It’s Louis Armstrong’s birthday this weekend and everybody is invited to his house to celebrate with some music and birthday cake.
Under the direction of Tom Zlabinger, the band of the York College Summer Jazz Program will perform this Sunday in the backyard of the Louis Armstrong House Museum at 2 p.m.
Made possible by College Now and CUNY, the program is six weeks long and gives New York City high school students the chance to perform in a professional setting while receiving college credit, free of charge.
“I put together the strongest band in the pool of students,” Zlabinger said. “These students not only have to be able to play — they also have to be able to be ready for what’s going to happen. These are the students who want it the most, need it the most.”
This summer, Zlabinger is focusing on the art of improvisation. He shows his students various forms of improvisation in different genres throughout history. He also leads games during morning discussions to get his students thinking about rhythm.
Students are reading a book about improvisation which they received free of charge, in addition to a music stand, sheet music and lunch vouchers. The afternoons are spent rehearsing for two and a half hours, while members of the faculty take students out for private lessons — also free of charge.
“I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for this band,” said Wilfredo Angulo, a saxophonist in the program. “Tom really impacted me and really influenced me to keep continuing with this music and it opened a bunch of doors.”
While a music class in a public high school is shorter than an hour, the students at York College spend their whole day studying and playing jazz.
“Playing here really helped me play well and now I’m playing lead trumpet. I want to be a music minor and always have this with me,” participant Richard Cox said. “At first I didn’t know what I wanted to minor in, but coming here really helped me decide.”
Graduates of the program have been accepted to schools including Purchase, Fredonia, Berklee, and the New School, and Zlabinger tries to make the program prepare students for college as much as possible.
“This band is run like a real band. We do real gigs, we play real music,” Zlabinger said, adding that he asks the students to be responsible for putting away their belongings after rehearsal and “thinking like a section.” “I look at it very holistically because I think the students who have had the most success after realized that and took it to heart that music is a people business — you can’t just play well — you have to interact.”
Participant Michael Decena said, “It was the vibe that got me back. It’s a friendly environment — it makes me a better player, I came back for the music, my friends. I came back here more for growth as a musician,” adding that this program is more challenging than his high school band.
This weekend will mark the seventh year the band has performed at Louis Armstrong’s house — a day filled with dancing and singing, by audience members, in the backyard.
“It’s a really fun experience because the audience is happy and the audience is usually what makes us want to play — what makes us strive to play this beautiful music that we do,” Angulo said.
Cox said playing lead trumpet in the Queens home of Armstrong almost feels like a spiritual event.
“I call Louis the original jazz musician — no Louis Armstrong, no jazz,” Zlabinger said. “It’s a real honor for us to play at his home and in his home you can still feel his spirit, so it gives these students a new appreciation for where this music came from.”
Louis Armstrong’s birthday
When: Aug. 4 at 2 p.m.
Where: Louis Armstrong House Museum, 34-56 107 St., Corona
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