The Elephant in Moscow

Almost every year our jazz band packs up their instruments and drives to Idaho for the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. Wildly gifted musicians, these students are great ambassadors for ACMA, inspiration to a world hungry for art, and a truly fun bunch.

This year, ahead of the trip, they hosted a fundraising concert where they could shake off any nerves ahead of the big festival performances and fill a jar with enough money to help make the trip to Idaho a big success.

It was a fantastic concert, as they always are, and this one felt a little different.

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It began with some R&B, musicians I’d heard play Monk and Ellington, brought some unexpected funk, and the crowd of jazz aficionados loved it. After that came the usual suspects: Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, some with stories to be told, others introduced with a smile and a sense of urgency to get to the tune, so beautiful it would be. Off to the side, one of our English teachers and his wife danced. Even before a pianist pointed out their swing, I could tell the students dug having them enjoying the music so much. They played on, bass thumping, horns blaring, and piano dancing up and down the register. Drum solos, a Frank Sinatra tune, and the playful banter of musicians comfortable with each other and engaged with the music they were playing, this was an example of the profound power of art. The concert ended with a rendition of “Strange Fruit” that would have made Nina Simone proud.

IMG_0444Throughout the night, as students adjusted the bass or tinkered with tuning, our jazz director stepped to the front of the stage and charmed the audience. We were getting every bit of professionalism we paid for at this free concert, he told us, we were seeing the fruits of the students’ labor, and getting a window into their artistic souls.

Midway through the performance, with a little longer time to fill, he told us a story.

“I’ve taken the kids on this trip to Moscow, Idaho ten of my eleven years at ACMA,” he said to the assembled crowd. “Sometimes the weather is great, and sometimes it’s crazy. One time a few years back we had a lot of snow. We were on the bus driving toward town, and out into the road stepped a big moose. He looked at our bus coming down on him and froze. There was nothing we could do. The bus hit the moose, and the moose was annihilated. So was the bus. It ruined the whole side of the bus. Nobody got hurt.” He smiled. “And it was one of those moments when I thought to myself: Should I call the principal? I mean nothing happened. A split second, that’s all I hesitated,” he said, nodding in my direction. “And then I saw that a kid had texted home: ‘Mom, We just hit an elephant!’”

IMG_0450It was an example of those nutty and unexpected incidents that define what it’s like to be an educator. Once we knew the kids were all okay, we could laugh together.

That’s a feeling not unlike what happens when a play wraps or a dance show is over, when Art is My Voice closes or the last audience members have headed home from a literary event with a copy of The Ballpoint tucked beneath their arms. There is a surprising joy in art, and sometimes conflict too, but in the end art has the capacity to leave us feeling better about our world.

One joy of working at an art school is seeing students finding their voices and sharing their passions with an audience. It makes me proud to think of the students who are traveling to Lionel Hampton, and happy to imagine the inspiration they’ll bring to the audiences there. Here’s hoping they don’t meet an elephant on the way.

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