NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron Celebrates 15 Years of Jazz Power Initiative

Jun 21, 2019

Eli Yamin, Kenny Barron and Brian Fender represent three generations of jazz educators and performers
Credit Doug Doyle for WBGO

Jazz Power Initiative is celebrating 15 years of achievement in uptown Manhattan and nationally with its jazz performance, education and professional development programs.

Three generations of jazz educators came into the WBGO studious to talk about the anniversary.

NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, JPI Artistic Director and Co-Founder Eli Yamin and JPI Program Coordinator and Teaching Artist Brian Fender all sat down with WBGO News Director Doug Doyle to talk about the importance of the organization and JPI's upcoming performance of Yamin's jazz musical titled Nora's Ark. 

JPI recently honored pianist and composer Kenny Barron at its 15th Anniversary Celebration in New York.  Barron, who was Yamin's teacher at Rutgers University, says he's quite proud of his former student.

"First of all it was thrilling for me to receive the honor but also to see the work that Eli Yamin has been doing with these young people is really incredible."

It was multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef who encouraged Barron to pursue college in the 70's, just one of many great players who took an interest in the pianist. 

"Hopefully I think they saw my thirst for knowledge and willingness to go one step beyond."

Meanwhile, Yamin says he's learned so much from Barron through the years and has brought that approach to JPI.

"He provided such an example of how you can be an artist and somebody who is really committed to passing along knowledge and I've strived to walk that road myself.  And it does give me great excitement to be able to share my love of jazz with teenagers, kids in middle school and high school."

 JPI provides opportunities to more than 400 youth each year in Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood through scholarships, private lessons, in-school and after-school workshops in music, dance and theatre at United Palace in Washington Heights.

Eli Yamin's jazz musical "Nora's Ark" will be performed Sunday and Monday in New York
Credit JPI for WBGO

The current group will be performing Nora’s Ark, the jazz musical Sunday, June 23 at 3pm at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and Monday, June 24 at 7pm at Iglesia Presbiteriana.  Nora's Ark was written by Yamin and Clifford Carlson.

"It's a musical about climate change and working with people you may not even like to solve big problems."

Yamin is the Musical Director of Nora's Ark.  Mickey Davidson is the Choreographer and Brian Fender is the Theatre Specialist.

Fender is extremely passionate about his role with JPI and this musical.

"At Marymount Manhattan where I worked with Eli and studied musical theater, so just putting together jazz with the acting elements as well, like making sure the kids are clear about telling a story and also being larger than life.  Learning how to use their voice and express themselves through their bodies and their imagination as well.  So, really my number one thing is to get them to be their best selves and teach them what it takes to be a performer, which is not just about the singing, acting and dancing, but it's the respect that comes with it.  It's being able to work as a team to listen to each other, the discipline, doing your own homework, your own research so that you can bring something fresh to the table."

JPI has four different programs
Credit JPI for WBGO

Fender says he constantly received great feedback about the kids and JPI.

"The cool thing about the program is that a lot of our kids are smart and they are becoming so much smarter and it's reflecting in their school.  The principals at the different schools are also raving about just the impact and effects that we've had on their students."

Was Kenny Barron a tough teacher?  Eli Yamin didn't hesitate to talk about his mentor's approach to learning.

"He was actually very easy going and in his quiet way pushed me find myself and just see how much information in front of me that I could explore, but he never made me feel overwhelmed by it or intimidated by it as other teachers did.  His mastery is so seemingly effortless that he gave me the space to know that's how you can be with a lot of technical information.  Not to be uptight.  Not to be worried or overly concerned am I good enough but just to be yourself."

When it comes to playing, Barron says his approach has never changed. 

"It's kind of a spiritual thing that happens when you're playing and the band just kind of lights up, you kind of transcend so to speak and I wish I could bottle that.  You try to reach that level all the time and you can't because it's impossible.  But that's what you're aiming for and that's the thing that keeps you striving, keeps you study, practicing, because you want to reach that level.  You want to feel that again.  It's almost like rapture.  You aim for that, you want to feel that.  So that's the thing that keeps me going.  Even at 76 years old, I'm still trying to find that."

Fender, who is an actor, musician and teaching artist, appeared in Spike Lee's Blackkklansman and Netflix's The Get Down.  He says learning about jazz and blues has made him a better performer.

"There's music in the way we speak, there's music in the way we breathe, we live, the way we connect to each other.  Especially when you're trying to tell another story or someone else's story there's a rhythm.  I think that jazz is probably the most lively music, just because it explores so many different parts of the psyche when you think about it.  Jazz kind of pinches and reminds your that you're alive."   

Barron agrees.

"I think the essence of music for me is about how it makes me feel as a listener and as a performer.  For me it's about an emotional connection."

For more information about Jazz Power Initiative and the upcoming shows, you can go to www.jazzpower.org.

Click above to hear the entire conversation with Kenny Barron, Eli Yamin and Brian Fender.