Jawanza Kobie wants to give kids what he got as a kid. Growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1950s and 60s, he was first turned onto jazz by his father, who would bring home jazz records.
He remembers hearing Oscar Peterson’s “Night Train” played over and over on the family record player. On the radio he heard popular jazz like Ramsey Lewis and Eddie Harris.
“I keep mentioning Bobby Simmons. People don’t know about him in Philadelphia,” said Kobie. “I loved this record my brother brought home, with Shawn King. I used to love that record.”
Last year Kobie was accepted into the Kimmel Center’s Jazz Residency program to compose a jazz song cycle that would introduce young people to jazz.
“It’s slowly being diminished in schools, because of arts funding (cuts),” said Kobie. “I wanted to expose young children to jazz music, through a storyline.
He wanted to do for jazz what Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” did for the classical music by using a story to introduce kids to the instruments of the orchestra.
Kobie has a lot of music ideas, but no story to tell. So the Kimmel Center reached out to playwright Deborah Margolin, of Yale University, who has performed at the Kimmel Center before.
“Jay Wahl called me up — he’s the artistic director here,” said Margolin. “He said, ‘Do you know of anybody who might like the write a children’s story for a jazz piece?’ I said, ‘Stop it right there.’ I couldn’t think of anything more delightful.”
As it happens, Margolin had a story already in her pocket. While she was raising her two kids, every day they would invent a new episode of an ongoing bedtime story about a pack of birds. She says the rambling, free-associative story was improvised daily, for eight years.
“The kids would argue over plot points. Sometimes when something would happen my son would say, ‘No! That’s not what happened!’ So, we’d make adjustments,” said Margolin. “Everyone had a dramaturgical hand in it. The story went on for years.”
Kobie asked Margolin to whittle her kids’ sprawling story about the adventures of a pack of birds into a tight 40-minute presentation that he could use to illustrate jazz music.
“We didn’t put all the elements of jazz in it, but I wanted to write different types of jazz and incorporate that into the story,” said Kobie. “We do have contemporary jazz, we have traditional jazz, and progressive jazz. Some if it is smooth jazz.”
Kobie was one of three musicians accepted into the 10th annual Jazz Residency at the Kimmel Center, in November. Each received a small stipend for six months, and access to the Kimmel’s network of artists. Kobie was only able to partner with Margolin with the assistance of the Kimmel.
This week, as the residency comes to a close, and the musicians will debut their new compositions to the public, in the Kimmel Center’s SEI Innovation Studio.
Another artist in the residency, Joanna Pascale, is a singer who never before wrote music. The Kimmel Center hooked her up with a theater director named Ellie Heyman to help her become a writer.
“She’s more than a director. She’s like my doula,” said Pascale. “Early in the process she said, ‘You’re not going to write this. You’re going to allow it.'”
Pascale entered the residency wanting to write a song cycle based on the Language of Flowers — an old Victorian concept of communicating emotions through flowers, wherein each flower represents a particular emotion. Those emotions can be bundled into bouquets, and given away.
“I connected with this idea of coded communication,” said Pascale. “Oftentimes, when I can’t express myself completely, I related to this idea of using flowers when you don’t have the words.”
She wrote nine songs, including songs about the innocence of a dandelion, the seduction of marigold, and the Lily of the Valley as a harbinger of hope.
While working with Heyman on the lyrics and trumpeter Etienne Charles on the arrangements, she realized the song cycle had become a piece of theater.
“It’s actually turned into a one-woman show,” she said. “It’s a deeply personal intimate exploration of a woman’s soul and psyche told through the lens of a flower.”
Both Pascale and Kobie used their residencies to write stories through jazz. The third resident, saxophonist Max Swan, did not go that route. He was after a certain sound.
Earlier this week, in the converted attic studio in that doubles as his bedroom in the Manayunk section of Philadelphia, Swan and his four bandmates worked the final touches on the debut performance of a dozen new songs.
This is also where Swan spends countless hours, alone, writing new music. That’s when he’s not hustling gigs, working his day job at a local donut shop, or decompressing by fishing in the Wissahickon Creek.
He says his musical career, so far, has been full, if a bit disorganized.
“Before the Kimmel — it would be a scramble before every performance,” he said. “We had awesome shows, but having something so far in advance that I knew I could commit everything in my being to — from advertising, to writing, to the theatrical presentation of this music — it’s helped in terms of being cohesive as a band.”
Swan used the residency to not just work up his compositions, but record them for release. The sound he is going for is a fusion of jazz and R&B, layered with electronics and a hint of rock. He says the Kimmel Center residency has given him the structure and focus to step away from his daily hustle and find his groove.
“I want to move forward, I want to be ushered into a larger musical space than what I’m capable of doing by myself. The Kimmel has done a remarkable job of starting that process,” said Swan. “The next six months are going to be exciting.”
Swan will perform Thursday evening, Pascale on Friday, and Kobie as a kid-friendly Saturday matinee. Each project will continue to develop after the residency — Swan is about to drop tracks on the internet, and Kobie’s storytelling jazz piece has been booked – sight unseen — into next week’s children festival at the Annenberg Center in West Philadelphia.