JALC’s Big Jazz Ed Outreach

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“It’s all about community,” Todd Stoll says of J@LC’s jazz outreach.

(Photo: Ayano Hisa)

Having joined the Jazz at Lincoln Center education program 10 years ago, Todd Stoll has overseen the organization’s enormous growth to become the largest exclusively jazz education program in the world. The vice president of education stresses the three legs of the success: performance, education and advocacy.

“We are advocates for music, musicians and audiences,” said the 58-year-old trumpeter and educator. “We feel it’s important to teach the next generation. We want to give them a platform to grow. You have to remember how the jazz elders like Dizzy and Benny Carter always pushed for educational outreach.”

As the culture gradually inches its way out of the closed-door strictures of the pandemic, the JALC education department reflects back on how the shutdown opened the opportunity to work in new ways, to develop across departments, to become a more of a community. Most of the marquee projects in the multitiered program were forced to continue remotely. That included JALC’s keystone Essentially Ellington high school competition in its 27th year; Swing University (an online lifeline to a global audience) and the Let Freedom Swing social justice school residencies, which have reached nearly a half million students topping 3,000 performances throughout a nine-year run.

But Stoll has hopes for the new opening of live music. The Essentially Ellington competition and festival, which reaches more than 7,000 schools in 55 countries, has been scheduled as an in-person event for May 2022. The Jazz for Young People Family Concert: What is the Blues?, hosted by singer Catherine Russell, is on the calendar for Rose Theater on March 26. Then there’s the relatively new initiative, the Jack Rudin Jazz Championship, for its in-person sophomore year.

“We started this just before the pandemic,” Stoll said. “We recognized that we had been reaching out to young people, from elementary, middle schools and high schools, but didn’t have anything for collegiate bands. Our goal is to reach folks at a high level of education who are the next generation of players and educators. We want to engage more deeply. We’re just started with this and for now it’s by invitation.”

Stoll is encouraged by the opportunities that JALC has created for students. “We have a pretty good handle on the young and up-and-coming artists,” he said. “We make lots of music available. You can have 17-year-old kids playing Jelly Roll Morton music and then studying Wayne Shorter. We want them to be informed. Pianist Isaiah J. Thompson and saxophonist Alexa Tarantino are good examples of artists who came through our programs. Plus, there’s someone like pianist Aaron Diehl who has become very successful. I’m very enthusiastic and optimistic that the seeds we plant will come to full bloom.”

One of the key elements going forward is talking about social justice and civil rights. “Jazz is a celebration of Black excellence,” Stoll said. “It brings people together. That’s the DNA of the music. Jazz is democracy put to rhythm and tuned to help people understand each other. When Wynton [Marsalis, JALC’s artistic director] wrote a blog post after the death of George Floyd, it started an important conversation about justice and history.”

Stoll said that the next three years will have an aggressive outreach in this regard. For example, in the Let Freedom Swing program, the young artists serving as teachers will work with jazz as a mode of democracy — teaching American history by using jazz as a primary source in discussing civil rights, social justice and the many great migrations in this country.

“The young bands adopt a school and return three times a year,” Stoll said. “It’s all about the music starting an education with students, who form a relationship with their teachers, who they can relate to. It’s about community, which is our goal. This is what Wynton, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, has been doing. In 2019, they had a two-week residency in Brazil, and he and band members taught classes every day.”

Under Stoll’s leadership, the education elements have expanded, including WeBop, which exposes children, from eight months to 5 years old, to the music in interactive family settings. In-person classes will restart in a limited capacity in January. Also impressive is a free virtual program called A Closer Look. “During the pandemic, that became important,” Stoll said. “It’s a hosted program where a variety of topics are presented, whether it’s about a new recording or a new book on jazz or just diving deeper into various artists’ lives.”

What does the future look like to Stoll? “I feel there’s still a lot of work to do,” he said. “There are more places to go on tour, and we’d like to collaborate with other grass-roots jazz organizations. Our country has had a wake-up call in the last few years with the protests, the pandemic, the economy. But that makes our mission all the stronger. The music itself can be a force for social justice. We plan to train teachers and spread the word.” DB




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December 2022
Kenny Barron
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