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View From The Inside by Randy Freedman: Kenwood Academy Jazz

Jason Moran, Bethany Pickens and Gerald Powell with the Kenwood Academy Jazz Band after a performance at Symphony Center Chicago.

The film Kenwood’s Journey and its producers, John Owens, Zbigniew Bzdak and Howard Reich, were honored during the 57th annual presentation of the Chicago/Midwest Emmy Awards for Outstanding Cultural Documentary. It was inspired by Reich and Bzdak’s 2014 Tribune series of the same name—this article draws from that work. But the Emmy win does not begin to tell the whole tale of the making of the film, which is a complicated, with many stories both larger and smaller intertwined together and the subplots of gang violence, racial profiling and courageous dedication to the music itself by both students and instructors running throughout. By documenting the events described in Kenwood’s Journey, so meticulously in both print and film, Howard Reich has made an important contribution to our understanding of the impact of musical education as well as its socioeconomic implications. When the talented New York City pianist Jason Moran accepted a commission from Symphony Center to both write and coproduce (with visual artist Theaster Gates, who provided original set design and more) an evening-length work, “Looks of a Lot,” to be performed by the Jazz Band of Chicago ‘s South Side Kenwood Academy. The work, dealing with gun violence on Chicago’s streets, I am sure that neither he, nor anyone else could have envisioned the tragedy that would befall one of Kenwood’s band members. While rehearsals were being held, one of Kenwood’s band members, guitarist Aaron Rushing was shot on May 18, 2015 in the 1100 block of East 47th Street and pronounced dead at Comer Children’s Hospital later that day. This was only two weeks prior to the scheduled world premiere for which the band had been rehearsing. Vaughn Holeman, 15, was standing on West 116th Street when a car drove past him and shooting began. The teenager was hit twice, once in the chest and once under the arm. He was pronounced dead at a hospital one half hour later. This was to be an incredibly painful Mother’s Day for Corliss Holeman, Vaughn’s grandmother. She lost her grandson to gunfire the same way she had lost her son four years previously. This self-perpetuating cycle of violence was one of the main themes of “Looks of a Lot.” Moran is an American jazz pianist, educator and composer heavily involved in musical theatre and multimedia art. He recorded first with saxophonist Greg Osby, and later debuted as a bandleader with the 1999 album soundtrack to Human Motion. Since then he has released eight other albums with his trio, as a solo, or when leading other ensembles, as well as appearing in about 30 albums as a sideman. Moran has garnered much critical acclaim and won a number of awards for his playing and compositional skills, which combine elements of post-bop and avant-garde jazz, blues, classical music, stride piano and hip hop. While playing at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2014, Moran was excited to meet one of his personal all-time jazz heroes, veteran jazz pianist Willie Pickens. “He (Pickens) is always out there, being extremely positive as an elder statesman of the music,” Moran says. “We had a beautiful conversation, and at the end he told me, ‘You know my daughter (Bethany) works with these kids at Kenwood Academy and they’re playing tomorrow afternoon, you should come see them. They are playing one of her pieces.’ The next day I got over there and sat down and listened to them play. I thought to myself: Oh wow, these kids are serious. Howard Reich (comments on screen) “He (Moran) started talking to the kids in the band, signing autographs, taking pictures, and he told Bethany ‘I’ll be back, I am coming back’, but in a bigger way than anyone expected...because when he got the commission from Symphony Center to create a world premiere, he decided and said, ‘I am doing it with the Kenwood Jazz Band.’” Student Aaron Rushing had transferred to Kenwood Academy in the fall of 2013 from the Chicago High School for the Arts where he had distinguished himself, according to some of his ChiArts teachers. Victoria Harris, Rushing’s grandmother, raised Aaron and his two older brothers at various South Side apartments and recognized early on that he was “quiet” and “inward.” Harris also said, “From the outside it would seem that he was somber, but he was just really focused. He learned—just grasped things really quickly.” As a child, Rushing became fond of the guitar that his eldest brother, Anthony Coleman, was playing. Whenever Coleman wasn’t home, Aaron and his other brother, Alex, would practice using the instrument. Alex was 10 months older than Aaron, and they did everything together: “Two peas in a pod,” as Coleman put it, including borrowing their older brother’s guitar. I think I might have caught them both one time in my room actually messing with it and I used to hate it,” Coleman remembered. His grandmother said Rushing burned to have a guitar of his own, so she bought him a beginner’s acoustic model at an Aldi supermarket when he was in the sixth grade. She couldn’t believe how fast he taught himself to play it so she bought him a better, electric guitar. The two younger brothers shared a bedroom, and often Alex would see Aaron practicing relentlessly with a metronome, setting the tempo faster and faster. “He’d just keep going and try to push the limit as much as he could,” Harris remembers. Aaron later wrote in a high school essay: “I yearned for an increase in speed, improvising and all other areas on guitar. I had tried a few books that I had gotten from my brother. But those worked as well as an infant teaching me. I was stuck, but being stuck gave me my hunger to get better. …” Alex said that by seventh grade, Aaron was tearing through the music of Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson, and everything else from heavy metal to smooth jazz. Without having the benefit of a single lesson with a teacher, Rushing got so good that he could play Jimi Hendrix’s famous, shattering version of the national anthem, according to his grandmother. “(Music) was an expression of Aaron—his creativity, his emotion, everything,” says his mother, Jennifer. “That was his Zen, his place of peace,” Alex added. Alex brought his younger brother to a band at James N. Thorp Elementary, on Buffalo Avenue. The other kids in the group were struck by what they heard. “It was so genuine and unique,” said Jawon Mayberry, the band’s drummer, and eighth-grader when Rushing was still in the seventh grade. “It was like a God-given talent.” Through constant practice, Aaron developed calluses on every finger. And whenever Rushing wasn’t doing homework, he was at the guitar his grandmother says. But he also was learning the realities of city life and was exposed to racial profiling. When he went to a Walgreens store in the neighborhood where they lived, he noticed that he was being watched in every aisle. Rushing wrote about the experience later, again in a high school essay: “ … I kept seeing this man with dark black, spiked hair, bushy eyebrows, huge pupils and sharp dog teeth that stuck out of his mouth. Then it started to make sense; I’d been the focus of everyone’s eye from when I first came into the store as if I had been the perpetrator of a crime before I even came in the store. In their eyes, I was a crime ‘bomb’ waiting to explode. I had been profiled as a thief, as a resistor of the law and they didn’t know my name. I don’t think it was personal. But with the amount of crime in the area, such as theft and robbery, as well as the neighborhood being predominately African-American, in their minds it was an African-American male teenager in their store, so ‘he must be trying to steal something.’” In eighth grade, Rushing decided he wanted to study music at ChiArts. His grandmother suggested he line up a second choice, just in case he couldn’t get in (the school accepts 150 students from 1,500 applicants each year). “No, I’m going to ChiArts,” Aaron told his grandmother. Harris took him to the audition, where he tore into a jazz tune and a rock piece and came out smiling—he knew that he was in. Near the very start of Kenwood’s Journey, Moran addresses the band during rehearsals. “All the people who come to see this, they’re going to make out of it something totally different than what we think. We do not have the power to control what they think. What we do know is what we expect from each other and how good this can sound, how powerful it can be. That’s all I am looking for.” When one of the most esteemed musicians in jazz first walked into the Kenwood band room, hardly any of the students knew who Moran was—or cared. Kenwood bandleaders, Gerald Powell and Bethany Pickens, told the young musicians of the privilege they were about to receive: to work with a musician of Moran’s stature and premiere a piece he wrote specifically for them to perform at Chicago’s most prestigious musical address. They nodded their heads politely and just started to work on the music. The implications of the event were lost on them, and perhaps rightly so. These were high school students, not music scholars. But they were students from whom a very great deal was soon to be expected. “Looks of a Lot” combined existing musical works from a variety of sources and arrangements of new pieces written by Moran. Franz Schubert’s “Der Doppelgänger” was incorporated into “Looks of a Lot” and performed as a dramatic reading by Theaster Gates and as a musical vocal by the very talented, classically trained vocalist Katie Ernst. Bringing together a variety of musical and visual forms into one cohesive work would surely have been an impressive accomplishment under any circumstances. But for Jason Moran—and many others who made important contributions—to have persevered under what must have been an incredibly difficult and potentially dangerous working environment for the benefit of Chicago’s youth, is and will likely remain an enduring testimony of courage at Kenwood High School that will be long remembered. Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.

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