Jazz for juniors

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Keyboardist Jim Martinez plays for students at Empire Elementary School Monday afternoon as part of a program to educate them about jazz music.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal Keyboardist Jim Martinez plays for students at Empire Elementary School Monday afternoon as part of a program to educate them about jazz music.

Cassidy Robinson was quite taken with Vince Guaraldi's "Charlie Brown." She sat in the back row of the auditorium Monday afternoon, her head and body bopping to the upbeat song played by visiting Sacramento keyboardist Jim Martinez.

"I thought it was really good," said the 8-year-old of Martinez's rendition, explaining she's a fan of the block-headed kid. "I watch a lot of Charlie Brown. I watched the 'Charlie Brown Christmas special.'"

Martinez, who began playing piano at age 4, visited Empire Elementary School Monday, performing for kindergarten through fifth-graders. Saxophonist Joe Berry had played earlier.

"When I grew up, and I grew up a long time ago, I loved Snoopy, and I loved Charlie Brown," Martinez said. "I loved the music from all of it. Tell me if you've ever heard this music."

And he began playing a song from "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

"There's music throughout all of it, and it's all jazz," he said, "But I'm not here to just talk about jazz, I'm here to talk about all kinds of music."

At 39, Martinez was visiting Empire through the help of the Knickerbocker Foundation, a foundation out of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, which donates money to various causes, including music education and animal rights.

When band teacher Christina O'Neill wanted to find a way to bring jazz music alive, the Knickerbocker Foundation helped her find the two musicians.

"Jazz is the truly only American music," O'Neill said. "Everything else came from Europe. By giving the kids the chance to hear jazz, we're giving them the opportunity to hear music that is unique to America."

Her first connection with the Knickerbocker Foundation came this year, when the foundation provided $3,500 in instrument rentals to her 21 fifth-grade band students.

"This is just seed money, really," said Benjamin Prohaska, executive director for the foundation. "We would really like to encourage the community itself to become involved."

Forty-four students are expected to join band next year, when the Knickerbocker Foundation will kick in $5,000 for instrument rentals.

When O'Neill came to Empire in the 2003-04 school year, just seven students were in band. This year alone, her band students have tested at or above par on the Scholastic Reading Inventory test and achievement-level test in math, she said. She has also seen a decrease in behavioral problems.

"Kids who were in trouble on the playground aren't in trouble anymore," she said. "... It's a big thing if we can get kids to focus on things that are positive and nonviolent, as opposed to getting involved in gangs or doing drugs."

A SpongeBob SquarePants song was one of several uplifting bits Martinez played for students. Other pieces included Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Mozart's Sonata in C Major - the last performed by Martinez lying upside down on the piano bench with his arms crossed over his head.

"I was thinking he was very stretchy," said Jonny Escobar, 8, about Martinez after the upside-down performance.

Jonny wanted to hear the "Star Wars" theme. But when Martinez finished with the jazz piece "Now Is the Time," Jonny's little fingers tapped along for part of it.

"I liked it," he said. "I thought it sounded a little bit like 'Star Wars.'"

For information on Jim Martinez, go to jimmartinez.com.

n Contact reporter Maggie O'Neill at moneill@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1219.


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