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Learning from Mr. Eubanks

Kevin Eubanks gives instruction to NEHS 11th grader, Rana Ashfaq. Eubanks visited Northeast High School for a Jazz in the Classroom Clinic on Thursday, June 9.
Kevin Cook / for Times

“Listen!” Kevin Eubanks stressed to the young musicians gathered in Northeast High School’s Room 135 last Thursday. “You have to listen to the people next to you.”

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The guitarist and former Tonight Show With Jay Leno bandleader worked with about 80 students during a music clinic at the Cottman Avenue school, but it wasn’t all about music.

Eubanks’ visit to the Northeast was part of his role as artistic director of the Thelonious Monk Institute’s Jazz in the Classroom program. It was about creating together, about working together, accomplishing something together, solving problems together.

Eubanks guided the student musicians in coming up with a beat and a melody and putting it all together.

There was plenty of young talent in the room with him. There were kids who played strings, brass, percussion, woodwinds, electric bass, vibes and electric guitar. There were singers and dancers too.

Philadelphia native Eubanks — the Tonight Show bandleader for 15 years, until May 2010 — did not choose to conduct his clinic at Northeast High because he’s a former student. He attended Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Mount Airy, where one of his teachers was Lynne Dixon. Dixon now teaches at Northeast.

Dixon said last week’s session with students was the first time Eubanks had brought the Thelonious Monk program to Philadelphia.

“He does it all the time in L.A.,” where he now lives, she said.

The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, established in memory of the great jazz pianist and composer, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Monk believed that the best way to learn jazz is from a master of the music. The institute follows that philosophy by bringing jazz musicians together to teach young musicians and presenting jazz-based education programs free of charge.

The institute’s Jazz in the Classroom program helps the education of young musicians in public schools across the United States.

Eubanks, 53, has visited six Los Angeles-area schools in the past year. Besides teaching students about jazz, he discusses the values that jazz represents — teamwork, unity, ethnic diversity and democracy.

The teens at last week’s music clinic were invited to take part, said school choir director Tim Flaherty.

“We had three or four weeks to put it together,” he said, adding that the final day was nerve-wracking.

Eubanks demonstrated a good deal of patience throughout the afternoon and demanded that the kids pay attention to one another as they put together a piece of music that hadn’t existed until that afternoon.

“If you can’t hear the person next to you, you’re too loud,” he told the students.

And he wanted to hear what they had to say.

“What should happen first?” Eubanks asked early in the program.

The students worked out which instruments would play first, when the singers should come in and when the dancers should enter. The kids had to practice over and over, in small groups and en masse, by singing the sounds of their unwritten composition.

One young musician was a little shy about singing out the beat, but Eubanks got back to him later and let him try again.

Another wanted to write down his ideas, not just sound them out.

You want to write that down and give it out to everybody right now? Eubanks asked.

The student said he did.

No, no, Eubanks told him. Let’s just hear it.

The student gave it a try.

But then the process of creating and organizing a new piece of music came to what would be an inevitable sticking point, and one of the students looked toward music teacher Bill Wenglicki for guidance.

Don’t look at him, Eubanks said. Solve it yourself.

“You have to try to solve your own problems,” he said, noting that the principle should be applied to everything they do.

“If you don’t solve your own problems, you’re going to have to live with them . . . because nobody cares if you don’t care.”

And that was the biggest point being made last week, Wenglicki said. That the arts are important and add so much to our lives.

It’s a lesson that Eubanks also wanted to impart.

“The effort you put into studying and learning music can be transformed into any format you want,” he told the young people. ••

Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215–354–3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

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