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Why Jazz Matters 

JazzReach and Metta Quintet aim to save America's truest art form


While jazz is certainly no longer America's most popular music, it's alive and kicking. Witness the Metta Quintet, who bring their multinational "Big Drum, Small World" concert to the North Bay this week. As the resident ensemble for the nonprofit JazzReach organization, this dynamic group has lived up to its name (a Pali word meaning "benevolence") by educating children about jazz and ensuring its endurance. Their efforts are desperately needed.

"It's really hard for arts presenters around the country to sell jazz, even if it's Wynton Marsalis or Wayne Shorter," says drummer and JazzReach founder Hans Schuman. According to a recent NEA study, the audience for what is often called "the only true American art form" is rapidly diminishing (and aging). Even Shuman's love of jazz was born of happenstance.

"I grew up in the '80s, so I was a fan of all those progressive rock bands," says Schuman, 42. "But through that, I discovered Weather Report and Return to Forever, those fusion groups who were comprised of some of the greatest jazz musicians; from that, I discovered Miles Davis."

His father's suggestions proved integral to the 13-year-old drummer's path. "He wanted to expand my palette, so he made me tapes of people like Max Roach and Clifford Brown," Schuman says. By graduation, the Arizona native decided to attend the famed Berklee College of Music. "My father gave me the usual 'something to fall back on' speech, which went in one ear and out the other."

After moving to the Big Apple in 1990, Schuman found the jazz community nurturing, but the public's indifference perturbing. "I took a trio into a Brooklyn high school, and the music was met with a lot of apathy," he remembers. "I was thinking there's got to be a better way to connect with these kids, so that begat creating larger-scale, live multimedia programs that would introduce the kids to the music in a more engaging way."

JazzReach was born, but even the initial lawyer and incorporation fees were unaffordable. Once again, a relative proved Schuman's greatest benefactor, this time his late grandmother. "When she passed away, she left her piano to me," he says of the Steinway Grand with which she taught lessons for nearly 60 years. "I ended up selling the piano to this wonderful family whose nine-year-old son was a remarkably gifted pianist. It felt like the right thing."

JazzReach's most important work lies in their policy of having only original compositions on albums and main stage performances. The group's 2002 debut Going to Meet the Man boasted original pieces inspired by writer James Baldwin's collection of short stories by the same name, and 2006's acclaimed Subway Songs compiled eight commissioned pieces, all thematically linked by an ingenious leitmotif: a two-note major fifth mimicking the opening of subway train doors.

"'Big Drum, Small World' highlights how jazz has gone from reflecting the American experience to this global music reflecting the greater human experience," Schuman says. "There are all these amalgams and stylistic hybrids that are being created now."

Six composers from six different countries are presented in video interviews followed by performances of their new works. "Sica" is by Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenon, whose Grammy-nominated Esta Plena Schuman considers the most essential jazz record of the moment and proof of the genre's vitality.

"In jazz, the possibilities are infinite in terms of what one can play; it doesn't stop at Lady Gaga or the Black Eyed Peas," Schuman says. "We're not at war with popular culture, and we're not trying to discourage kids from listening to what they're listening to. Our goals are to broaden their awareness."

The Metta Quintet perform the historical 'Hanging with the Giants' for grades K&–5 on Thursday, Jan. 28, at the Marin Center. 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. 9:30am and 11am. $8.50 ($4 scholarship tickets available). 415.457.4878. On Friday, Jan. 29, they perform the original 'Big Drum, Small World' in the Carston Cabaret at the Wells Fargo Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. 8pm. $20. 707.546.3600.

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