A History of the Jazz Standard Discovery Program and Youth Orchestra, written by David O’Rourke
Program Founder James Polsky, having played drums in his High School band was all too aware of the almost nonexistent opportunities for youth to hear live jazz in a city famous for being the jazz capital of the world. Hearing jazz in the club environment for the first time is an experience few ever forget. Indeed, hearing the music live for the first time versus listening to recordings is such a different experience that some who have not been able to connect with jazz on record or radio have often become converts on hearing it live. Years later when James opened Jazz Standard he also founded the Jazz Standard Discovery Program (JSDP) with the intention of bringing school kids from all backgrounds, public and private schools into the club for their live jazz experience. These workshops were designed to be fun, educative, entertaining and always interactive. For some eight years now the JSDP has been bringing in school children of a wide age range to Jazz Standard as well doing some outreach to schools and other centers such as Visions (midtown residence for the visually impaired).
Not long after I began playing at Jazz Standard I began to wind down my teaching schedule with the pendulum shifting to more performing and less teaching. I have always enjoyed working with younger people, so when James approached me about taking over the running of the JSDP it ensured that I would still have that link. Balancing performing and the administration of the program was sometimes a challenge, finding schools to participate was a challenge. That is, until, NY1 News made James and David “New Yorkers of the Week”. This weeklong exposure helped to direct us to schools that desperately wanted to give their schools this kind of exposure. We could always tell when the segment had just aired, as the switchboard lit up like a Christmas tree. With the addition of our Youth Orchestra (JSYO) in 2002 we made the decision to perform as a priority as opposed to rehearsing. Young musicians have plenty of opportunities to rehearse but very few chances to perform before a live audience. Training in performance is essential and with the dedication and commitment of Blue Smoke/Jazz Standard General Manager Mark Maynard Parisi we began performing at the club on a weekly basis in a special program targeted at all ages but with an emphasis on children. It is not uncommon to see toddlers dancing to music that at times is being played so ʻoutʼ and yet these kids are expressing the same freedom as their counterparts onstage.
The benefit of regular, live performance, often with big name guests has sharpened the skills of these fine musicians to a degree that can often be heard on a weekly basis. They also receive experience in conducting/counting off the band, being MC for the day while some have even contributed arrangements/compositions to the bandʼs library. At the time Mark called to suggest starting the Jazz For Kids program we were rehearsing in a martial arts studio without proper instruments (no piano) and sometimes no heat in the winter. Despite this we usually had full attendance at rehearsals including one unforgettable day during a blizzard.
In 2005 Our jazz orchestra (then 18 musicians) expanded to a full symphony orchestra by adding strings, French horns, concert harp, orchestral woodwind and percussion to stage a special tribute concert to arranger/composer Nelson Riddle featuring arrangements by him that were written for Frank Sinatra, Nat ʻKingʼ Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin & Linda Ronstadt among others. The Chase Foundation provided the funding for this concert, instrument hire and all rehearsal costs. More recently, we have found ourselves plugging the ever-increasing holes being created by cancelled school music programs. Despite scientific evidence linking noticeably improved performance in areas such as math, computer programming and language skills to regular study and practice on a musical instrument; music programs continue to be the first to be cut. We have noticed the following in children who are performing regularly:
• Higher self esteem
• Greater awareness of discipline
• Great camaraderie among themselves as they encourage one anotherʼs development
Mr Bill Stevens,Vice Principal and Band Director at Frank Sinatra School For The Arts while describing us as the best program of its type in New York City, has acknowledged the benefit to his students despite their already opportunity laden program.
• The more advanced players learn humility and sharing while the newcomers get hands on encouragement from their age peers.
• Their individual instrumental skills as well as a more fearless approach to improvisation reflects the close working relationships the musicians are enjoying with major industry figures.