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Education: Jazz musician finds new gig at high school

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

De’Sean Jones got his first sax on a bet.

His dad is a trumpet player. “I used to listen to him, but I couldn’t play,” Jones said. But when he was 12, he was listening to a recording of Charlie Parker on sax playing with trumpeter Miles Davis and told his father he could play that. Want to bet? his dad asked.

That required his dad to buy Jones a sax. “He showed me my first C scale with the mouthpiece upside down,” Jones said. But he didn’t have to give the instrument back.

Jones is now a professional musician. He flew into town this week from his home in Detroit for three days of workshops in Georgetown County schools, starting at Waccamaw High. It was his second trip to South Carolina following a February performance for the Georgetown County Cultural Council. He hopes to build a long-term relationship with school music departments that will lead students to scholarship opportunities.

“I feel the responsibility to spread the word,” Jones said.

His connection with the county schools began last year when he met Ayanna Shivers, the guidance counselor at Waccamaw Middle School, at a conference in Colorado. His performance for the Cultural Council followed a visit to Waccamaw Middle and Carvers Bay High.

Jones gave his first performance at 14 in a church concert with some of Detroit’s top musicians. He would practice for hours to Marvin Gaye’s album “What’s Going On.” “I wanted to play. I wanted to fit in so bad,” Jones said.

At the concert he learned that people could make a living playing music. He went to the Detroit School of Performing and Fine Arts then the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. “Now I get to pay it forward,” Jones said.

At 26, he has already been touring for seven years as a soloist and with ensembles in Asia and South America. He heads to the United Kingdom for a tour in two weeks. Jones has teaching and mentoring projects in Oakland, Calif., Chicago and Detroit. He will add China to the mix in 2015.

“I’m committed to coming back as often as I can” to Georgetown County, Jones said. He hopes to bring other young musicians to county schools with the same goal: letting students know about their opportunities.

“Music is a gateway to a lot of opportunities that don’t necessarily pertain to music,” Jones said. “There’s a wide spectrum of work.”

Sitting in with the Waccamaw High band class, Jones worked with them on a medley of tunes from James Bond films. “No pressure, man. This is a no-pressure situation. We’re just trying to get the sound as good as we can,” he told the students.

“I’m proud of my students. I’m happy to share them,” said Chris Graham, the band director. “I would like to do more of that.”

So would Jones. His initial visits are about building relationships, he said. He models his technique on his mentor, Marcus Belgrave, a jazz trumpeter who played with Ray Charles and is the jazz musician laureate of Detroit. “It comes with humility, love, understanding, patience,” Jones said. “He’s a living example. He did it because he saw a need.”

Graham said it helps his students to play under another conductor. Students said they know the music well enough that it’s easy to take direction from someone like Jones. “I liked his style,” said Devin Arnold, a senior trombone player.

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