My son first blew into a saxophone when he was 8 years old. An accidental relationship developed between the two, nothing either of us had planned. An old friend had found it in a thrift store or pawnshop and left it in our living room. And for months, the sound of that horn followed me into every room of our house—until I finally realized my son was trying to tell me something.
In a world that seems unfair, I can’t tell my son (who’s now 13) not to be angry. But I can encourage him to redirect that anger someplace else. As he grows into young adulthood, I can’t protect him from the world, but I can show him how to stand up and believe in his dreams. Through hard work and practice, he’s learned self-determination—something that can never be taken away from him, whatever obstacles he may face.
It’s not easy for the children of single parents to find the means to participate in the creative arts, and I am privileged to have the means to help nurture my son’s own vision for his future. For us, it’s not about “art for art’s sake,” either. It’s not just about the process of creation or about crafting something pleasing to the ear or eye. For a young person of color, discovering a creative outlet, a form of self-expression, a safe place amid all the chaos that comes with being a black adolescent is a matter of survival.
Anthony Alexander, assistant director of the W.C. Reid Center for the Creative Arts, knows firsthand how critically important it is for young people to find a creative outlet. He grew up across the street from the community center in Livingston Heights.
“You had the choice of hanging out on the streets, or you could come into the Reid Center and play basketball. You had those two choices,” Alexander recalls. He spent his days writing stories in the bleachers while watching his friends shoot hoops on the court. At the age of 17, Alexander completed his first novel, On the Edge of a Dream, a story about his life and the struggles he and his friends faced trying to avoid the negativity that surrounded them in that insular community. During that time, a good friend of his was shot and killed on the street.
Deeply affected by the loss, Alexander went off to college and didn’t return to the neighborhood for nearly 16 years. Now, however, Alexander shares his gift for the written word through the Reid Center’s theater program, writing and directing plays and helping young people create their own scripts.
“For them to come into the center—just to walk in the doors and not hang out on the street—is the first step,” he says.
But while Alexander seeks to inspire young people through theater and creative writing, saxophonist Gary Bradley tries to do the same thing through music. Every Saturday for more than eight years, rain or shine, Bradley has conducted a band of young jazz musicians in the practice room at the YMI Cultural Center. In that time, he’s seen four whole rotations of kids mature.
“Growing up where I did, and the things that were around me, music was the only thing that kept me balanced,” says Bradley. “It kept me from going down the wrong path. If there’s something there that can save just one, then it’s worth it.” An older generation of musicians taught Bradley “out of the kindness of their hearts. And I’m one of the old guys now,” he notes. “I have to keep the cycle going.”
Together, Bradley and Davidson Jones have formed Youth at Jazz, creating a new opportunity for giving back. “The YMI practice room has a large window, and every now and then, you see a kid come looking in the window,” says Jones, the father of three musicians. “I remember what it felt like being on the other side of the window, looking in on something you wish you could be a part of.”
The nonprofit offers young people a chance to acquire an instrument and get free lessons, as well as opportunities to perform. Jones believes learning to play jazz can help prepare kids for successful adult living. Exposing them to life beyond the confined communities in which some of them have been raised, it builds self-confidence, self-esteem and independence. “At this moment, I’m excited about the possibility of a kids’ booking agency, so they can learn the economics and business side of it and reach out to adults with various kinds of expertise,” notes Jones.
“Music transcends everything,” says Bradley. “It transcends poverty; it transcends people having a lot of money. It’s the universal language.” And Bradley, Jones and the W.C. Reid Center have opened up the doors every Saturday to make it happen. The new program has given my own son a new saxophone more suitable to his skill level. His old one has been passed on to a new jazz musician, a 9-year-old girl.
For Bradley, it’s a simple matter of walking the talk. “Before you give them guidance, you can’t point the finger at them,” he maintains. “We as the adults, we as parents, we as the older people on the planet, let them go down the wrong road. So don’t talk about them like it’s a shame. Don’t give up on them, and don’t say nothing about it if you ain’t puttin’ nothing in the pot.”
To learn more about Youth at Jazz, check the Web site: youthatjazz.org.
[Tamiko Murray received a 2007 Asheville Arts Council grant to help her complete her first collection of short stories. She’s the mother of a visual artist and a jazz musician.]