I'm putting on a free concert for students of my hometown: Plano, TX. The concert will take place at a local music store (that frequently hosts live music), Williamson Music First, on June 22nd from 4:30-6PM and will showcase some of my favorite musicians who are around college-age.
Here's my goals for this concert and why it's important:
tl;dr... 1) Expose students to successful pathways in jazz/the arts. 2) Show them their own expression has immense value and has value now.
As some of you may know, 2 years ago, the Plano West Senior High School's Jazz Band (my alma mater), was rated as one of the top 15 high school bands in the country and was able to compete in New York City at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Essentially Ellington Festival. Since then, I have seen an explosion in interest in jazz by young students in my home town. Plano West has doubled the size of their jazz program and the the middle schools and junior highs are now teeming with young talent. This has shown me the impact of pathways on young students, especially in the arts.
However, there is a problem. Dallas/Fort Worth is not a place that supports jazz and creative improvising and as a result, there are few gigs. The ones that are available are very competitive, terribly-paid, and often, artistically limiting (strict venues, non-listening crowds, or wedding/function bands). Even the UNT Jazz Professors, arguably the best jazz musicians in the metroplex, can often be seen playing for tips in Denton bars. But the barriers don't stop there, students constantly tell me that they can't afford cover charges, shows are too far away (Downtown Dallas, Denton), and/or their parents won't let them stay out late or go to a bar (or 21+ type places). Plano students still have very few role models and visible pathways to success in jazz. In addition to not considering it a viable career-option, many don't even consider it worthy of a place in their school schedule, instead, prioritizing another AP class or similar. This free, afternoon, local concert will cover all those bases of inaccessibility and will also feature time at the end for students to play with the band and ask questions about pathways, modern artists, and being a young creative. It will be live-streamed and made available for viewing on the Williamson Music First Facebook page as well.
Beyond the lack of role models, there is a big trend in jazz education that I'm seeking to address with this concert: jazz education often teaches students that the way they express themselves is wrong until they sound like carbon copies of a famous jazz musician who has been dead for 50 years. Students around the country (though I want to emphasize that this is not fault of Plano music educators, here I am speaking of jazz education in a broad sense!) are generally not taught about artists like Esperanza Spalding, Maria Schneider, Cecil McLorin Salvant, Brad Mehldau, Ambrose Akinmusire, Christian Scott, the list goes on. Even people like Pat Matheny, Keith Jarrett, Joe Lovano, and Kenny Garrett are rarely mentioned. These artists are living proof that jazz is still breathing and is not a museum piece to be preserved like a fossil.
My mentor, Stefon Harris, described the problem with the dating of the term jazz well in a recent interview. "Ultimately, the term jazz is a commodification of something so much bigger. Once you commodify it into these tiny parameters, then it’s going to cause people hearken back to something from the past. Whereas, what it really is, is a platform for marginalized voices. Jazz at its best, is when it’s telling the stories of today."
At 20 years old, jazz has given me everything: my college scholarship, the chance to perform with my heroes, and almost all of my closest friends and mentors in life. However, the biggest gift jazz has given me is self-worth. Jazz is an art form that values individual expression and teaches us to love and cherish our differences.
During this concert, we will play only original music of the band members, specifically original music that challenges certain traditions that are frequently taught in jazz education as concrete or unbendable. I wish to show students that sounding like yourself and not like Charlie Parker is beautiful because they are not Charlie Parker! They did not grow up as an African-American boy in Kansas City in the 20's and 30's and for students from one of the wealthiest suburbs in America to try copy that expression is just inauthentic to say the least (not to say that all Plano residents are wealthy, but it's a totally different life experience). Of course, I acknowledge that there is incredible value in studying Charlie Parker's music, but that point is well accepted and adopted. The goal in studying someone else's music is ultimately to learn something from it and not to copy them on the bandstand. My hope is that by hearing high level playing and compositions written by people just a few years older than them students will begin to think more about what they individually have to offer that no one else can.
I was so fortunate to be able to travel the country as a high schooler not only to Jazz at Lincoln Center, but to the Newport Jazz Festival, Vail Jazz Festival, Music for All National Festival, TMEA conferences, etc. Through these experiences, I studied with and saw hundreds of artists who embody the very meaning of excellence, authenticity, and humanity. While the music of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were my initial spark, my heroes became the thousands of musicians creating and advancing jazz music today. I saw pathways to success and met touring artists who are headlining huge festivals, studio and Broadway musicians, freelance artists, educators, composers, venue owners, recording industry people, and every combination of the above.
The photo above is from the Berklee Global Jazz Workshop where I was able to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival with one of the most amazing people I've ever met, George Garzone. His philosophies about music, art, and life still permeate my life everyday.
Creating this GoFundMe page was very difficult for me, I don't take publicly asking for money lightly and wanted to put on this concert on my own dime (and if no one donates to this page, I will still do that). However, after talking to some friends about this project, it became clear that there are people who want to support this initiative and that by allowing people to do so, it will only expand the visibility and reach of the project. I've also had many unforeseen personal, expenses this summer that has made funding this concert myself a much more difficult proposition to pull off. Funds will be used to fairly compensate the band members for their time, rehearsing, driving, and performing some rather difficult original music, create some educational materials to pass out to students at the event, and to help me promote the event with social media campaigns and some basic flyers.
If you want more information about me as an artist, please visit my website: https://austinzhangmusic.com/ There you can see my bio, music, social links, etc. and can contact me with any questions or inquiries about this project as well.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, I know it was a long one. I hope I have captured how much this project means to me in the above text. Any dollar amount will help or even a share with your friends will go a long way!
PS. I want to add that I'm not here to tell music educators how to do their job and want to emphasize that my music education experience in Plano was incredible and first-class. When I am speaking about holes in jazz education, I'm doing so in broad terms.