Rhythm and Blues in Middle School

While a quartet of jazz musicians played an atmospheric number, Middle School students strolled into the Assembly Room and found comfortable spots on the floor. The song continued for a few more minutes, offering soothing sounds and setting the tone for what promised to be an entertaining and enlightening morning.

For the past six years, Chapin has been fortunate to enjoy a dynamic partnership with The Juilliard School, whose talented teaching artists participate in a variety of Assemblies and class visits created for students in each division, noted Patricia Norchi, Coordinator of the Music Program and a Middle School Music teacher. 

On this particular day, the quartet of masterful instrumentalists — Addison Frei on piano, Douglas Marriner on drums, Luke Sellick on bass and Alexa Tarantino on alto saxophone — introduced the Class 4-7 students to a distinctively American sub-genre of jazz that originated more than 150 years ago in the Deep South. “Has anybody heard of the blues?” the pianist asked. 

After several enthusiastic nods, Mr. Frei embarked on a fascinating overview of this musical form, which is rooted in African traditions. “Remember, blues is a feeling,” he said, adding that “the guitar is the most important instrument” in the blues.

Next, the students learned about a few of the genre’s seminal figures, including Robert Johnson (1911-1938), a Mississippi-based singer and renowned blues guitarist known for his “Delta blues” style, and Duke Ellington (1899-1974), a hugely influential composer and pianist whose jazz orchestra rocketed to stardom at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club.

To illustrate Mr. Johnson’s iconic use of the metal body guitar, which resulted in an unmistakably gritty sound, Mr. Frei played a recording of his famous song, “Crossroads.” “What do you hear?” he asked the students. “It sounds twangy,” one remarked. 

As a point of comparison, the quartet played “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” a swingy standard written by Mr. Ellington’s son, Mercer Ellington, an accomplished musician in his own right. The students snapped their fingers along to the beat. “That sounds more jazzy,” another student observed, but she didn’t know exactly why.

“Rhythm gives music that jazzy feeling,” the bassist Mr. Sellick explained, stating that the bass originated in Europe in the 1700s. Amazingly, it wasn’t until 1917 in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, that this oversize instrument was first played with one’s fingers instead of a traditional bow, he told the captivated students. 

Mr. Sellick went on to familiarize the audience with Pops Foster (1892-1969), a Louisiana bass and tuba player, and Walter Page (1900-1957), a multi-instrumentalist best known as a bass player with the Count Basie Orchestra of the 1930s. Through the quartet’s performance of “I’ve Got Rhythm” by George Gershwin (1898-1937), the students also learned about a popular 32-bar song form — called “A-A-B-A” — and how the structures of “verse,” “chorus” and “bridge” shape a piece of music.

Next, Mr. Marriner demonstrated the components of his impressive drum kit and declaring, “I’m lucky to play the best instrument in jazz.” The students erupted in applause when he executed a spectacular drum roll and expertly pounded on his tom-toms, versatile drums with roots in West Africa. He showed how the drums could also be a “melodic instrument,” a technique popularized by the pioneering drummer Max Roach (1924-2007).

Last but not least, Ms. Tarantino stepped up to the microphone. “How are we feeling so far?” she asked. With cheering voices filling the room, she further elevated the joyful energy by instructing the students to clap their loudest for their favorite musician. Then the group slid into their final song, a catchy number that gave each player the chance to shine. (Spoiler alert: Mr. Marriner won by a landslide.)

With time winding down, Ms. Tarantino thanked the Middle School for being “an excellent audience” before joining her fellow quartet members and playing her saxophone. “Go quietly so you can enjoy the beautiful music,” Ms. Norchi urged as the students wove their way out of the Assembly Room and onto their next activity, no doubt moved by this uplifting event.