Lawrence All-City Jazz Band
Paul Morgenroth, alto sax strapped to his neck, is looking around the room, hoping to find a brave soul to take an improv solo.
It's one thing for these junior high musicians to play off the printed page, and another for them to just play what the spirit moves them - preferably in the right key. Gradually, Morgenroth, co-director of the Lawrence All-City Junior High Jazz Band, finds a few takers.
For most of the 20 musicians in the room, this is their first venture into jazz performance.
"This is the first time I've been able to play in an actual band," says Keil Eggers, a drummer and ninth-grader at Southwest Junior High School. "I've been practicing for quite a while. My dad listened to it extensively, so caught onto that. It can be as complex or as easy as you want to make it."
The band, which practices Tuesday nights at Free State High School, is in its second year. But it's part of a bigger movement among Lawrence jazz fans and advocates who are trying to build more educational and performance opportunities in town.
The Lawrence Jazz Alliance, which has been meeting for about six months, will have its first major event tonight, when trumpeter Ingrid Jensen comes to town for a concert. She'll perform with the Kansas University Jazz Ensemble I at 7:30 p.m. at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H., and proceeds will go to support the junior high band.
Members of the Lawrence Jazz Alliance include the Arts Center, Lawrence Public Schools, KU, Hume Music, Kansas Public Radio and the Americana Music Academy.
"We talked to people in the community, and we don't have a lot of jazz in our community," says Patrick Kelly, who co-directs the junior high group and is fine arts specialist for Lawrence Public Schools. "It's just not a form you hear."
The Arts Center did have a jazz series in 2005, but it was time-consuming and wasn't financially lucrative, says Ric Averill, drama program assistant at the center.
"I think it's very surprising," he says of the number of jazz fans in Lawrence. "We had very good attendance at the previous jazz series, and I expect we'll have good attendance for this (the Jensen concert), too."
Averill says it makes more sense for alliance members to pool resources for several big events each year. Tonight's concert, the first of those events, features Jensen, a native of Canada who is a member of the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra.
"We probably don't see as much jazz in the regular music venues in Lawrence," Averill says. "People go to Kansas City to see that. It's nice to see national-caliber artists coming in here."
Dan Gailey, director of the jazz program at KU, says it's important to have an educational component to the Jazz Alliance as well.
For instance, Jensen is meeting both with Lawrence Public Schools students and KU students during her time here.
And Gailey likes the idea of his KU band performing at the Arts Center.
"Being at the Arts Center gets us off the hill," he says. "It's more of a community-based thing. It's kind of an outreach for us."
is part of that educational component as well. Lawrence Public Schools offered a junior high jazz group for several years using volunteer teachers as directors, but that disbanded several years ago.
The band came back last year with a grant from the Lawrence Arts Commission. Now, the audition-only, 20-member band meets on Tuesday evenings.
"Getting them started early is tremendously important," Kelly says. "We can't have this huge gap in high school."
Kelly says he'd eventually like to see two of the junior high groups in town. There already are several high school bands at the city's two high schools.
Miles Bassett, who plays saxophone in the All-City Junior High Jazz Band, says he's not sure whether the group will be enough to spark widespread interest in jazz among his fellow young instrumentalists.
"Most people are more interested in pop culture," says Bassett, an eighth-grader at South Junior High School. "I don't know if it can come into popular culture, but we can bring out the better things of it, like the freedom of it."