Making Connections

Jazz Mentors Student Jam

Volume 119, No. 3March, 2019

The Jazz Mentors Band (JMB), with Henry Conerway III, Danny Fox and Endea Owens (not pictured: Chris Cherney).

“If you build it, they will come.” That classic line from the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” held true at a recent winter evening at Local 802, when the Council for Living Music held its fifth Jazz Mentors Student Jam. On that gray, wintry Thursday, with temperatures plummeting into the teens and a stinging wind blowing off the Hudson, the chances of robust attendance were slim.

However, at 5 p.m., a steady stream of students began to appear, instruments in hand, eager to play. By the end of the evening there were over 25 young performers, most under age 21, who had come to meet, mingle and jam with each other under the guidance of top professionals.

Guest artist Kevin Blancq (top) and session leader Henry Conerway III.

On this first student jam of 2019, the Council for Living Music welcomed featured guest artist Kevin Blancq, the director of the highly touted jazz band at LaGuardia High School. The leader for the session was drummer Henry Conerway III, and the band, known as “JMB,” consisted of the skilled Endea Owens on bass and Chris Cherney on piano. (Danny Fox also sat in at the keyboard.)

These jam sessions offer students the opportunity to play and improvise with professionals and peers alike in a safe, supportive environment where all are encouraged to participate, regardless of ability or experience. There is no judgment or negative criticism, only words of guidance and positive reinforcement.

Additionally, the jam session brings together like-minded young performers and provides them with an opportunity to meet fellow musicians and make new friends. It’s another great way to build support within an emerging community.

Pianist Chris Cherney, who also serves on the Local 802 Jazz Committee, observed that the session was notable for yet another reason. “It was wonderful seeing three generations of jazz musicians playing together,” he said.

Cherney added, “One of the professionals who sat in on the session was Danny Fox, who was my student when he was a teenager. Danny told me, ‘My mind is blown. I’m not used to seeing people this age play jazz!’”

To really understand how cross-generational the jam sessions are, Cherney is 66, Fox is 38, and the youngest performer thus far has been Liam Osborne, 14.

The kids hailed from a variety of high schools in the area, including LaGuardia, Midwood and Fairlawn (New Jersey). Past jam sessions have seen attendees from the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts, the Lucy Moses School, SUNY Purchase and the New School.

Fifteen-year-old guitarist Cora Szell has attended every session dating back to spring 2018. “I enjoy all aspects of the student jam,” said Szell. “One thing I love is how supportive the jazz mentors running the whole session are. When I went to my first one, I was nervous. I was scared that I was going to mess up or forget the chords. But when I got there the feel of the whole thing was relaxed and chill, as if you were at a friend’s house jamming.”

Nina Grinblatt, a senior vocalist from LaGuardia, offered equal praise. “I love the Student Jam because it’s a supportive, fun and educational environment,” she said. “I feel lucky to have had such a great learning experience alongside other young musicians.”

The inspiration for these sessions were discussions by the Local 802 Jazz Committee in late 2017. The notion was to provide high school and college students access to working performers who were all also great teachers. Another goal was to work on “must know” repertoire in a safe, supportive space, using the model of the traditional jam session. Likewise, it was important to run the sessions in the Club Room to introduce these young musicians to Local 802.

Midwood High Band Director Dan Jordan and his students.

Local 802 member Rebecca Patterson was instrumental in bringing these events to fruition. Patterson is a bandleader, educator and trombonist who leads her own big band with Ron Wilkins in addition to working with many prominent ensembles. She well understands the importance of the mentor-mentee relationship.

“The jam session attracts exploring minds from all around the area,” said Patterson. “These kids all have something profound in common: a love of jazz. We connect them with their peers and with our experienced artists, who guide them in an organic process of making music.”

Midwood High School’s Daniel Jordan is the principal director of the All City Marching Band and the director of professional development for the New York State Band Directors Association. He proudly reported that his students are getting a lot out of the sessions. “I think these events are a fabulous opportunity for students to collaborate with others their own age,” he said. “My students love going to these and always ask when the next one is coming up.”

High school musicians sign up for the jam.

Session leader Henry Conerway III has worked in a variety of settings, from his own acclaimed small groups, to those of the iconic Freddy Cole and the stalwart Jazz at Lincoln Center trumpeter Marcus Printup. Most recently he has appeared internationally with Grammy nominee Jazzmeia Horn. In 2016, he performed on Broadway in the pit of “Shuffle Along.”

“For many of our students,” said Conerway, “the jam session has been a first experience beyond the classroom or studio, interacting with musicians that they may be meeting for the first time.”

Conerway added that jam sessions are different from a rehearsing ensemble because they provide younger players with “the freedom to test the limits of improvisation and to learn through outcomes of performance decisions that they may not ordinarily have had the opportunities to make.”

Our January student jam session was unequivocal testimony as to the passion, inspiration and desire of dedicated young musicians in our area, and their potential growth towards being working professionals. The westerly wind was no match for the warmth, passion and communion all experienced in the club room that night.

The next Jazz Mentors Student Jam is slated for Thursday, March 14 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Local 802 Club Room. For more information, e-mail Jazz Business Rep Todd Weeks.

The Jazz Mentors events are made possible by a grant from the New York City Council and the Council for Living Music.

Cora Szell

I love the fact that you can just show up at the Jazz Mentors Student Jam and use your time there to meet new musicians and practice standards or any jazz song you’re working on at the time. For instance, I needed to practice the song “In a Mellow Tone” by Duke Ellington with a live band for an audition I’m doing. The jam session was the perfect place to practice. I got to play the melody, improvise and comp for the other musicians. It was fun and truly helpful to me. The other thing I absolutely love about the jam sessions is the fact that you can meet a lot of new musicians. I met one of my good friends at the first session. We keep in touch, and whenever he shows up it’s fun to jam with him and talk and see what pieces he’s working on. I love the Jazz Mentors Student Jam and everything about it!

– Cora Szell, 15

Diomarys Mendez

I am so happy to have taken part in the Jazz Mentors Student Jam. Although, I was reluctant to perform at first, everyone made me feel safe to the point where I was able to let go of my fears, sing on stage and take part in a collaborative experience. The jam session is a great place and a great resource that offers an amazing opportunity for students and others to perform in a supportive and educational environment. This is a great place to meet other musicians and join together in what we love. I look forward to the next jam session!

– Diomarys Mendez, 23