JazzArts Academy is cultivating a young music community in Charlotte, and teaching valuable life skills for students

By Cameron Lee

March 2, 2024

Numerous studies over the years have shown that learning to play an instrument at an early age can positively impact academic attainment, memory, and attention skills. And while that would be sufficient reasoning for schools to fund their music programs, most budgets are still being cut. Since 2011, JazzArts Charlotte, a non-profit founded in 2009 by Lonnie and Ocie Davis, has worked with over 50,000 K-12 students in the Charlotte region through their youth ensembles, workshops, and educational programs. The steady growth and success of the organization recently led to JazzArts Charlotte bringing on their first Education Director, Patrick Brown, in 2022. 

Charlotte native Patrick Brown was named the education director of JazzArts Charlotte in 2022.

Brown, a Charlotte native and former college professor who taught saxophone, jazz studies, and music theory, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return home for the position. 

“To work in jazz education, and in my hometown, to positively make a difference in the arts is special. And I knew that opportunity was rare. So I took it,” said Brown. 

An accomplished saxophone player himself, Brown oversees the JazzArts Academy and its nearly 20 educators and instructors that head a youth ensemble, a summer camp, workshops, an award-winning early childhood program (WeBop), and most recently, a Latin jazz youth ensemble, Nuestro Tiempo. The academy’s flagship program, JazzArts Youth Ensembles + Workshops, for grades 7-12, had record enrollment in the past year.

The JazzArts Summer Music Camp at UNC Charlotte had record enrollment in 2023.

When Brown was growing up in Charlotte during the ‘90s and early aughts, jazz was not a part of the city’s culture, so he holds the position of education director proudly, knowing he has the opportunity to impact not only the kids, but the city. 

“At the time, there weren’t opportunities like JazzArts Charlotte, there was nothing like that. There were jazz musicians, and there were venues that had live music, but there wasn’t anything devoted to jazz education,” Brown said. 

Since the academy’s inception in 2011, graduates have been making noise in the music industry. Sean Mason, who was in the Jazz Arts All-Star Ensemble throughout high school at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology in Charlotte, went on to study music at Juilliard. He’s performed at some of the most prestigious jazz clubs internationally, following the release of his debut studio album, The Southern Suite

Charlotte native Sean Mason, who was a part of the Jazz Arts All-Star Ensemble in high school, studied at Juilliard and has performed at some of the most prestigious jazz clubs and venues internationally. 

“My mom found a small article in the paper and enrolled me into I think it was a summer camp and from there I maintained a relationship with Lonnie and Ocie and remained in that program throughout the duration of my high school years until I left,” Mason said. 

Stories like Mason’s is what drives Brown to make a bigger impact in the community by growing JazzArts Academy. The organization tries to admit as many students as possible through both need-based and merit-based scholarships. 

“To see students go off and be successful in whatever career path– we obviously support the students that want to become full-time musicians, but also, I see many other benefits. We focus a lot on what jazz teaches you in life skills, not just about the music,” Brown said. 

JazzArts Academy instructor, Carl Ratiff, leading an ensemble at JazzArts Summer Music Camp in 2023.

The JazzArts Academy’s programs cover a wide range of skill sets and ages, beginning as early as two years old with Jazz at Lincoln Center’s award-winning curriculum, WeBop. The anchor of the academy is the JazzArts Youth Ensembles + Workshops, which teaches jazz through 12-week sessions and covers multiple skill levels with all instruments welcomed, including vocals. Students in the program learn about different jazz styles, standard repertoire, improvisation, and history– a valued experience that allows kids to sharpen their skills in a relaxed ensemble environment. Brown sees the program as not only music lessons, but life lessons.

“A jazz group is democracy in action,” he said. “We see students that come in initially with very little self-confidence and through this music, it puts you out there– it forces you to deal with that, and you learn confidence…what jazz can bring beyond music is social interaction and creativity.” 

JazzArts Summer Music Camp at UNC Charlotte in 2023.

Their summer camps at UNC Charlotte, which have also seen record enrollment since the pandemic, offer a fun and interactive one-week comprehensive jazz training program that culminates with a community concert on the last day of camp.  

“It’s an intensive week of jazz study, but it also serves as an introduction to the genre for a lot of students. Many participate in the summer camp, then join our yearly programs,” said Brown. 

JazzArts Academy’s newest program, Nuestro Tiempo Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble, further demonstrates the nonprofit’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity, for both the students and musical styles. JazzArts introduced Iliana Rose, a pianist, composer, and arranger as the new Director of Nuestro Tiempo in 2023. Master percussionist and ethnomusicologist Johnny Conga, who specializes in Afro-Cuban/Caribbean drumming, is also one of the educators for the Nuestro Tiempo Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble. 

Iliana Rose, leads the Nuestro Tiempo Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble in a performance at Booth Playhouse in December 2023.

Where public tax-funded education may have faltered in supporting music programs nationally, organizations like JazzArts Charlotte are filling the void to grow the music community and to develop life skills through the magic of jazz. 

“We try to break barriers down and make our program accessible for all of our students, Brown said. “I’m a part of the journey, but they’re [the students] are the ones that are putting the work in. I just want to hopefully, somehow positively impact their journey,” said Brown. 

Wynton Marsalis meets JazzArts Academy students in 2017.

Check out the full range of programming the JazzArts Academy offers including their WeBop curriculum (ages 2-3.5 years old), JazzArts Youth Ensembles + Workshops (grades 7-12), Nuestro Tiempo Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble (grades 7-12), and JazzArts Summer Music Camp (grades 7-12). 

This article is brought to you ad-free by JazzArts Charlotte. You can follow JazzArts Charlotte on Facebook, Instagram, and X (Twitter).

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