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“That’s the instrument Squidward plays,” said a third-grader in Christine Eason’s music class at Brier Creek Elementary School.
The girl pointed in astonishment at the clarinet held by Gregg Gelb, a local jazz musician who recently stopped by the North Raleigh classroom to teach kids about improvisation.
Gelb is no stranger to crowds more familiar with the musical leanings of SpongeBob characters than jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Jelly Roll Morton and Django Reinhardt. He took the comment in stride and rolled through demonstrations of instruments commonly used to compose the music: a clarinet, flute, and alto and tenor saxophones.
He started with the standard, staccato versions of songs such as “Three Blind Mice” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Then, at first to the kids’ bemusement but quickly to their amusement, he started adding freefalling flutters and breaking away from the dry melodies they’ve heard many times before.
“Jazz is adding to something you already started with and changing it a little bit,” he told the kids. “Improvisation is the part that’s different, the new part you make.”
And then the kids took over.
They got behind xylophones and bongo drums and played a simple song while Gelb played along. Each took turns breaking into a tune of their own while the rest of the class kept a melody constant.
Eason used a grant from the United Arts Council to bring Gelb to visit her classroom and to perform with his eponymous quartet for the entire third grade. She said the goal is to show students an aspect of music they are unlikely to see otherwise and to spark their interest through a hands-on lesson.
“In teaching music, improvisation is the highest level of understanding,” she said. “What better way to teach kids than bringing someone who’s an expert?”
Gelb would like to think it’s at least a slight push in the right direction. He tries to teach people of all ages about the music whenever he gets a chance. He performs on saxophone and with his quartet all over North Carolina, and he supplements his income by teaching high school and college classes, organizing concerts and events, and writing grants.
“If we don’t teach jazz, it’ll go away,” said Gelb, who himself discovered jazz while studying and playing football at Carnegie-Mellon University. “A big part of the problem is that people don’t understand it. Kids who don’t understand, who don’t appreciate the music, turn into adults who don’t get it either.
“I was lucky to find the music. It’s great to teach kids this age.”