A New Generation Learns and Performs Jazz in Cincinnati

While some of the more cynical observers of the music world may claim that traditional jazz is a dying art form, there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The most essential way of keeping classic jazz alive is to encourage new generations of young musicians to listen, learn, and play the music that has existed for over a century, and which has produced countless legends whose music—many decades later— continues to entertain, inspire, and even thrill us.

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The 3rd CPS (Cincinnati Public Schools) International Jazz Festival on May 6 went a long way to put those music cynics in their place, as it presented Cincinnati’s aspiring, school-age musicians of the CPS Jazz Academy in a concert that allowed them to exhibit their blossoming jazz skills, and, even more importantly, their potential.

Guest artists at Aronoff Center included renown Midwest jazz bassist Jim Anderson, who toured with Art Blakey, Hank Crawford, Nat Adderley, Benny Golson, and others. Joan Chamorro, who played at the festival as a guest in 2022, this time brought with him the eight-piece Sant Andreu Dixie Band, whose members stayed with host families of the jazz academy kids (more about these guests shortly).

The founder and producer of the festival, Dr. Isidore Rudnick, is the Fine Arts Curriculum Manager for the Cincinnati public school system, and founder of the CPS Jazz Academy, in which he teaches his students jazz classics with simplified arrangements, as he takes them through the process of learning and playing more sophisticated melodies not usually tackled by public school kids. “I had been wanting to start a jazz academy at the Cincinnati public schools,” he says, “an after-school jazz academy, for pretty much the last six years, since I’ve been in this [managerial] position.”

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“In our jazz academy, have basically three different levels: the elementary level, with grades 4, 5, 6; we have the junior high or middle school level, which is 7 and 8; and the high school level, which is 9–12. But there just isn’t any good way for me to combine those different groups. These kids all go to different Cincinnati public schools. They’re coming from about twenty schools from around the district. So they’re all on a certain schedule, and they all get out at a certain time… their skill level, with some exceptions, are pretty comparable. So, that enables me to bring each group level to the jazz academy at one time. Same thing with the junior high, and the same thing with the high school. But I can’t really mix the groups.

“In the large orchestra, and in the combos,” he continued, “I only get to rehearse with each of these groups once a week. I have to compete with—and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m just being realistic—I have to compete with soccer, with basketball, volleyball, science clubs…these kids are doing a million things. There’s no way I can get them three or four times a week. I couldn’t get them scheduled. So, what we try to do, we have them come once a week, they get a private lesson once a week, which doesn’t cost the student’s family anything, because we want to break down every single barrier here. Then if we have an upcoming event, I try to get in a few extra rehearsals on the weekends.”

The SAJB Dixie Band front line swings on “That’s-a-Plenty” (from
left): Luc Martin, Marti Costalogo, Sander Theuns, Pere Company.
(photo by Garry Berman)

A majority of the students come from lower-income and underprivileged neighborhoods of the city and have benefitted from programs aimed at giving them opportunities to explore their artistic interests and talents.

Sally Grimes, Executive Director of Activities Beyond the Classroom, explains how ABC became involved with the jazz academy: “What we do is extracurricular—everything beyond the classroom, and all our programs are free, so kids can participate. We started doing that about twenty years ago, and about five years ago, Dr. Rudnick asked how we could really boost music education in CPS. So, we decided to partner together to do a number of things, and one of them was to start after-school art clubs, music clubs, where the kids don’t have much access to that. ABC does the fundraising for the festival, the logistical aspects, and he puts together the content. Any money we bring in goes right into the jazz programs.”

ABC also helps bypass bureaucratic red tape by fixing problems quickly, such as buying new clothes for a student who needs them for a performance. “About 80% are underprivileged. Give them something to do to give them hope, and keep them safe. Kids living in poverty run out of hope, but if they have something that they find that’s worth something, they have a reason to come to school. We do about 200 different activities throughout the district – anything that will keep them interested.”


When possible, professional guest artists are brought in to meet with the kids and demonstrate how their own potential, combined with work, can produce fulfilling results.

“One thing Dr. Rudnick is really big on, which I love, is to have black and brown artists, so the kids can see themselves…So we do a lot with CPS as a whole. For this particular initiative, he came to us and said, ‘We have amazing kids who can do amazing things, but they can’t afford to travel to a music festival. Can we put one on here, and make it completely free, so they can experience it and not have to pay anything?’ We said, ‘Yeah, let’s make it happen.’ So we were able to get the Aronoff Center donated as the concert venue, where we’ve had it every time. We were able to put together first festival in 2019, and it was a huge success, and we were just on this high…”

Then Covid hit, necessitating the plans for the 2020 festival concerts and fundraising galas—already in the advanced planning stage—to be canceled. In 2021, the persisting uncertainty of safety issues regarding Covid and public gatherings caused the cancellation of that year’s festival as well.


In 2022, Rudnick got word from the Aronoff Center that an open day was available, but that day was only 2 ½ months away. Could they pull it off?

“We pulled it off,” Grimes reports, but for the evening performance only, while the daytime masterclasses were dropped. “Joan Chamorro came in for that one. And then we went to Barcelona [for Jazzing Fest].”

While the young jazz academy musicians are clearly still at the earliest stages of their jazz education and performance levels, the purpose of the academy and its annual festival is to build their confidence and encourage them to continue their pursuits. Or, in Gram’s words, “The whole idea is, let’s make sure these kids understand the power they have in their own musical ability, to be able to find that hope, and meet mentors and make global friends, be onstage, and feel special.”


In the seventeen years since guest Joan Chamorro created the Sant Andreu Jazz Band in Barcelona, observers have agreed that this is not your average kids’ band; the young musicians learn and perform classic jazz standards made famous by the legends and play with a seemingly impossible level of skill and professionalism not often seen from young people in the jazz world. The SAJB big band and its off-shoot smaller groups have over one thousand videos posted on YouTube, from their earliest years to the present.

As word of the SAJB began to spread beyond its home in Barcelona, and videos of the band caught the notice of professional musicians as well as average jazz enthusiasts, music educators around the globe became eager to learn of Chamorro’s way of teaching his students—“The Chamorro Method,” as it has come to be known.


Just what is The Chamorro Method?

As he explains, “For a very young musician, it is super important to listen. What do we do with a 6-or 7-year old who doesn’t know what they want? Have them listen to the music. Have them begin to learn their instruments. First you hear, then you play. Johnny Hodges, for example—I’d say ‘Let’s try to play him.’ They could say, ‘That’s really difficult, we’re just beginning.’ It’s not difficult with practice, little by little, every day.”

Singing is also essential to the process. Chamorro instructs his students, when listening to a solo by a jazz legend, “Sing what you’ve been hearing, internalize it. Then you pass it to the instrument. The instrument is an extension of your voice. When we work like this, especially with youngsters, they fall in love with the whole thing. A 7- to 14-year-old will be willing to practice every day, and it finally becomes part of their daily lives.” He has explained his teaching method in Colombia, Mexico, France, Sweden, Poland, Italy, and elsewhere.

Jazz Academy violin prodigy Eva Wesley, Joan Chamorro, Evelyn Yosmali, Dr. Isidore Rudnick. (photo by Garry Berman)

“I had seen Chamorro’s work on YouTube,” Rudnick explains, “and this was maybe five years ago, when I was becoming aware of exactly what he was doing. And so I reached out to him and told him I was starting a jazz academy in Cincinnati, and that I very, very much liked what he was doing. And I’ve taught jazz education for forty years, and it was really refreshing to see his way of teaching. I tried to get him to come over and do some workshops and a concert, and in 2019 I got my jazz academy up and running, but we ran into the beginning of Covid, so we had to wait, and wait. And I kept on reaching out to him.”

Finally, in May of 2022, Chamorro was able to accept Rudnick’s invitation to come to Cincinnati.

“We had the big festival in Cincinnati,” Rudnick recalls, “with all four of our jazz orchestra groups that are in the jazz academy, and he was our guest soloist. He played with the groups, did a workshop, and we had a chance to meet in person and hang out, and it was wonderful. As a result of that, he graciously invited me to bring one of our young groups over to his [Jazzing] festival in Barcelona to participate.”

So, in September of 2022, Rudnick and several of his jazz academy students traveled to take part in the SAJB’s 9th annual Jazzing Fest. There, workshops and concerts for both bands further solidified the connection.

Chamorro says of Rudnick’s visit with the Jazz Academy students, “It was a really beautiful experience, and I loved his work with these guys with jazz music. It was nice to meet him one more time in Barcelona, and to have his band at my festival. They played together with [the Dixieland band], the youngest ones of the Sant Andreu Jazz Band.”

Rudnick has no shortage of praise for how the SAJB has become a shining example of tapping into the potential of even the youngest aspiring musicians. “One of the things that impresses me so much about Mr. Chamorro’s program is that he’s teaching these kids the classic jazz repertoire, harmonic language, rhythmic style, articulation…he’s doing it with great arrangements that are not overly complicated, and a lot of his students—like what I try to do with our smaller Cincinnati public groups—when we perform, we perform without sheet music, because that’s what the early part of the tradition is. Now, of course with a jazz big band you’ve got a lot of people, and more complicated arrangements, so of course you need sheet music. But the foundation of music is learning the repertoire and being able to internalize it and perform it without having to have sheet music as a crutch. So it was marvelous for me to hear all of those groups at Jazzing, but especially his younger Dixieland group. Because I really think that getting to students at a very early age—and I’m talking eight years old, nine years old—is incredibly important.

“Another thing that Joan does so well, is that he places such an important emphasis with his younger players on listening to the great classic jazz musicians. Listening, and studying. So, you’re not just listening to a piece of music once or twice, you’re listening to it over and over, and you’re replicating the things that these great artists are doing.”

“When I created the SAJB,” Chamorro says, “we began paying attention to American jazz music of the ’20s and ‘30s. It came with my way of changing my teaching. I realized that learning music should be adaptive, not difficult. As a teacher, I’ve always tried to improve my teaching so young people can learn better. It’s more powerful to pass along what I feel than what I know. That’s very important with young people.

“You can learn anything on the Internet,” he points out, “but one thing you can’t find is how we are learning. I believe teaching is something sacred. In our case, I see that in the evolution of the young people growing with us— but the key to progression is to find equilibrium between the discipline to learn, and enjoying it. To not make the kids bored. It’s important to make the work experience happy. I’ve been searching for this since I started teaching almost forty years ago.”

He often repeats the essential idea behind his teaching: “The important thing is the journey, not the arrival.”

Rudnick sees Chamorro as a kindred spirit. “I love that he’s doing—that I try to do too—is that he presents the whole arrangement; so you’ve got introductions, you’ve got melodies, if it’s Dixieland you’ve got all the players doing the different roles, there’s impressive soloing, there’s out-choruses, the little hooks or coda on the end…So what you’re hearing is what you would hear if a professional group is playing that song. Now, he’s got it to a point more advanced than I do, so with my students, what I do is I go with all these standards, I adapt them, simplify some of the rhythms…for example, ‘Take the A-Train’…I simplified that a little bit, took out some of the notes, simplified the bridge, but what’s really impressive with Mr. Chamorro’s young Dixieland group is that they’re pretty much—there might be a few simplifications, but it’s like listening to a professional group.”

Despite their shared philosophy and devotion to teaching jazz, Rudnick admits he cannot enjoy some of the freedoms that allow Chamorro to lead the SAJB as he does. “I’m incredibly jealous of just the focus, and the time, that Joan has with his students.”

The big advantage for Chamorro is that the SAJB can rehearse at The Jazz House, a combination rehearsal room and recording studio in his own home. Countless SAJB tracks and videos recorded there have appeared on the band’s CDs and on YouTube. But such an arrangement would be a non-starter for Rudnick and his colleagues.

“We could never have rehearsals in our teachers’ residences,” he laments. “Our district would not allow it. So, kids going over to Joan’s house, hanging out, listening to music, practicing…we just have different sets of circumstances. It doesn’t take away at all from what he’s been able to accomplish, which is absolutely phenomenal. And the fact that he’s so proficient on several instruments—on bass, there could not be a better instrument for him to be playing with his students, because he can show them that harmonic and rhythmic foundation.

“And his passion for the music comes out 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. He just eats, sleeps, breathes this. The other unique thing about his program is that he takes the youngest kids and takes them all the way through graduating high school, and then it’s recording the Joan Chamorro presents… CDs. So, he’s able to actually help them launch their careers, which is super.”

Rudnick’s own passion for teaching is evident each time he stands before his students to have them fine tune their playing of a particular song arrangement. The Friday rehearsal sessions saw him lay down specific instructions and corrections to each musician as needed. As the full band resumed each piece, he would shout comments of encouragement and keep himself moving, bobbing his head to the beat and nearly dancing his way across the rehearsal room.

Sally Grimes confessed, “Of all the people we work with at CPS, he’s my very favorite because he has the least amount of ego, the least amount of political…he’s not in it for that. He does such an amazing job and I like to see, and I appreciate, when he gets recognized for these things, ’cause what he does is amazing.”

Evelyn Yosmali on vibes. (photo by Garry Berman)

The Friday rehearsals (with several parents, chaperones, teachers, and invited guests in attendance) included Chamorro going over fine points of “Rosetta” and other standards with his band. After he left for a short while, Rudnick took over at the piano to coach a few more choruses. The SAJB kids were all business, even in Chamorro’s absence, conferring with each other as they played fairly advanced musical concepts for their age.

Chamorro returned to rehearsal to put his musicians through their paces on “Tiger Rag,” after which the CPS band – 6th graders, together for only a year—rehearsed Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” Coltrane’s “Equinox,” and Kenny Dorham’s “Blue Bossa.” Throughout, it was easy to see the kids almost teaching themselves as each was tossed a solo to improvise.

Two stand-outs from the jazz academy group, vibraphonist Evelyn Yosmali and violinist Eva Wesley, showed themselves to be especially advanced soloists for their age (12). Should they decide to make music their life’s pursuit, they already have an impressive head-start.

The official jam session with both bands followed. As it concluded, with the guests making their way to the buffet lunch in the rear of the rehearsal hall, a very telling thing happened: The kids from both bands stepped back onto the stage and began a truly spontaneous, unscheduled jam, first agreeing on a main tune, and proceeding to launch a string of improvised solos. Neither Rudnick nor Chamorro had suggested they do this, as both men were beginning their lunch. The kids did it on their own. The adults noticed and stood to watch and enjoy. It was a moment during which, it could be said, the kids had crossed a threshold of sorts, and became true musicians.

Evelyn Yosmali shared her thoughts on that moment. “I feel like jam sessions are the best when you’re not being told to do a song or anything,” she says. “On Friday, that jam session started out kind of formal, and, at least for me, it felt like it wasn’t ‘voluntarily’ done. I mean, I wanted to solo and practice, and play. But when it was time to eat, and everyone just continued playing songs without being told to, that was when it started getting fun, because jazz—of course there are rules—but it’s about letting your personality just do its thing…”

Saturday’s activities included sound checks in the auditorium for both bands, and a full afternoon schedule of masterclasses throughout the building by CPS music teachers and guests Joan Chamorro and Jim Anderson. Chamorro led a class on sax, with SAJB saxophonist Sander Theuns assisting as interpreter, and for demonstrating musical points on alto. This was followed by Chamorro’s class on improvisation, with all the jazz academy and SAJB kids in attendance.

The evening concert began with the Jazz Academy High School Orchestra performing tunes including “Autumn Leaves” and “Mr. P.C.” The Junior High School Orchestra followed, with a set including the classic “Caravan.”

Then the Sant Andreu Dixie Band fairly stunned the largely unsuspecting audience with their impeccable set of Dixieland standards, kicking off with their go-to favorite, “That’s A-Plenty,” with each of the front-line musicians having his chance to shine. Several numbers later, with their closing notes, the audience leapt to their feet for a standing ovation.

Chamorro and Jim Anderson then stepped onstage for a baritone sax/stand-up bass duet. They both had fun getting into some scat singing as they played, until Anderson gave up, blurting, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” causing Chamorro and the audience to break up in laughter.

The two Elementary Orchestras followed, each directed by Myles Ellington Twitty, a model of constant encouragement for the youngest students in the program, as they played brief, rudimentary arrangements. A few words of thanks by Rudnick, and bows from the guests, concluded the festival.

During a bit of down time, Rudnick spoke of the rapport among the young musicians. “Our host families and the Barcelona kids, and our kids, are getting along famously!” he beamed.

Evelyn Yosmali concurred. “It was amazing. Performing with just the jazz academy has always been really fun, and the SAJB are amazing. They picked some really good people! We hosted two of the players [bassist Jordi Herrera and tenor saxophonist Pere Company], and they are really good. They taught us a lot of things, too.”

Evelyn’s mother Amy added, “We had basically an impromptu jam session for about three hours at our house, with both groups. They had a day off and the host families wanted to keep the Spain kids together. Joan and Dr. Rudnick showed up, too. It was a crazy party for about three hours. “

Evelyn’s friend Eva Wesley will enjoy pleasant memories of the weekend as well. “It was really great, I had a lot of fun, especially listening to [the SAJB] because all of their musicians were really good!”

Evelyn was especially reflective after the guests had returned to Barcelona. “Basically, one of the biggest morals that I’ve learned from this whole experience is that, even though they all spoke Catalonian and Spanish, and we spoke English, we all spoke the one language in common, which is music. We all understood and had a connection to it and were able to relate to it too. We also played soccer, which was super fun, and got to know each other, and we kind of felt like a family.”

The festival, and what the kids got out of it both musically and socially, provided proof of Rudnick’s impassioned message to the attendees of Friday’s rehearsal: “Music-changes-kids-lives!”

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