Music Is Universal!
by Bob Sinicrope, JEN Immediate Past President and Milton Academy Jazz Founder and Director (with significant input from Kevin Chaplin CEO of the Amy Foundation)
In the 19th century, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called music “the universal language of mankind.” He had no idea how right he was: music inspires common human feelings and bridges gaps between cultures that spoken languages cannot. It brings together and creates a universal community. It’s a universal language that transcends boundaries.
My life has been profoundly blessed because of the power of connection that music offers. The friendships, cultural enrichment and joy that playing and teaching jazz have created has deeply shaped me and helped me better understand and appreciate diversity. Due to the spontaneous nature of many jazz performances, the element of improvisation adds another layer of intensity to how music can connect us.
Currently, my wife Frances and I are on a life-long dream sabbatical tour of Africa and Asia. As in my past travels, I have sought out opportunities to volunteer teach and/or play as a means of connecting and learning more about the culture and residents of places we visit. Our first musical stop was Cape Town, South Africa. My school, Milton Academy and I have longstanding relations with South African schools and organizations since 1992 when we first toured there at the invitation of South African musician/composer Abdullah Ibrahim. Abdullah came to our school and heard our students performing his music and this connection was the start of deep and meaningful ongoing relationships with South African music programs. One of the most noteworthy connections Milton Academy and I have is with the Amy Foundation where we spent a week working with their programs.
The Amy Foundation was named after American student, Amy Biehl, a gifted and dynamic young woman who was committed to making a difference in South Africa. She tirelessly worked with members of the African National Congress (ANC) at the University of the Western Cape’s Community Law Centre on the new Constitution and Women’s Rights, as well as helped register voters for the country’s first free elections in 1994.
On August 25 1993, Amy Biehl’s life was tragically cut short in an act of political mob violence in the Gugulethu township just outside of Cape Town. Four young men were convicted of her murder, and after spending 5 years in prison were granted amnesty through the parents of Amy and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Determined to honor Amy’s love of South Africa and her belief in the truth and reconciliation process, Amy’s parents founded the organization.
Youngsters in the Amy Foundation are offered instruction in playing brass instruments, violin, recorder, marimba and guitar all of which are donated to the Foundation. Exposing these learners to Jazz is enriching and the joy that comes alive on their faces is something to behold. The impact when Milton Academy Jazz students and teachers work with the township students (over 11 times already) is truly a life-changing time for all and sets the young South African learners on a path to success. Students in the townships of South Africa would not get this opportunity if it wasn’t for the Amy Foundation
JEN has been well represented in the Amy Foundation as part of its ongoing global outreach. JEN members Mary Jo Papich (Co-Founder and 1st President), Rubén Alvarez, John Baboian, Willie Hill, Ron McCurdy and Jim Repa have spent time working with the Amy Foundation. JEN is looking to increase its globalization efforts.
Milton Academy and I have been connected with the Amy Foundation since 2001. On March 21, when Milton Academy students are in Cape Town, the Foundation celebrates Human Rights Day by creating the Amy Foundation Township Jazz Festival and Milton Academy is one of the featured acts. Our Milton students are blessed with many resources and opportunities far beyond what South Africa township residents would likely have. However, when our students play for and with South African students all our differences seem to melt away. I wish words could capture the joy and love shared by all during performances and jam sessions. The sharing of music levels the “playing field” and forms bonds between musicians who sometimes speak different languages. This is a life changing experience for many students.
Frances and I spent five days living at the Amy Foundation headquarters with other volunteers from several countries. Being welcomed into a South African township environment, soaking up their culture and stories and sharing music with the Foundation’s teachers and students is a very profound experience and Frances and I cherish our interactions with everyone we encountered during our time there. I can’t imagine how we could create this experiences without the common language of music.
The universality of music also was very evident in Durban where I taught at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and performed a concert with players from three different continents and learned about how my band mates approach learning and teaching jazz in their countries. Working with the university students and adults afforded us insights into a different side of South African culture – again the link is music.
In the Maldives, I connected with musicians who were on the staff at our island resort and they were excited about inviting me into the staff area’s music room where I learned about their musical traditions and taught them how to play the tune “So What”. Wow – this was very fun for all of us and it was great to learn about an entirely new country’s musical heritage.
We are now ending our stay in Singapore where I helped teach at a weekend jazz workshop and forged new friendships with local musicians. I have already received an email from a student talking about the fun and learning she had. This is another example of music being the medium that joins us.
Jazz is enjoyed and played throughout the world and is a wonderful means to bring unity and share joy. It has a proven power to cross barriers, create communities and unite nations, form bonds between different races, cultures and religions and to affect the heart and the mind, from the richest man to the poorest child.
Music is Universal!
JEN Past President Bob Sinicrope, a consummate educator and accomplished bassist, is the inaugural recipient of the John LaPorta Jazz Educator of the Year (2007), The National Youth Development Council Award for Outstanding Service (2010), and the DownBeat magazine Achievement Award for Jazz Education (2010). For forty years, Bob has taught in many diverse settings. In 1974, he founded the Milton Academy Jazz Program, which he continues to direct. Bob has forged special connections with South Africa, and has toured there eleven times with Milton Academy students performing nationally and delivering over $215,000 worth of donated materials to needy African music programs.