Spreading groove

By Colin Shively

Chicago’s art, music and culture are as diverse as the United States itself. From pop and rap music icons to jazz legends, the city’s history is rich and vibrant. However, over time, history tends to be forgotten. But for the past three years, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble has been working hard to bring music to the Chicago Public School system.

The Louis Armstrong Legacy Program and Celebration is a series of lessons taught to Chicago Public Schools students by professional jazz players through February and March each year. The lessons are incorporated into the students’ daily schedule to make it convenient to get students involved.

“This was an idea among several people to do this program to benefit Chicago Public Schools,” said Darius Hampton, education director at the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. “We wanted to expose the students to the works of Louis Armstrong, and particularly important, was to stress Armstrong’s connection to Chicago.”

In Armstrong’s early career, he recorded his “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” albums in Chicago, which jazz critics named as two of the finest recordings in jazz history. Hampton and his colleagues wanted to give CPS students the opportunity to learn and listen to those historical music moments.

The Louis Armstrong Program has a quality that other jazz teaching programs in the city do not, said Kate Dumbleton, executive director of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. Unlike other courses that only focus on the most talented of music students, the Louis Armstrong Program spans all levels of talent in the CPS music classes.

Although most schools that call upon the Louis Armstrong Program are middle and high schools, the program has been involved with numerous elementary schools around Chicago, Hampton said.

“We don’t necessarily expect everyone to be a professional musician,” Dumbleton said. “But anybody who participates can not only learn about Louis Armstrong and the history of jazz, but also benefit from the kind of skills that come from performing [and] play[ing] music, like critical thinking skills and participating in a group environment.”

The program is easy for teachers and professionals at CPS to use, Hampton said. The program sends musicians from inside the Chicago Jazz Ensemble to schools that ask the program to come in. The Chicago Jazz Ensemble also uses music teachers from colleges, including Columbia.

In recent years, CPS has been talking about reducing funding for fine art, which would put students at a disadvantage. The Louis Armstrong Program doesn’t view itself as an alternative to music education in the school system, but as a resource that teachers can utilize, Dumbleton said.

“The teachers in the public schools are doing a great job with the resources they have,” Dumbleton said. “What our program does is try to assist them with resources that they might not have to work with. For us that means they have direct access to professional musicians to come in and work with the students.”

At the end of the spring term, the Louis Armstrong Program hosts its Celebration concert, where the students, teachers and parents join the Chicago Jazz Ensemble to perform what they learned throughout the semester. There, they receive support and critiques from professionals like Jon Faddis, a well-known Chicago jazz musician who helped form the program.

“It is like ‘American Idol,’” Dumbleton said. “But we are a lot nicer.”

This year, because of the growth of the school bands involved in the program, Celebration will take place at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., instead of their personal music department, Dumbleton said. They will be using numerous rooms and stages which will allow a better learning environment for the students.

The Louis Armstrong Legacy Program and Celebration will have its concert on May 6. The ensemble will also host numerous concerts for CPS throughout the spring semester. For more information, visit ChicagoJazzEnsemble.com.