott Joplin’s ragtime tunes to Dixieland to blues, and introduced them to the improvisational essence of the form on several pieces. “What makes jazz fun is improvisation. You’re a composer on the spot. When you improvise you can play how you feel. If you feel happy you can play happy. If you feel sad you play sad.

McKell music teacher David Bare brought Billups to school through an Area Education Grant mainly to broaden children’s musical horizons.

Besides an introduction to the genre, Bare wanted the children to experience a live performance. “Kids today experience music mostly through headphones. There’s no connection. Music should have a personal connection between listeners and musicians,” he said.

The children will write essays on their listening experience in their classroom journals, he said. Teachers also will seek to connect the experience with lessons in other subjects.

Most important, the introduction may lead to further personal exploration of jazz. “We spark things at school and hope something catches on fire,” Bare said.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.