You can hear what experience sounds like almost any Wednesday night at the Red Light Café on Amsterdam Avenue.
“It’s a listening venue,” jazz trumpeter Dr. Gordon Vernick says affectionately of the midtown club where he directs his quartet and other jam sessions. “When you go there, you sit and listen to the music; so much better than a lot of places where the music is an afterthought or backdrop.”
And Vernick knows his venues. He’s performed in all musical mediums, from symphony orchestra to jazz quintet, and throughout the world from Costa Rica to Moscow, Brazil to Beijing, as a featured act and with such jazz stars as Kenny Werner, Marc Copland and Clare Fischer, John Hart and Randy Brecker. His academic credentials are similarly impressive, including a doctorate from the University of Northern Colorado and multiple residencies, including the Conservatories of San Juan and Bordeaux, the Taipei and Singapore American Schools, the Bangkok and Jakarta International Schools, the Universities of Cape Town and South Africa and Manchester Royal Music Academy in England. He boasts a series of 225 Jazz Insights podcasts that have received over 12 million downloads.
The Red Light is also a venue Vernick uses to advance his main initiative these days, fostering younger players, helping them refine their professional and playing skills. As a professor of music at GSU and coordinator of jazz studies, he is developing that young talent through a program he started in 2010, the Rialto Youth Jazz Orchestra (RYJO), and a middle school outreach program, Rialto Jazz for Kids.
“Each year we audition for the orchestra in August and take about 50 kids into the program,” Vernick explains. “We place them in combos of four and five based on their ability, which ranges from beginners to almost professional, way beyond college level. From that we form the Jazz Orchestra, which is very selective; three-fourths of those kids go on to study music at the university level.”
Vernick calls himself a farmer, planting musical seeds and overseeing their growth. He has also attracted an impressive list of “co-farmers” that include many of the top names in Atlanta jazz — pianist Kevin Bales, percussionist Justin Varnes, bassist Billy Thornton and saxophonist John Sandford, to name just a few. They’re up early, visiting the middle schools, working with talented young musicians before the start of their school day in sessions that will generate many of the kids who will later find themselves in the RYJO and perhaps even in a career in jazz.
“The kids that come through here are an intrinsic part of the jazz renaissance going on in Atlanta right now,” notes Bales, another Atlanta jazz musician who doubles as performer and educator and who directs the RYJO’s combos. “One of the combos got together this June to record. The pianist is choosing between Julliard and Northwestern. The alto player is going to Julliard on a full scholarship. The bassist is going to Julliard on a full ride on both jazz bass and classical tuba. Three years ago a local bass player, Andrew Sommers, was the first musician to be admitted to Julliard for both jazz and classical. Last year, Morgan Guerin moved to New York for a full ride at the New School and is now touring with legendary drummer-composer Terri Lyne Carrington.”
Getting into the Rialto Youth Jazz Orchestra is no cakewalk. Auditions each August yield the group for the coming school year.
“It’s prestigious, but it’s also a big commitment,” Vernick says. “They have to work hard at it. And they are held accountable. I tell them, ‘You’re not professionals, but we’re going to treat you like professionals. There are expectations. Your part of the deal is that you take your music home and work on it.’ By the end of the school year the kids have heard it enough that they’re taking ownership. The important thing is they have to take ownership.”
Vernick likens the RYJO to a laboratory: 40 percent performance, 40 percent working on improvisation, 20 percent theory and record listening. Performing might be the most important part of the program, he proposes.
“The only way to find out if you know a song is to get up in front of people and play it,” he says. And his Red Light jam sessions, where the student combos take the stage, play a role in that performing experience. “I absolutely do these jam sessions for the educational purposes. I mean, how are we going to further this art if people aren’t playing it?”
Vernick has been exposed to the business of jazz since childhood — his father was a professional bassist in New York who rode out enormous changes in the profession — and that has helped him to help aspiring players understand that they need to do a lot more than just play well in order to have a viable music career nowadays.
“As educators we have to be careful not to create ‘the world’s best buggy whip,’ something exquisite that nobody uses,” he says. “You have to have a lot more skills than just playing an instrument. You have to know marketing, Twitter and Instagram, make your own recordings, know how to monetize your YouTube pages. What it comes down to is you need an arsenal of skills, including musicianship, because the level of performance today is very high and getting higher all the time. We can’t train musicians for a field that has a questionable future – that’s doing them a disservice. Give the next generation a host of options, and they’ll take the music to the next level.”