Eye on KELOLAND: Jazz Diversity Project


When you think of live music, your probably imagine a concert space, a bar or amphitheater. But there is a Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Society program that takes the music and its assorted lessons into another venue.

The Jazz Diversity Project from Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Society is giving students at Whittier Middle School in Sioux Falls some live music with a side of education.

“Our first ingredient this morning is rhythm,” trumpeter Jimmy Speirs said.

“Our second ingredient makes sense, too,” keyboardist Jeremy Hegg said. “It’s the blues.”

He gives an example.

“I don’t need no science book,” Hegg sang.

“It’s called the blues, ’cause it’s, it makes you feel a way, this probably made me like happy, enthusiastic, inspired,” Whittier eighth-grader Austin Sorgdrager said.

Sorgdrager says this performance is distinct in his mind.

“It was more enthusiastic, it stood out more than other concerts, ’cause the drum solo just kept it on track the entire time, and then the saxophone just spiced it up with the trumpet,” Sorgdrager said.

“I was watching the drummer most of the time to see what he does and learn from him a bit,” Whittier eighth-grader Joshua Kringen said.

“The Jazz Diversity Project is a long-running educational program that brings together both the performing of jazz music but then a discussion of history in the United States, especially of kind of race relations and of the time around integration of bands, and really kind of using jazz as a lens to talk about America from 1880 to about 1960,” bassist Andrew Reinartz said.

“You didn’t just get to hear the music, but you also got to learn about the history of it, too, so that was really interesting to learn,” Kringen said.

Alex Gilbert-Schrag, executive director of the Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Society, says the project is for these young ears.

“It’s just so that way kids can get exposure to music that they may not otherwise have the chance to,” Gilbert-Schrag said. “We come in, we do it for free, and the kids get to come in and listen to music that they don’t necessarily always hear on the radio.”

The Project goes far beyond Sioux Falls.

“We’ve been in Faith and Bison and Oelrichs and Edgemont and, so some of these communities we’ll play for the entire school, K through 12, so it might be a few years before we get back,” Reinartz said. “But we’ve determined now that we’re, we’ve played for over 60,000 kids in South Dakota.”

In Sioux Falls, it might be easier to take live music venues for granted. Elsewhere in South Dakota, they’re not always nearby.

“There’s a lot of communities we get to that they don’t necessarily get a lot of live music period, and to be able to come and be with them to make music with the kids, to learn together is really important, to share an understanding of America’s music but then to also explore the history of race relations and a lot of equity issues in our state through the lens of this music and this history,” Reinartz said.

The Project already has one notable example of encouraged talent: Washington High School guitarist Emmanuel Michael, who last year was picked for Carnegie Hall’s teen jazz program NYO Jazz. Only 22 young artists got this call.

“He’s performed internationally with the New York Jazz Orchestra and a lot of these groups and he’s still in high school, kicking the pants out of all of us,” Reinartz said. “But he originally saw the Jazz Diversity program when he was in middle school and was kind of playing saxophone and wanted to play a little guitar, and he told us after the fact that that was one of the programs that inspired him to really dig into the music and fall in love with it.”

“It’s a long-term thing, it’s like oh, they’ll remember this one time in middle school that they heard this performance, and maybe moving forward they’ll start looking for jazz concerts and will give back to the jazz genre because they listened to this once,” Gilbert-Schrag said.

“It’s the reaction of the kids that is what really gets me going,” Reinartz said.

The next Jazz Diversity Project is still to be scheduled, but Gilbert-Schrag says Brookings has been in touch. You can find the Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Society on Facebook and Twitter.

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