Jazzing Up the NBA: Jazz Sports at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz

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Three young men on the stage. The two on the left watch the third young man who is playing the trobone at the microphone.

Ryan Porter (right) says interacting with professional musicians during the Jazz Sports program helped him to see new possibilities for his own career. Porter is now studying music at Manhattan College. Photo provided by Ryan Porter

1995In 1995, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz received a grant of $20,000 "to support costs related to the jazz and National Basketball Association project," a new program at the Institute's Los Angeles branch. This innovative program combined instruction in jazz by professional musicians with the opportunity for student players to gain performance experience at professional basketball games. A year later the Institute received a second grant for the program, now dubbed Jazz Sports, to support a District of Columbia branch. Today 12 Los Angeles and seven D.C. inner city public schools participate in the program. Since 1995, more than 9,000 students have benefited from the program.

Why jazz and basketball? "Jazz players pass the solo spotlight amongst themselves the way basketball players pass the ball; and in both cases, it only works when it's about teamwork," explains NBA Hall of Famer and Jazz Sports chairman Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "Jazz and basketball both say something about America. We're a group of individuals, but we're still a team."

A line of young muscicians playing saxophones, in the foreground, perform in a stadium setting.

Students gain valuable experience performing in front of live audiences at NBA games as a part of the NEA-supported Jazz Sports program. Photo courtesy of The Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz.

The Jazz Sports approach to jazz education is three-pronged. First students receive professional instruction by musicians and educators several days per week. Instructors give individual lessons and also organize section clinics. This training includes topics such as theory, improvisation, composition, and technique.

The program's second component is bi-monthly master classes. These sessions allow students to interact directly with and learn from jazz legends.  Past master artists have included NEA Jazz Masters Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones.

The third component of the program is performance experience. Jazz Sports students have an opportunity to perform at high profile sports events including Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Washington Wizards basketball games. The students also perform at community functions and other local venues. In the past, students in the program's Los Angeles branch have received invitations to perform at the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Hollywood Bowl.

It is not only the students's musical skills that benefit from their involvement in Jazz Sports. More than 90% of the seniors who have participated in Jazz Sports have gone on to attend college after earning a grade point average of 3.2 or higher.

Jazz Sports alumnus Ryan Porter went on to study music at Manhattan College for which he gives the program full credit. "Jazz Sports gave us enough room to learn, not even just about music but about the music business and the people involved in it," says Porter. "Interacting with professional musicians in the mater classes gave us a different mindset. It showed us the possibilities and put our heads in the right place to continue on with our music."