By Jan Worth-Nelson
Everybody in the lobby of The Whiting auditorium seemed happy Thursday afternoon as jazz great Wynton Marsalis came to town to ring in a new C.S. Mott Foundation partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York for kids, music, and after school programs.
Joining Marsalis, who arrived in the late afternoon before a free public concert held later, was a roomful of Flint elementary school students eager to meet the musician and hear some riffs. They clapped and kept time as Marsalis explained “improvisation” using “Happy Birthday to You” and cheerfully reminded them about the benefits of paying attention to life.
“Where do you get your inspiration?” a student asked from the back row.
“I get it from ya’ll,” Marsalis immediately replied. He told the students his father, also a musician in the family’s hometown of New Orleans, would play gigs even for only two or three people at a time, or took even one or two students, because he loved jazz and loved the work. Marsalis, 55, said he himself had left Toronto early in the morning to come to Flint and didn’t even have time to change into a suit to address the crowd, but agreed to do it anyway because he loves the music and loves to talk to kids about jazz. He told the students he’d been living this kind of life since he was 18– because he loves it. And maybe, he said, “One of ya’ll will end up being the next big trumpet player.”
“So when I say I get my inspiration from ya’ll, I’m not joking,” he said.
Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center managing and artistic director, approached the Mott Foundation specifically to propose a music education partnership rooted in after school programs, according to Kathryn Thomas, Mott Foundation vice president of communications. Originally, Marsalis hoped the programs would be in New York City, but Ridgway White, president of the Mott Foundation, grasped the idea and proposed expanding it to include the Foundation’s hometown of Flint and across the country.
“I don’t know about you, but Wynton inspired me,” a smiling Ridgway White, president of the sponsoring C.S. Mott Foundation, said following Marsalis’s lively hour-long Q&A with the students. “At its core, this is about engaging and connecting kids. If we can roll that inspiration out throughout the country and the world, we can do a lot of great things and insure that we don’t get a lot of disconnected youth.
“We’ve been through a lot of struggles in Flint,” White continued, “and we need an outlet. I think music is an outlet. And there’s no better music than jazz, so connected to the rich cultural history of our country.”
The Mott Foundation has granted more than $350,000 to Jazz at Lincoln Center for the initiative. A press release from the Foundation said White and Marsalis will be honorary co-chairs of a national task force composed of leaders in after school programs and the arts.
“We want to take jazz appreciation beyond the band room by tying it to history, cultural diversity and civic engagement,” said Marsalis. White replied, “That is music to our ears.”
White pointed out the Mott Foundation already has committed nearly $250 million to increasing access to high quality after school programs for kids in Flint and around the country over the past three decades — including the “YouthQuest” program that White declared one of the best in the country. He said the Jazz at Lincoln Center initiative will richly add to opportunities for kids.
Marsalis has won nine Grammy awards and won a Pulitzer Prize for music, along with numerous other honors.
Emceeing the afternoon event was Jarret Haynes, executive director of The Whiting. He asked the kids what shows they might like to see at The Whiting, and it seemed the two most popular suggestions were The Emoji Movie and Frozen. Asked how many had been to The Whiting before, about half the students raised their hands. “We want all of you to come back,” Haynes exclaimed.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.