Steve Kirby is several things. He's the founder and director of the jazz studies program at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, and a well respected bassist who has worked with Elvin Jones, Cyrus Chestnut, Steve Turre and many others. One of his proudest achievements, though, is bringing the joy of jazz to underprivileged kids in inner city neighbourhoods.
I interviewed Kirby about that achievement, his project Jazz on Wheels. It's a program that allows his jazz students the opportunity of working with young kids who have no access to music programs in their schools, and educating them in what jazz is. The culmination of the program is a featured concert with the students on a flatbed truck, performing out in the community.
Humble beginnings in St. Louis
When Kirby was growing up in St. Louis, Mo., he ran with a bad crowd in a very rough neighbourhood. Some of his friends eventually ended up in jail, or worse. Kirby remembers that one of the brighter moments in that period was when a mobile band on a trailer came to perform in his 'hood during the summers. The musicians made the kids feel welcome, and often invited the kids onto the makeshift stage to enjoy the music. Kirby remembers how good it felt to be part of the experience.
Once he began his career in music, Kirby moved to New York City where he worked for Billy Taylor’s Jazzmobile. It, too, was a portable stage that featured some of the finest musicians performing for underprivileged kids in Harlem. Kirby began to realize that, for people in such neighbourhoods, these concerts were about the only live music they’d ever experience.
Fast forward to Winnipeg in 2003, when Kirby took a job at the University of Manitoba to create a jazz studies program. Before he moved, Kirby was told that jazz would be a hard sell in Winnipeg, and that there was no jazz scene to speak of. When he arrived, Kirby quickly realized that there were loads of jazz musicians, but they operated in their own fiefdoms and that none of those involved kids.
As the director of jazz studies at the university, Kirby set out to create a program that would attract students from around the world. He's succeeded beyond expectations, with more students wanting to enroll than the program can handle. Once it was established, he worked on finding a way to include kids in Winnipeg's inner city neighbourhoods.
Moving more than mobile jazz to Winnipeg
Kirby borrowed the idea of the mobile band he experienced as a teenager and in New York and created Jazz on Wheels, but not just to give concerts. He secured funding from generous donors for instruments and salaries and set up a program where kids could learn an instrument, receive instruction from students in his own university jazz program, and provide an opportunity for the children to perform on a mobile stage in their neighbourhoods. The kids who came up through Kirby's program ranks could then go on to teach other kids in their communities. Kirby has succeeded on every level, and children from grades 6 to 9 in schools with no music programs now receive instruments and instruction. It's been running for two years now.
If you ask Kirby what he gets out of Jazz on Wheels, he’ll tell you that, "Jazz saved my life." It saved him from the fate of his old friends back in St. Louis. As a result, he wants to pay back the favour. He also likes kids and the way the rich art form of jazz can bring people from different cultures and races together.
Kirby has lots of memorable stories to tell about Jazz on Wheels, but one of his favourites was when he and his musicians created a second line. The second line is based on traditional parades in New Orleans, where the main musicians in the first line are followed by another group of people who are enjoying the music, considered the second line. In this Winnipeg version, over 300 kids put on red shirts and followed Kirby’s band in what he calls choreographed chaos.
Jazz on Wheels has turned lives around for dozens of kids in inner city neighbourhoods, and has succeeded in spreading the love of jazz to people who have before never heard of the art form.
Steve Kirby discography
Greg Lowe, Guitar and Bass Sessions, 2007
Cold Front, Cold Front, 2005
Cyrus Chestnut, Dark Before The Dawn, 1995
Cyrus Chestnut, Earth Stories, 1996
James Carter, Chasin’ The Gypsy, 2005
James Carter, In Carterian Fashion, 1998
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on Jun 06, 2012