Jazz jam session puts spotlight on young Englewood musicians

On a recent weekday night, nine-year-old Rashad Johnson found himself in some very grown-up company – playing his trumpet in a jazz ensemble at a fine-dining restaurant in Englewood.

“I want to impress people. I want to make a name for myself,” says Johnson, who together with friends Joshua Yeo and Thomas Campbell was playing for the first time with the jazz ensemble at Sikia.

The restaurant, specializing in African fare, is staffed by Washburne Culinary Institute students. Once a month, the eatery is home to the Young Natives Student Jam Session, open to all Chicago jazz students from fourth grade up until college.

The students find out what it’s like to play in front of an audience, along with well-known Chicago jazz musicians. During the recent jam session, musician Corey Wilkes guided the young musicians through the session.

“The more you play, the more you experience, the more you will get better,” says Wilkes. “It’s like anything in life. You have to be around people that are better than you that will make you grow.”

Johnson says he and his friends practice three days a week for an hour and half together at their school, Woodlawn Community. Yeo plays the alto saxophone and Campbell plays the trumpet.

Marcus Burks, creator of Urban Aspirations, the organization that runs the jam sessions, says the students are learning on the spot as they perform and get the exposure of performing with professionals. Urban Aspirations has been around since 2002, and originally was an adult ensemble for local Chicago musicians that held shows at Borders Books in Beverly.

In 2003 Mark Colter, co-creator joined Urban Aspirations and decided to reach out to the youth, while Marcus attracted adult musicians. Colter is the music instructor for Chicago Public Schools, and says the importance of the jam sessions is to build confidence in the students, provide them with good structure and give them the chance to play music with no restrictions.

"Jazz is a pure art form and kids will take to it, especially those interested in music," he says.

Burks says the sessions take attention away from frequent violence in Englewood and put it on something more positive.

“The kids were always complaining that there was nowhere to play on the South Side. We wanted to find a convenient and family oriented venue for the students," says Burks.

Charlie Synder, recent high school graduate, and Rajiv Orozco, a college freshman, are two of the older students who performed in the house band. Both say they hope to eventually perform professionally.

Synder plays the drums and plans to attend Berklee College of Music in the fall. Orcoczo attends the University of Illinois-Chicago and majors in music and medicine.

Snyder and Oroczo say the program gives the students something to do, keep them out of trouble and will provide great exposure to music.

Burks says the audience is always amazed to see the students perform and they are very supportive.

Audience member Kathy Pain says, “This is how prodigies are started. Arts, If they are exposed, they learn to love it.”

Rhonda Campbell, the mother of young musician Thomas Campbell, says she heard about the jam session through a friend and will definitely be back.

“It’s wonderful that [my son] has this opportunity, especially since it’s free and on the South Side,” she says.

The  sessions are advertised through the Reader newspaper, Chicago Artists Resource, and flyer distribution throughout the Chicago Public School System. Burks has hopes of getting Kennedy King College Music Department involved.

Burks is looking to attract more students to the jam sessions, In the past months Gallery 37 students have played. On July 15 at  Sikia Restaurant Urban Aspiration is having a “Young Native Fundraiser”  which will support the monthly jam session. For more information contact marcus@urbanaspirations.org, or to buy tickets, go to www.brownpapertickets.com/event/69349.