November 2021 — Every musician’s story seems to be both unique, and the same. While the journey may not have been direct, the moment each one picked up the right instrument was a turning point.
Lonnie Davis, JazzArts Charlotte’s CEO and founder and jazz flutist, requested flute for 5th grade band. It was a rental, distributed from the school band, and it was already 30 years old when she got it. The day came to pick it up. It was tarnished, the case smelled musty, it rattled. But none of that mattered. It was the first flute she had seen up close. Her mom stopped at the grocery on the way home from school that day, and Lonnie simply couldn’t wait. Sitting in the car in the parking lot, she began to figure out how to assemble it and create sounds. She started to press keys, blowing to try to produce sounds. She flipped open the method book she was given, and worked on those first few pages. “I was so excited and focused I still remember getting lightheaded from the efforts.”
Braxton Bateman, JazzArts Ensemble alumni and jazz trumpeter, had been placed on violin in 4th grade because he was too small for the trumpet he desired. “I was drawn to music, but hated violin. I intentionally forgot it in my cubby at school most days.” Two years later, there was a mistake in his class scheduling and he was placed in band. The new teacher asked what instrument he played, and he responded trumpet. His grandad gave him that first trumpet in 6th grade. At the end of that year, the band teacher was shocked to discover he had never played it before. The following year, Braxton joined JazzArts Ensembles.
Troy Conn, JazzArts Ensemble instructor and jazz guitarist, began Jazz Band at age 13 with a guitar his grandparents bought him. “It was not much more than cardboard.” But his band room at school was always open, so he had access to a guitar and amp all the time and that became his hangout spot. “Sometimes I forget how pivotal that was.” His grandmother and mom made a deal, if he played them a song on that guitar, they would buy him an electric. “There wasn’t any doubt. I don’t ever remember not wanting to play.”
Sean Higgins, JazzArts Ensemble instructor and jazz pianist, took his 5th grade school music class recorder lessons to the next level. He signed up for an optional lesson before school with an alto recorder so he could play with his friend Jesse on tenor recorder. The problem was that an alto is a fourth higher than the tenor… so he would just make up the part by ear. “I thought the teacher would be mad, but she never reprimanded me. I concluded either she didn’t realize it, or she allowed me that creative freedom and unorthodox approach to work it out.” While Sean plays piano now, “I have kept that unconventional spirit to this day.”
David Lail, JazzArts Ensemble instructor and jazz saxophonist, chose a saxophone in 5th grade. He really wanted tenor sax, but he understood the deal was that to get to tenor sax, he had to practice on the alto. Christmas of 7th grade, his dad presented him with his first real tenor sax – a brand new Selmer saxophone, a discontinued model discovered at a music store. David continues to cherish that original horn he received so long ago, and has played it in every JAZZ ROOM performance. “For me, the motivation was getting a professional instrument.”
Braxton Bateman shares he always had access to instruments. His grandad was a drummer, and the house was full of drums, guitar, piano, basses. He believes access to all of them played a huge role. It turns out, musicians don’t often play what they started on. Troy went from violin to trumpet to guitar. David went from piano to bugle to cello to saxophone. “I encourage my students to sit and play piano for a while, then sit on drums, then try the bass. They start to learn what feels comfortable, what pulls them. But you might not know until you’ve touched them all,” believes Braxton.
The access to explore an instrument is a common theme for these incredible jazz musicians. As instructors, their goal and greatest joy is to offer that experience and to unlock that magic they so vividly remember.