Acclaimed student performers visit school district, teach peers to aim high

Nothing shatters morning monotony quite like a jazz concert, especially one swapping an hour of class time for an hour of head-bobbing, finger-snapping and shoulder-swaying.


With a gusto and enthusiasm unique to jazz performers, some of the nation’s most gifted student musicians stole the spotlight, and possibly the hearts, of students at St. Augustine High School on Monday.

The concert preceded a series of “informances” by the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz as part of its free public school peer-to-peer concerts and workshops. Chosen because of its strong and aspiring high school music programs, the St. Johns County School District was one of three districts in the nation to participate in the event.

“The kids are here to teach their brethren, kids their same age, that there’s more to music than rock ‘n roll and hip-hop,” said J.B. Dyas, the vice president for education and curriculum development at the ­institute. “After all, jazz was born in this country.”

Dyan said the institute has visited schools all over the country since 2005 to encourage peer-to-peer education, holding musical performances for student bodies and workshops for jazz band and choir classes.

The goal of the program, he said, is to use students to inspire students.

“And it doesn’t just have to be about music, it could be math or engineering or business,” Dyas said. “But the message is to find something you’re passionate about, believe in yourself, persevere, and go for it. Now, if I give that message, it doesn’t go far. But these kids exemplify it, just by looking and talking to them.”

The six student performers — hailing from Miami, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles — performed alongside renowned saxophonist Bobby Watson and vocalist Lisa Henry for the initial concert, held for SAHS juniors and seniors.

“It’s humbling to be here because I know I’m just one of them,” said trumpeter Brett Karner, a senior from New World School of the Arts. “To be held in a spotlight, to be looked up to by peers, it’s really an honor. I know I’m working hard and it’s showing and people are appreciating it.”

That’s the kind of work ethic and attitude Watson, an internationally acclaimed jazz saxophonist, said he hopes influences students in St. Johns County and elsewhere to emulate.

“I hope they get inspired when they see people their age who have put a lot of time into something, whether it’s music or whatever, you have to really go deep and put a lot of time into what you love to do,” Watson said. “When they see someone my age, they think ‘oh, he’s supposed to play like that. I’ll be that good when I’m that age.’ But when you’ve got kids standing on stage, it gives the students a window of hope.”

Pianist Kevin Gullage, a senior at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, said his first impression of the crowd at SAHS couldn’t have been better.

“They were warm, it was a good feeling,” Gullage said. “Every performer hopes for an audience like that.”

He said he hopes working alongside students will remind them to strive for growth at all stages.

“If you think you’ve climbed to the highest bar, then chances are, you’re well below it and not even close to improving,” Gullage said. “The bar is always being raised for me, it never stops.”

The ensemble will perform at Creekside High School on Tuesday before holding workshops for several district high school jazz and choir classes. They will then visit the Duval County School District and conclude the week with a performance open to the public on April 6 at Jacksonville’s jazz club, The Parlour, at 2000 San Marco Blvd. The evening will feature performances by the students as well as Watson and Henry.

Although jazz music and tutelage certainly front the tour through Northeast Florida, Henry said the picture is much bigger. It’s not just about music, she said, it’s about finding a dream and running with it.

“It’s always good when you can inspire students to be themselves,” the vocalist said. “Hopefully we can give them a different perspective. … We can show them that they can follow their passions. It’s a crazy world right now, but they can still find their niche.”