Jazz began as a desperate and dangerous cry from the urban underbelly. Today it is an after-school-sanctioned, common-app-adorning extracurricular activity. Ravi Abcarian, musician and director of The Oaktown Jazz Workshops, would argue that this is not such a bad thing. In fact, he says, the Workshop is here to work against the marginalization that has made jazz first illicit and now almost an artifact; a musician’s music. The Workshop is here to strengthen jazz appreciation into a robust fixture of Bay Area culture.

This is what people who love something fiercely do with that thing: they proselytize it. Abcarian can’t imagine his life without jazz and therefore he can’t imagine our life without it.

“Often jazz is taught along with other styles of music as you learn an instrument or just in the general context of music instruction,” says Abcarian, “but we think Jazz needs to be taught a bit differently than other styles.”

One of the reasons the Workshop stands out as a success after twenty years is because there is always more than one instructor playing along with the students at each lesson. “If you just have one teacher showing you how to play you don’t get a sense for how jazz actually works.” You may become excellent at emulating that one instructor, Abcarian suggests, but you’ll miss the crucial element of interplay between performers.

Jazz isn’t static. It comes to life in the moment of collaboration and the surprise of improvisation. These are the elements the Workshop focuses on, in addition to the fundamentals. “We try to teach the students the idiomatic elements,” says Abcarian, referring quite literally to the lexicon of hand signals and winks but also to the approach of improvising within the jazz structure.

The students are good. I watched them play for about ten minutes, each horn in turn riffing over a base, drum and piano sequence. It took me a while to realize they were improvising. By the time I did, there was a crowd of Jack London Square passers-by gathering in the open doorway to feel it for a while.

Perhaps because jazz doesn’t belong to any particular adolescent subculture today, the students made up a collection of kids you wouldn’t likely find together in the school cafeteria. There were classically cool kids, and classically dorky kids and then the weirdos that wind up the cool kids after high school. When I asked Myah Wesley–a tall, black girl with platinum gold braids all the way down her back, oversized glasses, oversized hair bow and bulky black sneakers—about being one of only two girls in the class, all she could say was, “I’m just…different.”

The folks at the Workshop believe jazz appreciation can’t be vacuumed out of its context and culture. “We teach them about the history—the story—of jazz,” says Abcarian. Rather than a school’s auditorium, the students play shows at nightclubs for other jazz musicians. “Something that’s so special, because we’ve been around for twenty years, is when alumni come back we can say to the other students, look, he’s a professional musician living in Paris now.”

They are acutely aware of the way jazz can be excised from its culture and sterilized around the edges. That’s not what’s being done at the Oaktown Jazz Workshops. If you’d like to see for yourself, they’ll be at the Art & Soul festival this Sunday, August 3rd on the Jefferson Street Stage.  One set at 1:30PM and one set at 4:30PM. The Workshop is nonprofit and able to provide scholarships, so don’t let money deter you if you have or know a kid that might belong there.

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