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New Orleans Jazzman Makes Music in Mississippi


It has been two years since the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history swept ashore in the form of Hurricane Katrina. Lost lives, homes and businesses changed the American South and Gulf Coast forever. Yet amid the ruin and rebuilding are stories of positive change, that otherwise might never have happened. Erika Celeste has one such story from Mississippi.

Jazz musician and musical promoter Brice Miller grew up surrounded by the music of New Orleans -- Mardi Gras festivities, social pleasure clubs and funeral parades. Trained on the streets by jazz greats, he viewed himself as a torchbearer of New Orleans jazz. "I had the dream job. As long as I was allowed to keep doing what I was doing with the latitude I had, I would never have looked for anything else."

But that dream job came crashing down on a bright, blue Saturday in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina swept ashore.

Escaping to the neighboring state of Mississippi with his family, Miller decided to use the event as an opportunity.

"My true passion is, I love creating programs. I love to sit down and ponder and say these are the attributes of a community, this is what I think is missing, I'm going to create a proposal and then I'm going to go out and sell the proposal."

Miller created a program called Jazz and Blues in the Schools. The idea was simple. "Jazz is America. Blues is America," he says. "They are the art forms that were actually created here on the soil of America and we need to keep them alive. The only way we're going to keep it alive is through education and the only way we're going to keep the education is if we get passionate about it and then kids will say, 'Ok there are other paths and objectives for me'."

The National Jazz Foundation of America underwrote the program for one year so that it would be free to Mississippi schools. Miller then called upon musician friends, both from New Orleans and around Mississippi to join him in what he called "informances" or education performances for young people at schools and libraries.

"I can show them how it's relative to them. I can show them how hip-hop music is influenced by jazz, how rap is influenced by jazz, how pop and all the things they think are hip are influenced by jazz and once they hear that, that's it. Then once they see the actual performance they are blown away. You have dudes coming up after a performance saying, 'How can I do this?' "

The program connects with high school student Tierra Bynum in Starkville, Mississippi. Her friends good-naturedly tease her as she joins in singing with Miller and the band at a special welcome back to school event. "I was singing 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' My grandmother sings that song all the time and I think it's a good inspirational song."

Over the past year Jazz and Blues in the Schools has reached between 8,000 and 10,000 students like Tierra across Mississippi, and employed nearly three-dozen musicians, including guitarist Jeffrey Rupp. He says Jazz and Blues in the Schools fills a much-needed gap, not only for schools that often cannot afford music programs, but for the musicians too. "Twenty years ago we used to play music to make a couple of bucks and hopefully meet some girls. Now it's therapeutic for me too. And to do it on a level where you're actually taking it to the students, in a small way you're giving back. So I have the best of both worlds."

As the new school year begins in Mississippi, Brice Miller is looking for funding to continue his program, with the dream of one day taking the program nationwide.

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