By Jennifer Sadler

Jazz is truly an original American art form recognized around the world for its rich cultural heritage rooted in the African-American experience and many consider jazz to be one of our country’s greatest cultural achievements. In 1987, the U.S. Congress officially declared jazz an American National Treasure—and earlier this year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO) unanimously agreed to designate April 30 as International Jazz Day.

Born of our “melting pot” of a society in the early 20th century, jazz has become a universal language that unites people across divides of race, gender and geographic boundaries. Today, jazz is performed and listened to by people all over the planet. Reflecting the music’s improvisational structure, jazz makes powerful statements about freedom, creativity and its uniquely American identity. As jazz has developed and spread around the globe it has drawn on countless cultural influences, evolving into distinctive styles from the earliest New Orleans style to big band swing to avant-garde to Latin jazz—and as many more approaches to the music as there are people who play it. Jazz will always be a work in progress, with each new generation bringing new influences, sounds and unique experiences to the music.

Yet, many Americans graduate from high school with little knowledge of the extraordinary heritage and history or importance of jazz.

In its mission to preserve American history and to provide an ongoing education about jazz for our nation's students, the Smithsonian National Museum established Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) in 2001 through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and supplemented by the National Endowment for the Arts. The purpose of the annual celebration (presented every April) is to draw greater public attention to the history of jazz and its importance as an American cultural heritage. In addition, JAM is intended to stimulate the current jazz scene and encourage people of all ages to participate in jazz—to study the music, attend concerts, listen to radio and recordings, read books and support institutional jazz programs.

Each year JAM examines and pays tribute to different aspects of jazz history. The 2012 theme is aptly titled Jazz: Crossing Borders and Cultures.

Here in Columbus, we have an immense and colorful history to celebrate when it comes to jazz.  Blackberry Patch is the folkloric name given to the near eastside downtown area now known as King-Lincoln in Columbus. Once known as "the Cradle of Jazz," the Blackberry Patch neighborhood was alive with African-American culture and jazz clubs like Marty Mellman's 502 Club, which was one of the hottest spots in Columbus during the 1950s and early 1960s. Located at St. Clair and Leonard Avenues, 502 hosted many local musicians and famous entertainers including Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. It is said that Julian "Cannonball" Adderly encouraged young Columbus native Nancy Wilson who performed regularly at the 502 Club to head for fame in New York.

Our nationally acclaimed Jazz Arts Group (JAG) keeps those stories and the music alive by cultivating a community appreciation of jazz year-round by providing opportunities to learn about, participate and listen to live performances by local legends and world-renowned artists. JAG is not only poised to lead the way in engaging local jazz aficionados and newcomers to the art form during the JAM celebration, it’s also gearing up to celebrate its landmark 40th anniversary of bringing great jazz music and education programming to Columbus.

JAG is America’s oldest not-for-profit arts organization dedicated to producing, performing and promoting jazz and jazz education. JAG’s programming consists of four focus areas: the Columbus Jazz Orchestra (CJO), one of the world's finest professional jazz orchestras; the Jazz Academy, JAG's extensive instructional programs educating both students and adults about jazz and American music; Inside Track, a jazz and blues performance series presented at the historic Lincoln Theatre; and Affiliate Musicians, a program providing employment opportunities for professional musicians.

The Columbus Jazz Orchestra (CJO) is led by trumpet virtuoso Byron Stripling and presents more than 40 concerts each season at the historic Southern Theatre in two performance series: Swingin’ at the Southern and the Great American Songbook. More than 2100 subscribers make the CJO audience the largest jazz orchestra subscription base in the United States. The CJO also performs an outdoor summer concert series, JazZoo!, at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

The Jazz Arts Group understands that power of music to transform lives and is committed to offering lifelong-learning opportunities for individuals of all ages, interests, backgrounds and abilities. JAG offers two Jazz Academy programs: Jazz in the Community and Jazz in Schools. In June 2009, JAG opened the Jazz Academy’s community instructional space where anyone can listen, learn and play. JAG makes a significant impact on thousands of people each year through in-school performances and residencies, professional development for educators, internships for young people and master classes with world-renowned musicians.

JAG serves as a national model—not only with its world-class jazz orchestra and educational programming, but with research that will help organizations nationwide in expanding their audiences. In 2009, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation awarded JAG $200,000 to fund a national study of why people engage with jazz music.  The results of the jazz audiences initiative were released last October. Now the Foundation has given JAG additional funding with a $120,000 grant to launch new practices to test the audience-building ideas from their initial study.

“We have the potential to increase the impact of jazz in communities across the country, both in terms of economics and education,” JAG’s interim executive director, Dan Weiss said.

It’s no wonder that JAG has attracted one of the nation’s finest caliber artistic directors—Byron Stripling, who is celebrating his 10th anniversary with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra. GCAC recently spoke with Stripling to learn more about him and what it’s been like to work with one of the nation’s most highly acclaimed arts groups.

Stripling was born in Atlanta, the son of a classical singer who loved all styles of music, from jazz to Motown to pop. While his brother played clarinet and sax, Stripling played trumpet, starting when he was ten or eleven. When talking about what started Stripling on the road to a career in music, he says his father and his family were great influences.

“None of it was conscious, really. It was organic; music was an important part of our life as a family. We celebrated with music at church; we’d pay our respects with music at a funeral. My father worked hard as a classical singer at jobs that weren’t exactly the greatest as far as pay. But we attended classical concerts, recitals—he sang with orchestras.” Laughing he added, “I didn’t really have a chance to get out of it.”

Originally Stripling enrolled at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, NY with plans to become a classical trumpeter. Stripling met Clark Terry during his freshman year and, after Terry heard him play, he asked Stripling to join his big band. The 12-week tour was Stripling's first trip to Europe and he had the opportunity to start friendships with such players as Branford Marsalis and Conrad Herwig.

From there, Stripling’s career took off.

His next gig was with the Woody Herman Orchestra; then the Count Basie Orchestra where he had the good fortune of meeting and playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Eckstine who toured with the band. He also had opportunities to play with orchestras led by Gillespie and Buck Clayton.

When asked about his mentors, Stripling said, “Though we never met, I say my mentors…my teachers were Louis Armstrong; Duke Ellington. These musicians got to me spiritually. Their music grabbed me and took me on a journey.”

But it’s Gillespie who holds a special place in his heart—“Dizzy was a true friend and a guiding force.”

In the late ‘80s after a nationwide search, Stripling was chosen to play the lead in the musical Satchmo: America's Musical Legend—based on the life and music of one of his biggest influences, Louis Armstrong. After opening in New Orleans, the show played in Atlanta, The Kennedy Center and North Carolina before finally closing in Boston.

Stripling has since developed several different shows that he performs with orchestras and so far he has appeared with more than 50 different symphony and pops orchestras including the Boston Pops under the direction of Keith Lockhart and John Williams, the Pittsburgh Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Seattle Symphony, Baltimore Symphony and many others. Stripling also has performed with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band and the GRP All Star Big Band, he has worked in the studios, and his trumpet has been heard on numerous soundtracks of films and Broadway shows.

So—why Columbus when the world was wide open?

“Well, you know it’s an amazing experience,” said Stripling. “I came here as a guest soloist twice under Ray Eubanks, and I became an evangelist for these folks, started spreading the word to everyone. I lived in New York, played with Carnegie Hall Jazz Band…and they went under. All these groups were crashing and burning and Columbus Jazz Orchestra was flourishing and growing. I wanted to be with something vital and growing—and something progressive was obviously happening here.”

Stripling's commented that every community has had a jazz band and added, “Columbus was the leader to me. I stick with the guys that lead.” Stripling says that bringing music to life on stage is one of the greatest aspects of his job at JAG.

“If you have a vision and you can bring it to life on stage, that’s better than anything. CJO allows me to do that—that’s a real blessing. I’m excited for work every single day.”

Check out the shows that are coming up at Jazz Arts Group for the months of April and May.  Buy tickets now!

Image courtesy of Franklin Park Conservatory.

Blooms & Butterflies 2012
Through September 3, 2012
Presented by Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Yesterday: a CCAD Student Exhibition
Through April 20, 2012
Presented by Dublin Arts Council

Spring Academy "Artists of Columbus"
April 2, 2012 — April 13, 2012
Presented by King Arts Complex

Paws in the Plaza
April 5, 2012- November 1, 2012
Presented by Gahanna Convention and Visitors Bureau

Adult Egg Hunt At Camelot Cellars Winery
April 7, 2012
Presented by Camelot Cellars

Capital University's Student Art Exhibition
April 10, 2012 — April 27, 2012
Presented by The Schumacher Gallery

OWU Theatre - A Ring Around the Moon
April 13, 2012 — April 22, 2012
Presented by Ohio Wesleyan University, OWU