Memphis Jazz Workshop prepares students for futures in music

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Katie Lamm (11) attends an in-person meeting for the Memphis Jazz Workshop, held at Visible Music College. Hybrid students attend a virtual meeting and in-person meeting once a week. Pop Quote: “We teach kids jazz improvisation,” Lee said. “They don’t just learn jazz. They also learn a lot of life skills that come along with studying this music like discipline, motivation and time management.”

The Memphis Jazz Workshop is a program that introduces students to college level concepts about jazz. Due to COVID-19, the workshop has learned to improvise its ways of teaching, offering two options for students interested in pursuing musical careers.

The Memphis Jazz Workshop runs for six weeks, from January 23 to April 17. This year, the workshop is offering both a virtual version, where students meet once a week on Zoom, and a hybrid version, where students attend both the six Zoom meetings and an additional six in-person meetings held at Visible Music College. The workshop is also holding a summer camp at Visible Music College from June 28 to July 16.

“We understand that the kids really want to get a chance to play,” Founder and Artistic Director Stephen Lee said. “With this music, you really have to be playing and communicating together in person for it to be beneficial to the students.”

Students are instructed on jazz improvisation techniques and given the opportunity to play with other students, as well as professional musicians. While the workshop’s main focus is on improving their student’s musical abilities, they also educate students on prevalent topics like the legacy of jazz, music careers and important life skills. 

“We teach kids jazz improvisation,” Lee said. “They don’t just learn jazz. They also learn a lot of life skills that come along with studying this music like discipline, motivation and time management.”

Band director Brian Sims encourages White Station students in his classes to enroll in the program as the workshop gives students involved in the school’s music classes the opportunity to expand on their abilities, as well as get a greater understanding of how to build a future in jazz. 

“The one thing about the jazz workshop is that it’s a lot more attentive to the individual than in regular class,” Forrest Dixon (10) said. “In regular class, you’ve got 20 some people in one class and it’s great, but you always need to do extra. The individual things in the jazz workshop are what I think differentiate it from the school.”

The workshop utilizes professional musicians as a part of their staff to immerse their students in the world of jazz and give them a glimpse into what it’s like in the music industry. 

“You can’t get any better than having masters who do this for a living,” Lee said. “All our musicians are professional musicians. They aren’t just teachers. This is what they do for a living. So to have that one-on-one training from the best, you can’t beat that. Having that high quality teaching faculty helps with the student’s learning.”

The professional staff allows students to learn from well-known jazz musicians about the technicality of the music, and get an inside look at what the life of a professional musician looks like.

“We would have a master class with very famous jazz musicians,” Dixon said. “We had one with one of the Brecker brothers, who in the late 1990s were very famous, and several other famous jazz musicians. They talked about theory, and not just like music in general, but the business behind music was one thing that a lot of them talked about, like starting your own record label, or joining a record label and what it’s like to play in a club or jam session. That was really cool, because you got to meet some well known people that a lot of us looked up to.”

One major goal of the workshop is to prepare students on how to start their music careers. The workshop gives them the tools and resources necessary to start their future in music through colleges and other programs. 

“If the student wants to pursue a career in jazz, they definitely will be equipped and trained to do that because we’re also connected with a lot of different professional jazz musicians, and we’re connected with a lot of different colleges, so kids get a chance to get scholarships at these colleges. If they want to pursue a career in this music, they learn a lot of skills at a very early age. A lot of people don’t learn anything till they get to their late twenties or thirties, but these students learn at sixteen or seventeen.”

The Memphis Jazz workshop allows students to improve as jazz musicians while getting to experience an enjoyable environment with their fellow students.

“I really liked how engaging it was,” Julian Hunter (11) said. “It was fun to be there. I liked being able to play instruments and learn a couple of new things. Mainly just being able to play was how I got most of my fun out of it. It was very enjoyable. Nice people, the staff was really amazing.”