Jazz provides structure and a link to heritage for teens

by Jordan Green

Dressed in baggy jeans, a white T-shirt and a black do-rag befitting the warm spring evening, Alan Thompson stands in the center of the room on the second floor of Coffee at the Summit with a saxophone slung around his neck.

Radiating around him are two more saxophonists, two electric guitarists, a girl balancing an upright bass, a keyboardist who seems dwarfed by his instrument and, directly in front of him, a young drummer. Ten-year-old Charles Pinckney taps out a smooth, rolling intro. Then the bass player plucks some notes; the saxophonists, with the exception of Thompson, come in; and the guitarists contribute some restrained chording.

Thompson snaps his fingers to establish the beat, then almost immediately waves his hands to signal the band to stop.

“One, two on the four, and….” – he leads them in a sharp intake of breath. They run through Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” a couple times before Thompson tells 9-year-old Tyler Montgomery, “Remember, this is an electric piano, so you don’t have to bang it so hard.”

Then they practice Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” Thompson perceives that the bass player is giving the drummer the wrong cues.

“Start it over,” he says. “If you play it wrong, he gonna play it wrong at the festival. One, two, three, four, five, six….”

Stan Montgomery sits in his office down the hall, listening to the music and keeping an eye on a closed-circuit television monitor trained on the café downstairs. The commercial realtor, proprietor of the Summit Avenue gathering place and cofounder of the Triad Youth Jazz Society wears a look of quiet pride.

“One of the things we teach is it’s not all about music,” he says. “They learn about music, they learn about jazz history, and they learn about leadership – how to speak, how to act, about good citizenship…. These are Playstation, you-got-to-get-on-’em kids, but when they get behind an instrument we don’t know what happened. They’ll play something totally different in the performance from what they played in rehearsal.”

Montgomery says his generation was at risk of letting his parents’ music die. His father, a musician, worked long days and wasn’t able to pass on all his knowledge before he died. Montgomery felt his generation was dropping the ball before he helped found the society less than a year ago.

“We give them an alternative to this hard-core music,” he says. “My son doesn’t know a thing about hip hop. He knows about jazz. The program is open to anybody, but it’s geared to African-American males. We’re trying to link generations together.”

Thompson calls a break, and the sound of footfall clatters from the hallway.

Pinckney, the 10-year-old drummer, pokes his head in the room, with 10-year-old Tyler Montgomery following close behind.

“Do we have any cookies?” Pinckney asks.

“I don’t think I have any cookies,” the elder Montgomery replies in a soft voice. The two boys dart out, and the father calls out to them that he doesn’t want them to disturb a business meeting downstairs in the café.

Thompson leans against the wooden rail of the landing at the top of an outside stairwell. While some of the other young musicians goof off, he retains a serious composure. He’s mindful that the ensemble needs to get the kinks out tonight and tomorrow before a final rehearsal on Thursday for a weekend fundraising festival at the coffeehouse.

The 15-year-old Thompson, a freshman at Dudley High School, holds a respectable musical pedigree. His father plays Latin percussion. His mother and grandmother sang in church choirs. An aunt, Carolyn Wilson, sang with the late and legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

“Popular music wasn’t really satisfying me,” he says. “I started reading the backs of the CDs and found out that the actual music was samples of music from the fifties and sixties.” His intention, he says, has been “not so much to make the music as to understand the music from before my time.”

Then Thompson corrals the musicians back into the practice room. The keyboardist adjusts a microphone for the bass player as the bandleader decrees, “No doodling.” One of the guitarists bites the strings of his guitar and levels it like a rifle. Then Thompson gets them focused on the business at hand, suggesting that they rehearse Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.”

“The break is over,” he says. “We need to get back in session. We need to prepare for this festival. And if anybody have a problem with that, let me know.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at