Tech Training Empowers Teens


Instructor Omar Abdulkarim (far right) works with students at the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota.

(Photo: Katia Cardenas)

Amid the local protests following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police last year, Jerome Treadwell—a teenage saxophonist and social activist from neighboring St. Paul—cut a solitary figure. Roaming the streets, he offered musical inspiration to protesters.

“I had my saxophone on my back, and it was my shield, my sword,” he said in a January Zoom conversation.

But spiritually speaking, he was not alone. He was part of Experience Jazz, a program for musicians ages 13 to 19 run by the nonprofit organization Minnesota Jazz Education in partnership with the High School for Recording Arts, a public charter school. The program equips students with skills to succeed in music—and life—as it promotes social justice and forges community ties.

“We try to bring people together from diverse backgrounds,” said Experience Jazz Program Director Katia Cardenas, who also was on the Zoom call.

The program, which began in 2017, seeks musicians of different skill levels; those interested in jazz and its relationship to idioms like hip-hop and soul; and, critically, those from both the inner city and suburbs, who otherwise might not interact.

“Being able to relate and enjoy yourself with people who don’t look like you is that one step that will cross the racial barrier in the Twin Cities,” said Treadwell, a 16-year-old African-American musician.

The program, which last year included 28 students, teaches a range of skills. The students build their musicianship in combos that rehearse in the 325-student HSRA’s St. Paul headquarters, where the technically inclined can use the school’s state-of-the-art recording facility, Studio 4. On the business side, students engage in everything from production to promotion.

For some participants—particularly HSRA students, who constitute about 20 percent of the program’s mix—such training can open up new worlds. This is particularly important for at-risk students. Thus, the program serves a larger societal purpose, according to Scott Herold, who teaches the business of music at HSRA and is the liaison between the school and Experience Jazz, for which he also is a teaching artist.

“If we’re going to stop systemic racism in America, then we have to give people who are oppressed by systemic racism the skill sets they need to be able to function in the economy,” he said on the Zoom call.

Last year, the program was scheduled to run between early February and late May. But midway through the course, the pandemic hit. The program had to switch to online instruction, which proved especially complicated because its main project was the production of an album.

“The biggest jump we had was, how do you get the technology into the hands of the young people,” Herold said, noting that while some students had elaborate recording setups at home, others had only smartphones.

Even as teachers and students were scrambling to adjust to the pandemic, Floyd was killed and the Twin Cities became the epicenter of worldwide protests. The resulting trauma extended a production schedule that had already been disrupted.

“We had to pump the brakes and put people first and really just let everything simmer,” Cardenas said.

Ultimately, work on the album proceeded. Students and teachers met at Zoom planning sessions and contacted each other by email. Trained by the young DJ Mickey Breeze on recording software, they laid down their tracks at home and sent them to their combo leaders, who in turn forwarded them to Breeze, who mixed, matched and made them radio ready.

On Nov. 2, Experience Jazz 2020: The Sounds Of Distance was released on the student-run label Another Level Records. The album features 13 seductive tracks, ranging from a hip-hop reimagining of War’s 1973 hit “The World Is A Ghetto” to the r&b-inflected collective original “Seven,” on which Treadwell appears. All the tracks showcase an underlying jazz sensibility.

This year, the program, set to run from March 20 to June 12, again has openings for 28 students. The course costs $150 (scholarships are available) and sessions will be held via weekly Zoom meetings, though contingency plans allow for in-person learning.

Students may not be able to tackle a project as ambitious as the 2020 release. While producing an album can be important, Herold said, “a release is never the end game.”

What is? For HSRA Executive Director Tony Simmons, who gave Experience Jazz a brick-and-mortar home, the answer is unchanged since he founded the school with 15 students in 1998: “Recognizing that these young people had this incredible drive and creative sense, we wanted to create a space where they could nurture and cultivate it and get their education.” DB

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