International Jazz Day celebrated at local schools

Students at Cesar Chavez Middle School, many of whom are part of the school's band, listen to Prince Lawsha and the International All Stars perform a popular tune by Miles Davis. — Johanna Miller/Register-Pajaronian

WATSONVILLE—The sound of jazz echoed out from the Cesar Chavez Middle School cafeteria in Watsonville early Friday morning as Prince Lawsha and the Jazz Day All-Stars took to the stage.

A crowd of students, many of them members of the school’s own band, settled onto benches and listened with rapt attention as the group soared through sets of songs. Faculty and staff also listened in.

“It’s great,” said Cesar Chavez Middle School’s Music Director Brendon James. “And not only for the kids who play music, but everyone. The more they are exposed to early on the better.”

Sunday was International Jazz Day, a worldwide celebration sponsored by the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Smithsonian Institute and the Herbie Hancock Jazz Institute.

Local jazz musician Prince Lawsha has helped expand the observance to a week-long event, bringing musicians to various schools across Santa Cruz County to play for students and hold workshops. This has paralleled an effort by the Pajaro Valley Unified Schools District to bring back the arts in public schools in recent years.

Susan Graulty, Coordinator of the Visual and Performing arts at PVUSD, pointed out some of the ways jazz in particular can teach students communication skills.

“Part of the creative process is learning how to listen to each other,” she said. “To communicate without speaking…so much of playing in a jazz band relies on that.”

Audrey Sirota is the arts coordinator for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education—one of the local sponsors of Jazz Week.

“One of the first questions students at Pajaro Valley Middle School asked the band was how long they’d been playing together,” Sirota said. “They were surprised to learn that Prince had only brought the musicians together recently.”

The Jazz Day All-Stars are Lawsha on percussion, Cameron Smith, guitar, Martan Mann, keyboards and Lewis Kaiser, coronet. Also in the lineup is French saxophone player Jean-Jacques Taib and Tyrone Brown from Philadelphia, bass.

“It’s special to have such a mix of musicians from all over the world here to perform,” Sirota said. “Prince has given an amazing experience to these kids.”

On Sunday Lawsha and his band performed a free concert on the bandstand on the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. Also on the bill was legendary jazz percussionist Pete Escovedo and the Escobedo Orchestra. 

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