Between the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, the jazz program at Cabrillo College and the music programs at some of the area’s schools, there may be no better place in America outside New York or New Orleans to grow up with jazz than in Santa Cruz County.
It makes sense, then, that Santa Cruz County is fully committed to International Jazz Day, a worldwide celebration of jazz sponsored by UNESCO, the Smithsonian Institute and the Herbie Hancock Jazz Institute. In fact, it’s known locally as International Jazz Week, thanks largely to the efforts of Santa Cruz jazz percussionist Prince Lawsha.
This year, Lawsha has been busy bringing a group of accomplished jazz musicians to several of the county’s schools for performances and workshops, all of which culminate in a free outdoor concert on Sunday at the bandstand at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, featuring legendary percussionist Pete Escovedo.
Sunday is the official observance of International Jazz Day, and from noon-5 p.m., Lawsha and his impromptu band of jazz all-stars will open the performance at the Wharf, followed by Escovedo and his orchestra, which features his sons Juan Escovedo and Peter Michael Escovedo.
But even before the first note is struck in Sunday’s concert, many of the county’s school children will have already been exposed up close to high-quality jazz performance.
Six years ago, Lawsha—the son of a celebrated saxophonist also known as Prince Lawsha, a veteran touring musician and recording artist in his own right—approached former county school superintendent Michael Watkins with an idea to bring professional jazz players into the county’s classrooms.
“I figured that if I’m going to bring artists from outside the country here [for International Jazz Day], I could do better having them here a whole week with students, rather than just one day at the Wharf,” says Lawsha.
The result was the birth of a local tradition, as Lawsha led a jazz band into one local school every day of the school week. This year, he has assembled a group of musicians from his friends and colleagues in jazz, who he’s met performing around the world. They include Philadelphia bass player Tyrone Brown, French sax man Jean-Jacques Taib and a few California players, including guitarist Cameron Smith, pianist Martan Mann and coronet player Lewis Kaiser.
Lawsha and the band are in the midst of a tour of the county’s schools, which this year includes Harbor High, Soquel Elementary, Pajaro Valley Middle School, Sequoia School in Freedom, and Cesar Chavez Middle School in Watsonville. The aim of the tour, says Lawsha, is to instill a love of jazz in the younger generation, and to allow young aspiring musicians to see models of professionalism in the business. “What we want to do is make sure that these kids will keep these instruments in their hands all their life,” he says.
Audrey Sirota is the arts coordinator for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, and her job is to act as the liaison between the musicians and the schools. She says the benefits of the jazz musicians coming into schools extend beyond aspiring musicians.
“Seeing how you can make a living as a musician and how you can make a career of it has a profound influence on a lot of the students, even if they never become professional musicians,” she says.
A couple of years ago, Sirota was witness to the process of how jazz musicians inspire the very young when she attended a performance at Mountain Elementary School outside Soquel. “The musicians ended up doing some nursery rhymes and songs that the kids were familiar with—taking ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’ for example, and turning it into a jazz improv.” This year, Lawsha and his band are planning a similar approach with Spanish-language nursery rhymes.
Also, in keeping with the international flavor of International Jazz Day, Lawsha is intent on bringing to town musicians from other places as a way to underline the power of American jazz around the world.
“I do try to bring in people from outside the country so that kids can get inspired seeing people from other countries playing our music with such love,” he says.
The International Jazz Day program, featuring Pete Escovedo and the Escovedo Orchestra, along with Prince Lawsha and the Jazz Day All-Stars, will be presented Sunday, April 28, noon-5 p.m, at the bandstand at the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. The concert is free and open to the public. jazzday.com.