Education comes in varying forms. It can be obtained in formal, institutionalized settings or a casual conversation. Simply, it is the passing on or receiving of knowledge.
When Jason Patterson, this year’s Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement for Music Education award recipient, steps to the microphone to introduce a band at Snug Harbor, he often informs the audience, in his nonchalant and often humorous way, that what they are about to hear is “not background music.” He’ll say, “Once you come into the music room that means all the activity and energy is coming from the stage.”
Yes, that’s another way of asking folks to please turn off their cell phones and restrain conversation—but the way Patterson expresses it, he’s also letting the audience know why.
Though Patterson, a casual kind of guy, wears many hats, he is best recognized as the musical director/talent buyer for the Frenchmen Street landmark. It’s a position he’s held and excelled at for most of Snug Harbor’s 31-year history. He believes that presenting jazz in New Orleans, the music’s birthplace, provides an educational opportunity for all of those who walk through the club’s doors.
“Being a club and a commercial enterprise, it has to make money,” Patterson allows. “But I think we do acknowledge that we’re carrying on a cause here and trying to develop a following for creative music like jazz. I think every time someone comes to experience music at Snug Harbor, or any other place that’s doing good, creative music, they come out being more educated. Their ears have grown.
“You have to acknowledge that you have to have one foot in the past and one foot in the future to really keep the genre vital,” he continues. “And it is alive and breathing and moving forward no matter how much attention it gets from the mainstream media.”
Patterson describes his position with out-of-town artists who perform at Snug Harbor as a “handler.” He hangs with them and, particularly following Hurricane Katrina, often acts as a tour guide, filling them in on the history and state of our city.
Perhaps Patterson’s most notable presence in the field of education is as musical director for the hugely successful and important Jazz at the Sandbar series at the University of New Orleans. He became involved with the program, which presently brings in nationally recognized musicians to perform with the students at UNO’s renowned Jazz Studies program, in the early 1990s. In 1996, pianist/educator and UNO’s Jazz Studies founder Ellis Marsalis asked Patterson to produce the series.
This program as well as many of the other education jazz enterprises in which Patterson is or has been involved—the Nickel-A-Dance traditional jazz series, the Satchmo Club Strut, the state-wide jazz “informance” series designed to reach schoolchildren—have been under the auspices of the non-profit New Orleans Jazz Celebration organization that he heads.
If it sounds like Patterson is all over the place, well, he is. Through the years, it’s not been unusual to see him pushing an audio speaker or hauling a bunch of folding chairs down Frenchmen Street. Next thing you know, he’s handling sound problems and, as mentioned, taking over emcee duties.
Patterson acknowledges that he often has had a certain vision for a project and thus dove into all of its aspects. “I would have a buzz about it,” he says of his one-mindedness.
Patterson’s entrance into the jazz world fittingly was by happenstance. In 1967, his older sister went off to college, leaving behind a bunch of her jazz records. “Out of sheer boredom, I listened to them—Dave Brubeck, Yusef Lateef, Mose Allison—over and over,” he remembers. Thus primed, or as he might say, with his “ears grown,” he was open to the sounds of jazz greats including pianists Willie “The Lion” Smith and Thelonious Monk, who performed at the many musical events and festivals in the San Francisco Bay area where Patterson grew up.
“I had exposure to a number of jazz artists just going to more of a rock-and-roll event,” Patterson recalls. “The point was that there wasn’t any discrimination between genres. It was essentially artistic expression. Even if the theme of the festival wasn’t jazz, they had jazz artists playing there. They had a lot of respect for jazz.”
Before moving to New Orleans in 1972, Patterson explains that he had been traveling around, “trying to lend support to the great counter culture.” He was offered a position with the local, non-profit ABBA Foundation, a community organization primarily concerned with servicing “Bohemian” youth. “I don’t use the ‘H’ word,” he adds with a chuckle, referring, of course, to hippies. It served as an introduction to, and education about, non-profits that have been so integral to his life’s work.
“I feel comfortable that jazz will be with us forever,” Patterson says of what he’s learned on a personal level. “There is a creative spark in so many people out there. There are enough folks who get it. I feel blessed every day that I do what I do because I love what I do.”