Jazz legend Hamiet Bluiett gives a hand up to budding musicians
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 9, 2009 - It's more than an hour before the official start of classes at Delmar-Harvard School in University City. But the place is already a beehive of activity as 11- and 12-year-old students stream through the entranceway clutching string instruments, guitars and an assortment of trumpets, flutes and other wind instruments.
Joining in the procession through the double doors are instructors in the program, including professional musicians such as saxophonist Willie Akins, guitarist Kirk Hanser -- and Hamiet Bluiett, a name that dedicated jazz fans across the world immediately identify as the renowned baritone saxophone player for the famed World Saxophone Quartet.
Bluiett is here today to rehearse the Sunrise Conservatory's wind ensemble, a group of elementary school students who play flute, various clarinets, trumpet, trombone and sousaphone. He heads downstairs to a small gymnasium, where he helps set up folding chairs in a semi-circle around him, pulls out music stands stored in large plastic bucket beside him, then pulls out a clarinet for his own use in the rehearsal.
The students slowly take their places and tune up, waiting for Bluiett to start the rehearsal. The wind ensemble -- along with the Sunrise conservatory's string orchestra and guitar group -- will be traveling on buses throughout the morning to other schools in the district to perform at assemblies. It's an effort to spread the word about the voluntary program to other elementary school students. And it's also a way to publicize the evening performance by all three groups at University City High School later in the week.
It's obvious from the start of the rehearsal that Bluiett commands immediate attention and respect from his students, but he gets things accomplished with a quiet, calm demeanor that balances authority with a genuine respect for the young people he is teaching.
"Working with these little people on a regular basis has made me a lot more patient than I normally am when I'm involved in music," comments Bluiett. "A LOT more patient! When I deal with older students or professional musicians, there's a lot more givens and a lot more expectations. But with these kids, the most important thing is to open them up to music as something that connects with the rest of their world."
Despite the distractions of an HEC-TV video crew led by producer Christian Cudnik, Bluiett gradually pulls the sound of the ensemble together on a blues-based instrumental - section by section. He uses his own clarinet playing to demonstrate how the clarinet section needs to establish a pattern for the horns to follow in a particular piece. Once that's established, he asks someone in the flute section to step up and lead the other two flautists through their parts - bobbing his head to show the correct way to punctuate time.
For anyone who knows Bluiett's resume as a professional musician, it's a teaching role that may seem incongruous at first. After all, Bluiett, who first learned to play music from famed bandleader George Hudson in school in nearby Lovejoy, went on to play with famed local group Leo's Five at East St. Louis' Blue Note club in the mid-'60s, then become an integral member of the seminal Black Artist's Group (BAG).
After moving to New York and playing with the legendary Charles Mingus, Bluiett become a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet in 1976. With WSQ, Bluiett found the ideal showcase for his rare ability to expand the range of the baritone sax beyond its traditional limits into higher octaves.
But it's obvious that the Sunrise Conservatory wind ensemble students don't know anything about Bluiett's resume as a world-class musician. They just know he's teaching them to play music - in a way that's obviously enjoyable by their participation and effort. For Bluiett, that's the real payoff - building an appreciation for music among these children, as well as a sense of confidence in being able to play music together.
"I'm not trying to create virtuosos -- even though several of these children are very musically talented," he states after the rehearsal while the kids play outside waiting for the bus to take them to Barbara Jordan Elementary School for a performance. "The overall goal is just trying to teach them there's another world that exists that allows creativity to happen. Music is very therapeutic that way."
Bluiett sees a very different music educational experience in today's schools than he experienced while growing up under George Hudson's tutelage in Lovejoy. He was taught music for an entire class period every day. In University City schools as in most districts -- there is no music program in elementary schools. And in many districts, music is often taught outside of the regular curriculum and class times even in middle and high schools.
"George Hudson started us out with just mouthpieces, not even instruments," recalls Bluiett. "That's where we got the foundation of learning how to use our breath before we even started using our fingers. But we had 45 minutes every school day. These days, things are different. You don't have the time to prepare kids for everything in music. But you can prepare them to get started."
To do that, Bluiett had to refocus his own thinking about music and how to teach it. He had to begin with the very basics.
"You need to put parameters on what you're trying to accomplish," explains Bluiett. "I ask myself how can you be creative and informative, but also put what you're teaching in the perspective of humanity for these kids? You have to start at the beginning. You have to teach them how to start a sound on an instrument ... how to form that sound and breathe properly together ... and then create an ensemble sound together."
It's an approach that clearly works for the kids in the Sunrise Conservatory wind ensemble. By rehearsal's end, they sound right. And later, when the ensemble performs for a rapt audience of their peers at Jordan Elementary's gym, they sound even better, earning a genuine round of sustained applause - and perhaps some new recruits for next year's program.
"You know, they weren't even teaching blues when I started teaching here," comments Bluiett as he heads to the bus that will take the students to their next performance. "But the blues is another basic - and something kids can relate to because it's in all American music. So, maybe we'll end up with more drive-by blues bands than drive-by shootings."
Bluiett smiles and steps onto the bus, already talking to his students about the ensemble's next performance.
Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who has written extensively on music.