Bill Johnson, Photographer, Greenville, MS
(left), retired Jackson State University jazz and classical director,
conducts a musical workshop Thursday with first-year band students at Coleman Middle School
in Greenville. The workshop was in conjunction with the 12th Annual Mississippi Jazz &
Heritage Festival to be held Saturday at Southern Whispers on Nelson Street in Greenville.
(Greenville, MS) – The dozen or so seventh-graders sat attentively, with some occasionally nodding their heads or tapping their fingers.
The beginning band students at Coleman Middle School were listening to their band director, Billy Smiley, and Drs. Ron Myers and London Branch during a workshop Thursday.
Branch, retired director of the Jackson State University Orchestra and recipient of the Mississippi Jazz & Heritage Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, taught students the basics of musical improvisation. He began by explaining note scales. He then demonstrated why it's important for musicians to understand which key a song is in.
With Myers on flugelhorn, Smiley on electric guitar and Branch on acoustic bass, the trio played a song with each musician operating in a different key.
“That sounds terrible,” one student said.
Branch replied, “Of course, it does.”
Then, the trio played that same song with all musicians in the appropriate key. This time, several students nodded or tapped their fingers to the rhythm.
“It's just like holding a conversation,” Branch said. “Let's say we're talking about nuclear fission. If nobody knows about nuclear fission, we can't have that conversation about nuclear fission.
“We can talk about something else, but not nuclear fission.”
Branch will be one of the performers Saturday during the festival at Southern Whispers restaurant. He is also one of the scheduled performers for the annual Jazz Tribute to the Blues on Sept. 13, one of the events leading up to the 30th annual Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival.
“We all have to know certain things, in common, in order to play together,” Branch told the students.
Smiley, who has performed with blues and jazz ensembles, said the workshop is important because it helps support the Delta's jazz heritage. It also gives him a chance to highlight some jazz artists from Mississippi. He pointed out that many other forms of music, including gospel and rap, incorporate some elements of jazz.
“All music is improvised,” Smiley said. “But in jazz, it's master improvisation.”
Smiley acknowledges that he hopes some of the students will become jazz musicians, but said his primary goal is to raise their cultural awareness.
Branch agreed, saying that jazz is the part that was left out of history lessons, so the workshop is a way of teaching students about it. Internationally, people see jazz as America's contribution, he said, adding that it helps for young people to know that it was people like them who created this art form.
“We want to make this part of their ongoing study,” he said.