The Northern Kentucky University Jazz Ensemble participates in a variety of on-campus performances every semester. But, for the past three years, the band has kept its instruments tuned and rhythm section at the ready in order to headline its local Blues Festival each spring.
The festival, which showcases a 21-piece band composed entirely of NKU music majors, is an occasion for the students to strut their musical prowess; but more than that, it is an opportunity to revive a waning art and to raise money in support of a local cause.
“I’m under the firm belief that jazz and blues are being lost to those in academia,” said William B. Hogg, assistant professor of saxophone and jazz studies at NKU. “The Blues Festival — and more specifically — the EMPOWER Program, helps raise money to benefit kids who want to learn to play jazz-type instruments.”
But many kids, says Hogg, just don’t have the money, means or direction to obtain a sax, a bass guitar or any other instrument in order to start playing music on their own.
This is where the festival does what it does best. Through headlining local jazz and R&B bands such as G. Miles and The Hitmen, Hogg and NKU are able to raise thousands of dollars each year in order to provide instruments and music lessons for the Campbell Lodge Boys’ Home.
The home’s mission is to provide therapeutic guidance for at-risk young men in a nurturing, Christian environment, according to Barry Jones, executive director of the home. “The money raised at the festival will go directly to the EMPOWER Program, which benefits many of our troubled youth at the home, and allows them to interact with instruments and music that they otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to do.”
Located on 115 acres of land in Cold Spring, the home mentors 27 young men, providing direction to mitigate problems such as violence, truancy and various types of mental health.
“They have a great deal of land out there, where they do a lot of interactions with horses and outdoor activities,” said Greg Mebs, chemical dependency counselor/social worker and frontman for G. Miles and The Hitmen. “But the EMPOWER Program is able to augment all that by giving the kids an alternative to their daily struggles. Music is also great because kids naturally respond to it.”
According to Hogg, the program strives to make other connections with the home’s young men, instilling the idea that jazz is an art form that owes its inception to many of the same situations the young men are attempting to rise out of.
“What used to be an African-American community-based art from the streets has in recent decades shifted to the halls of academia—which in a sense, has alienated generations who stem from lower socio-economic rungs.”
The founding fathers of jazz and blues, such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, according to Hogg, weren’t classically trained to play their instruments, but learned through hours of hard work, and through interacting with fellow musicians. Hogg contends that this type of learning from the streets may be losing its footing to college trained musicians. And if jazz and instruments aren’t accessible to those of lower incomes, jazz is going to lose popularity among African American artistic hopefuls and will therefore lose prominence among the proceeding generations.
“One of the best example that stands out in my mind is when I was working with a young clarinet player at Oyler High School in Cincinnati.”
The girl, Hogg says, had promise at playing the clarinet and even enjoyed the music. But when he approached her about participating in a school talent show, the girl declined. She instead wanted to practice dancing, in hopes of one day performing in a rap video.
“I’m not saying that dancing in a video isn’t commendable, it’s just that the kids nowadays don’t think of playing music as a viable option,” Hogg said.
He says that many African-Americans today, and inner city kids for that matter, may put many hours of practice into basketball or other pastimes, but music has taken a back seat, and this is due in part to it not being driven home in these communities.
“That clarinet girl made me realize the emphasis needs to shift,” Hogg said. “There are other options out there and if we don’t allow younger generations to embrace the art of jazz, a large part of the African-American experience stands the chance of being lost. The EMPOWER Program helps instill at least a small part of jazz and music into these young lives, and the Blues Festival ensures that that program continues.”
Story by Jeremy Jackson