Last month I went to see the SCPA Arts Jazz Ensemble at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center expecting to hear something cute. Instead, I was floored -- 27 students wailed, rocked and cut it up at the Harriet Tubman Theatre. I was so impressed, I was envious.
When I was at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, all we had were dog-eared arrangements of Glen Miller tunes even our parents wouldn't have listened to. And as far as soloing, we played the Blues scale until it went out of style. When I started in the Jazz program at CCM, one of my professors actually forbade us from playing it. And, I am sorry to admit, a lot of those kids were playing better than some college students. I know the reason, though -- Erwin Stuckey.
It would be an understatement to say that Stuckey, 44, has turned the SCPA Jazz program around. In fact, what he's creating is more like a Jazz army. When Stuckey took over the program in fall of 2005, it wasn't much better than at any other Cincinnati Public School. Then there were about 30 students; now there are 43, with five more already signed up to audition for the coming year. Not only are the numbers growing rapidly but so is the caliber of playing. At that October concert, the soloists were both confident and fluent; they hit the changes, played with good ensemble awareness and had a great feel. You would never know that many were beginners.
Ben Sweeney, 15, says his playing has improved rapidly.
"Once I came to school I was really into Blues and Rock & Roll, but then Erwin Stuckey inspired me an incredible amount," says Sweeney. "Once I started playing I got really good really fast 'cause he just showed me exactly what to do.
I was pretty bad at the guitar ... but now I'm more focused. (Improvising is) difficult, it's hard to do, but ... once you figure out a weird progression or just how to make that kind of music, it's really enjoyable. It's what I live for really. It frees your mind of any stress; it makes you feel great."
Says Stuckey, "For me Jazz is freedom -- freedom of expression through improvisation. All of us have an identifiable voice. It relates to teenagers in a strong way because I'm helping them to find their voice early. And what's so amazing is when I hear kids the first two weeks of school and then I hear them six to eight weeks later and to see the growth is amazing."
Trey Sherman, 13, who plays trumpet, gives his feelings about soloing. "You can do what you want and you can't really make mistakes 'cause it's your own improvising. Sometimes I get nervous but I feel good when I'm playing what I want to play, something I create myself."
Kaindra Layne, 14, who plays flute and flugel horn, adds, "I love to improvise. It is so fun. We do so many things and we'll have people stop by and poke their head in the room like 'Wow, what's that?' and it feels good when people do that. Like, yeah, they can hear just how hard we've been working."
Stuckey certainly believes in hard work.
"Coming in in 2005 I was asked to really challenge the kids," he says. "We have to challenge them with high expectations. If we're not challenged artistically, our output stays at one level."
He says the next concert will be their most challenging yet, as the first half will feature the repertory ensemble (middle school students) for the very first time and the second half contains some pretty complex material. One of the tunes they have on the program is "Groove Merchant" by Jerome Richardson, arranged by Thad Jones. The title seems fitting for Stuckey's position. After all, if there's one thing you can't teach, it's rhythmic feel (especially syncopation) and yet Stuckey managed to sell it; those S.C.P.A. kids played right in the pocket.
So how does he do it? How does Stuckey transform average high-school musicians into competent soloists, in little over a year? He says, "You have all the other issues of playing an instrument: reading, interpretation, phrasing, articulation, and then the really neat thing which our kids are so talented in is that whole creative aspect (of) Jazz improvisation, of being able to create in the moment. I stress the importance of fundamentals, vocabulary within the genre and also equally as important is the historical aspects of it."
Stuckey also stresses that the students are learning more than music.
"They're developing life skills," he says "If we look at arts programs, there's really a small percentage of students who will carry on as a career, but what most students will take away is life skills: preparation, dedication, commitment, being able to get the job done, which is so important in any profession. Also what I love about the Jazz studies program is that when you provide a healthy learning environment for academics and arts, those kids tend to not be a part of the disparity that we see so much of in Cincinnati, in terms of gun violence and the drug trade."
Whatever his methods, they have a profound effect. Matthew Jaroszewicz, 16, tenor sax player, calls Stuckey one of the biggest influences in his life.
"He's awesome," he says. "In fact, I just wrote a six-page essay about how he has influenced my life, for English class."
Sweeney adds, "He's definitely the best teacher I've ever had. And I think that Erwin Stuckey is really going to change it and it's going to be incredible how good SCPA's Jazz ensemble is, if you could just give us one or two years. I think right now we're 10 times better that last year. We're going to be so smoking in a few years."
THE SCPA JAZZ ENSEMBLE performs at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Abigail Cutter Theatre at SCPA. They also perform at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 25 at the Harriet Tubman Theatre at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.