Northampton Jazz Festival Organizers Launch Student Education Program

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Saxophonist Gary Smulyan to instruct JFK Middle School jazz bands on Oct. 29 and 30

NORTHAMPTON—Organizers of the 2018 Northampton Jazz Festival are teaming up with Northampton public schools to bring a professional musician to John F. Kennedy Middle School to work with students in the seventh and eighth grade jazz bands.

Gary Smulyan, the most acclaimed jazz baritone saxophone player in the world for 12 years, will kick off the new, ongoing Jazz in the Schools program, which is expected to roll out in multiple sessions each year, beginning this year on Oct. 29. As part of the program, students will receive instruction from Smulyan, and the professional will play alongside the student musicians in a performance.

The new student education program is funded in part by the jazz festival, with help from individual donors. Allen Davis and the Davis Financial Group of Hadley are the first key sponsors of Jazz in the Schools, having made initial gifts. Davis also has pledged additional support for up to five years.

“It was easy to decide to get behind as great a cause as Jazz in the Schools,” said Davis, certified financial planner and founder of the Davis Financial Group. “By pairing professional jazz musicians with young, aspiring players, it gives the students a role model to look up to and learn from. Playing alongside a pro could be just the thing to inspire them with a passion for jazz and fuel their dreams.”

Also supporting the initiative is a fundraiser, The Hotel Northampton Jazz Brunch, which will be held on Oct. 21 at noon in the Grand Ballroom of the hotel. A jazz ensemble from JFK will perform as guests arrive, and jazz musicians Steve Davis, on trombone, and Linda Ransom, on vocals, will perform with the Green Street Trio—with Paul Arslanian, George Kaye and Jon Fisher. Tickets are $40 per guest and are available at

Smulyan’s visit to JFK will come shortly after the conclusion of this year’s Northampton Jazz Festival, which returns Oct. 19 through Oct. 21 after a three-year hiatus. The festival is free—except for two of its events—and is open to the public. It has routinely drawn upwards of 5,000 individuals to see rich line-ups of jazz artists locally and from around the world since its inception in 2011. This year, it will be staged at a variety of indoor venues in downtown Northampton, with acts including the headliner Paquito D’Rivera Quintet, Sheryl Bailey and Don Braden among many others.

The main goal of the Jazz in the Schools program lies in exposing student musicians to the mentorship of jazz artists who are not only masters of their craft and experienced educators, but also inspirational working professionals. The program also aligns well with the Northampton Jazz Festival’s commitment to carrying forward the great American music tradition of live jazz for generations to come.

“Traditionally, this music was learned by listening and interacting with other players; being encouraged by audience reaction, interaction with other musicians on the bandstand, and trial and error,” said Paul Arslanian, producer and creative director of the Northampton Jazz Festival, who is also founder and coordinator of the weekly Northampton Jazz Workshop. “Hopefully this program will encourage that cycle to continue, and nurture a few more young innovators.”

Arslanian worked with Claire-anne Williams, music director at JFK who instructs the seventh and eighth grade jazz bands, to decide on an educational program that would significantly benefit her students.

“The students who participate in my jazz program are highly motivated students who are truly interested in learning,” Williams said. “They’ll be very excited to work with professional jazz musicians who can help them with their improvisational skills and jazz stylistic interpretation.”

Smulyan and Arslanian’s Green Street Trio will work with the seventh and eighth grade ensembles on Monday, Oct. 29, and then perform alongside the same students during a schoolwide assembly on Tuesday, Oct. 30. The students and parents will also be invited to that week’s Northampton Jazz Workshop for a concert with Smulyan and the Green Street Trio.

“What excites me and other jazz musicians is that this program is a vehicle for us to pass on our knowledge, experience and love of the music to another generation,” Arslanian said. “My hope is that a few of the most interested and determined students will go on to pursue careers in music and pass on the history, as well as their own take on the music.”

Jazz has been a popular course of study at JFK Middle School; since the jazz band’s inception 12 years ago, it has grown from a small group of 15 students to two separate bands totaling 50 students. The two bands have performed for parents, at local elementary schools and in the Massachusetts Association for Jazz Education Festival, where they received high scores from judges. Most recently, the school’s top group was an opener for the Jamie Kent Band at Northampton’s Academy of Music.

Jazz in the Schools provides a next step in giving JFK Middle School’s students an opportunity to improve their skills while connecting with the larger jazz community.

“The jazz band program has become an integral part of the JFK Middle School’s community and the Northampton community at large, and this collaboration will be a perfect way to move this program into the larger community in yet another direction,” Williams said. “Music is a very natural way to bring people together and enhance the overall community.”

Perhaps even more valuable than the opportunity for the students to improve their jazz skills, Williams and Arslanian agreed, is the opportunity to inspire in them an enduring passion for music.

“Our mission is to show how beautiful and fulfilling this music can be, and at the same time, make it accessible and understandable,” Arslanian said, noting that the students will be welcome additions to future Northampton Jazz Festival line-ups when they’re ready. “It just takes study and practice if you really want to play the music.”

Board members are actively raising funds to support the Northampton Jazz Festival and its programs. To make a donation, buy tickets or for more information, email or visit  

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