Harlem. The name alone is enough to fill the mind with thoughts of cityscapes, nightlife, poetry, music and “soul food.”
This corner of New York City, which is synonymous with black culture, is 2,500 miles from Kalispell, but in terms of life experiences, it might as well be as far away as the moon. And yet a new connection is being forged.
In May a group of students from around the Flathead Valley will take their passion for jazz to New York City to perform at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Members of the Flathead Ellington Project are putting on two final local concerts April 18-19 to raise money for their upcoming expedition. The goal of the fundraisers is to raise $10,000. That would enable the students to make the trip to New York and would also serve to relaunch the program next fall.
The Flathead Ellington Project is the brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Erica von Kleist. She created it out of a desire to foster more serious study of jazz in the Flathead as well as a desire to pay-forward some of the gifts she has been given.
“My whole life has been a product of studying this music,” said von Kleist. “I’ve had so many life experiences because I’ve dived deep into this music and I want to give that to the students here.”
The requirements for membership in the project have been high. They had to already be part of the jazz ensemble at their respective high schools. They had to audition and make a recording. And they had to commit to practice every Sunday, to engage a private tutor, and the rhythm and horn sections each have to schedule periodic practice sessions
Of the initial 12 students who were accepted, the final number going to New York has dropped to nine.
Von Kleist makes no apologies for the stringent requirements.
“Being in the Flathead Ellington Project is demanding. It demands dedication to rehearsal time and follow-through. There is more to this than the music, part of what we are teaching here is professionalism and commitment.”
She is also passionate about the other life lessons that can grow from the study of jazz.
“Some say that ‘jazz is America’s greatest art form,’ and it is. It was born here. It reflects all of us,” she said. Jazz values culture and democracy, it values dialogue and most of all it values listening. “You can’t be a good jazz musician without listening. And in this country right now, we all need to stop talking and listen to each other.”
The Flathead Ellington Project members will travel to New York on May 8 and return on May 12. During that time they will focus on experiencing Harlem — taking part in music education workshops and taking in some of the sights and history of the city. Their performance at the National Jazz Museum is scheduled for May 10.
One part of the mission of the museum is to empower and ensure that jazz education reaches rural and isolated areas.
Von Kleist remembers clearly when she first suggested to Loren Schoenberg and Jonathan Batiste, directors of the National Jazz Museum, the idea of a band from Montana coming to Harlem. She said the look they gave her held a note of skepticism at the idea of pulling this off with only a year to prepare the students. But she was confident she could find students willing to step up.
“I knew there were kids in Montana who were ready for this new challenge, we just needed to find them and whip them into shape,” she said with a laugh.
After her pitch, Schoenberg told her, “OK, you’ve got your date.”
For von Kleist, so many things come back to Ellington — hence the name.
Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was an American musician whose career spanned more than 50 years. Although his name is forever connected with jazz, and he is one of the most influential figures in that genre, he referred to his music as “American music” and embraced the phrase “beyond category” for his work. He was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize as well as 13 Grammy awards and wrote more than 3,000 compositions during his life.
“Expansive” is the word von Kleist uses to describe Ellington repertoire. She has her own connections to Duke, including performing at the Essentially Ellington 2018 final concert with Wynton Marsalis.
The Flathead Ellington Project grew primarily out of a desire to give back. Last year when she was invited to be a judge at the Essentially Ellington competition she brought along three of the jazz teachers from here in the Flathead: Mark McCrady and Sky Thoreson from Whitefish High School and David Johnke from Flathead High School. She wanted the trip to serve as professional development for them, a chance to make connections, but also a chance to experience Harlem.
“If you are going to be teaching this music to these kids, you need to walk the streets of Harlem, you need to understand what this music is and where it came from in order to understand where we are going with this project,” von Kleist said.
And now the project which began only a year ago is realizing its first dream. Harlem is only one month away.
The nine students, K.C. Isaman, bass, Bigfork; Sam Lovering, alto saxophone, Brian Phipps, trombone, and Afton Wendt, trumpet, all of Columbia Falls; Connor Bullins, tenor sax, Flathead; Aidan Caraway, baritone sax, Turner Haugen, piano, Owen Meador, alto sax, and Kathryn Rossi, drums, all of Whitefish, will be joined by McCrady, Thoreson, Johnke and von Kleist.
“In order to perform at the National Jazz Museum the students are going to have to have internalized this music,” von Kleist noted. “They will need to be stylistically, harmonically and emotionally detailed in their playing.”
They will also have to have acquired the elusive something extra — the ability to perform as a band.
This is no small feat.
Von Kleist explains it in terms of a great soccer team. “When a really great team is working together, they don’t need to talk. They can seem to read each other’s minds. The truth is, you don’t get to that level of musical camaraderie without hours and hours of dedicated rehearsal with a heightened level of attention to detail.”
These students have done the work. They have made the commitment to themselves and to this art form. And the rewards will be the chance not only to experience some of New York for themselves, many for the first time, but also the chance to take Montana to the big city.
If there is one quintessential life lesson von Kleist wishes for the members of the Flathead Ellington Project, it is this: “I want the students to see how big and diverse the world is, and how much there is to learn from what jazz teaches us. The history of New York City is steeped in the dialogue of people from all over the world. I’m hoping our students take in part of the story.”
Brenda Ahearn may be reached at 758-4435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Thursday and Friday, April 18 and 19, students with the Flathead Ellington Project will be joined by trumpeter and composer Summer Camargo for a fundraiser. Camargo is one of the top high school musicians in the country. The events are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the Bigfork Inn on April 18, and 5 p.m. at Cypress Yard in Whitefish on April 19.
Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.groovetrail.org. Donations also may be made through www.groovetrail.org.