From Motown to Our Town, Jazz Workshop Leader Pushes Kids to Improvise
John Damberg shares his vast experience with young aspiring artists
ANCHORAGE - Improvisation. For most jazz lovers, it's the heart of the experience.
Detroit native John Damberg, a percussionist and vibist, played onstage with many of the greats: Ray Charles, Wynton Marsalis, Quincy Jones and Motown artists, including the Temptations.
Now he's now trying to pass on some of what he's learned about onstage improvisation through decades of performance.
Since incorporating the Alaska Jazz Workshop in 2000, Damberg estimates he and his fellow teachers have worked with 1,300 middle and high school students.
The concept was launched as the small combo jazz improvisation class in 1995, after Damberg spent time as a substitute teacher in Anchorage public schools.
“I kept seeing that these kids could play the musical charts, but when they got to the solo section, they didn't know what to do,” Damberg said. So, in a bit of career improvisation, he and co-founder Kerry Maule began offering classes that go far beyond rote playing.
“…So rather than being like totally geared toward performance, performance, performance, performance and only teaching the kids how to read notes, we could delve into the deeper issues of the piece, learning more repertoire, learning how the pieces were made, learning the music theory, learning vocabulary, and then when we're ready to perform, we'll play,” Damberg said.
Damberg said the intensive experience produces more intuitive young artists than the public schools do.
"They want to stay within the bounds of the musical chart they're playing. And the minute you take the notes away from them, it's like there's a switch in their heads that goes off; there's nothing there. Whereas my kids, it's like you take the notes away from them, they're like, whoa, now we can play. Let's create."
So whether it's a Duke Ellington standard, a quirky Thelonious Monk number or some Chick Corea fusion, the students are expected to find their own voices through improvised solos.
"I don't down any other type of music; I’m cool with any genre,” said student jeremi harleston. “You know, music is music. But jazz, it just feels freer. It's like you have more space to express your creativity… and I like that.”
One of the workshop bands played publicly on a recent Saturday afternoon at Organic Oasis in Spenard.
"This gives them a chance to have a gang – a creative, productive gang through their middle school and high school years – that they can hang out with and feel like they're accepted, even if their head is pink or green and they've got earrings,” Damberg said.
With Damberg's assistance, they've begun the beguine.
Damberg said he looks at art as a way to temper people's “warrior spirit.” He said his students who don't become professional musicians will still have an enriching hobby.