“It’s a powerful thing to find out you are an agent of your own expression.”
Jessica plays tenor saxophone and has led the Jessica Jones Quartet for 30 years, producing five albums. She began her professional life in jazz, improv, and Caribbean bands, and has written a body of work for children’s jazz bands which she uses in her teaching practice.
What led you to be a teaching artist?
Music always called me, but I was shy to answer. I found a way to study and play with great musicians from a young age, but took a long time to feel I belonged or ‘had a right’ to be a musician. Then as a teen, I was in a program that trained us to teach younger kids, for pay. This lit the spark in me that I had something to offer, and as an adult I run similar programs.
I was deeply influenced by working for Cazadero Performing Arts Camp, which had an emphasis on what they called ‘threshold ensembling.’ They engaged beginning musicians in ensembles as a way to learn instrumental music. A decidedly non-Western approach, this included African drum ensembles, steel drum bands, Capoeira, Balinese Gamelan, Brazilian percussion groups, and Filipino Kulintang. Out of this environment come musicians who can hear, are respectful, and value all kinds of different strengths in music. This kind of training sets the stage for peace in our communities, via celebration of our personal uniqueness.
In my work as a teaching artist, I was in the position to work with children in public schools, guiding them in composition and improvisation. I help them organize their ideas and they can’t help but be stunned, as I am, with their own beauty. This was especially true when I was working with girls in juvenile hall, who often thought only their male cousins or superstars could create beats and write music.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the original influence of my upbringing by an improvisatory, always-curious single mother, who answered questions with questions, and still wants to know what’s behind the curtain. The world is amazing, and music is a way of seeing that.
I believe that children are fully formed spirits who should be respected and guided to find their voices. Introducing improvisation and composition from the beginning helps students understand music as creative expression, and then instruction just follows their own curiosity and motivation to learn more so they can express themselves more clearly.
‘Talent’ comes in many forms. Some kids have an innate grid where they can place the sounds in order and hear magnificently, making learning an instrument an easy task. Others struggle with these fine points but are very encouraging to others, or are able to hear what the bass is playing and recognize patterns. Each child is unique, but they all have talents that are useful in music, and they all have something to learn from each other.
Rhythm is fundamental, from the heartbeat to handgames to jazz walking bass. Music-making is for everyone. We all have a right to experience our creativity, and our creativity can connect us to each other in deep and lasting ways.
I founded Lincoln Center’s JazzGirls Day, with workshops, jam sessions, and discussions for girls, inviting them to find their place. I was noticing a low percentage of girls continuing music once they hit puberty, like the sciences, math, etc. A colleague did a jazz girls day, and I thought it was a good idea. ‘Come as you are, you’re welcome here.’
Music has a use, to connect us, to calm and center us, to energize. Music can level the playing field for those who, like me, need an invitation to feel at home.