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Riffs & Raps program helps youths find their jazz

Posted by Roy Greene  November 14, 2011 11:16 AM

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For musicians Arni Cheatham and Bill Lowe, jazz is more than just the music they play: it’s a lifestyle, a philosophy and a language.

Most importantly, for the two long-time Boston transplants, jazz is a tool to get impoverished kids involved in a genre of music that they otherwise might not be exposed to or understand.

“We’re trying to help young people make the association between the music they hear on a Friday or Saturday night, and the roots it has in blues-based music,” said Lowe, an accomplished tuba and trombone player who teaches jazz culture courses at Columbia University and Williams College and previously taught for more than 15 years at Northeastern University.

As the tag-team duo in charge of Riffs & Raps, JazzBoston’s family of community-based programs, Lowe and Arni perform for audiences that span from long-time aficionados to children who are hearing jazz for the first time. They travel to libraries and music venues throughout Greater Boston playing and teaching -- Lowe blaring riffs on the tuba or trombone, Cheatham trilling out tunes on any one of his six saxophones.

Their most important work is done at their home base at the Blue Hill and Dorchester Boys & Girls Clubs, where the two run the original Riffs & Raps program.

Riffs & Raps - Find Your Jazz! is an after-school program for middle-school youths, with funding from the Clipper Ship Foundation, Boston Cultural Council and the Music & Youth Initiative. Created three years ago, each seven-week program takes on about 20 young teens, most of them African-American students from low-income families.

About 90 percent of the kids receive free or reduced-cost meals at their schools, according to JazzBoston, the six-year-old non-profit that funds the pair’s program.

As the early concept for the program was being developed, the executive director of JazzBoston, Pauline Bilsky, spoke to Lowe, a former middle-school music teacher, about leading the program. Lowe, in turn, turned to Cheatham, also a longtime educator and his friend and band-mate.

Cheatham and Lowe’s program comes at a time when funding for music education in public schools - especially in high-poverty areas - has been cut significantly.

“A lot of kids in this city, for 20 years, have not had music instruction available to them,” said Lowe.

Lowe understands the demographics: he grew up in a part of New Jersey that was so rough, his father would drive behind him as he walked to school, he said. Yet he still had access to music.

The two longtime educators teach their students about the heritage of African-American music. Through performances with their students, they show that contemporary music like hip-hop and pop uses the same principles as jazz and the blues.

“We try to show the kids something about their past through something they know,” Cheatham said from his apartment in the South End. “They (jazz and rap) are a father-son, mother-daughter relationship. They aren’t separate from each other.”

But the program isn’t just history and music lessons. Cheatham and Lowe have found that the music they love is a perfect tool to help youths express themselves, build confidence and learn teamwork. They also teach their students to apply jazz principles, such as composition and improvisation, in daily life.

Those life skills can be hard to instill in impoverished youths, they said.

“Black kids, especially black males, are brought up in environments that tell them they are sullen, inarticulate, and stupid. Hearing these kids rhyme and create songs and the jokes they’ve got, they are turning that notion on its head,” said Lowe.

As an example, Cheatham told a story about a “tough kid” in one of his programs who tried to pick a fight with him. Eventually, the boy opened up and told Cheatham how he saw his father shot to death by police when he was younger. Soon the once-stoic kid was one of Cheatham’s best, most engaged students.

For both men, these are the underlying social issues they try to address through jazz.

“Elders have the responsibility to teach young people how to make positive statements out of all the negative events of the past,” Lowe said.

“And we do it through music, because it’s rich, and it’s beautiful, and it gives back to society,” chimed in Cheatham, who played his first gig a few weeks after receiving his first sax as a Chicago teen.

This notion has rubbed off on other Boston communities. Based on the success of the first program at the Dorchester Boys & Girls Clubs, JazzBoston created two more incarnations of Riffs & Raps: one an introduction to jazz for the very young, and the other geared toward senoirs.

Cheatham, Lowe and Boston-based pianist Kevin Harris play at Boston Public Library branches throughout the city. The library performances have been so popular that JazzBoston has had trouble responding to all the inquiries from other communities, Bilsky said.

It makes for a busy schedule for the jazz patriarchs, but Cheatham prefers it to his previous job working at a consulting firm.

“When Bill [Lowe] referred me to JazzBoston, at the time I was like, ‘Please! Get me out of here!’” throwing his hands in the air in mock exasperation.

Bilsky said it was the pure passion in Lowe and Cheatham that led them to be chosen for the community programs.

“We picked Arni and Bill because they are totally committed to helping young people. When you see the kids greet them when they come back after the program, it’s like they are seeing a favorite grandfather or uncle,” she said.

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(Matt Kauffman photo for boston.com)


Riffs & Raps performing at the North End branch library.

Cheatham and Lowe will be performing at the South Boston branch library at 1 p.m., Nov. 19. The pair also will be playing with The Makanda Project - a 12-member jazz ensemble - at 7 p.m. Dec. 3 at the Dudley branch library in Roxbury.

This article was reported and written by under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel (l.chedekel@neu.edu), as part of collaboration between the Globe and Northeastern.


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