J.B. Dyas has a vast repertoire of jazz stories.
Dyas has, after all, dedicated his adult life to the music. He's played jazz, studied and taught it. He's steeped in its history, lore and legends.
It's significant that Dyas' favorite jazz tale doesn't revolve around Miles or Dizzy or Bird. Or Dave Brubeck, whose namesake institute at University of the Pacific in Stockton hired Dyas as its first executive director.
No, the jazz story Dyas told me in an interview a few years back involved two students at Miami's New World School of the Arts.
''I had this drummer named Obed. He's African, a great young player,'' Dyas said. “And then Jason, who was just one of the most happening young bassists.
''Jason grew up in Miami Beach. Wealthy family. His dad was a successful attorney. Obed grew up in the inner city. It seemed like he had two or three families living in his house. Just a completely different scene.''
Obed and Jason, however, were inseparable. When a film crew making a documentary on the school learned about their friendship, they asked Obed and Jason why they spent so much time together.
''And one of them – I can't remember which one – said, 'We need each other to swing.'
''Jazz can do more for humanity than just give people an aesthetic musical experience,'' Dyas added. ''When you see these young jazz (musicians), all they care about is whether you can swing or not. It's not about what you look like, but what you can bring to the music.''
The desire to inform Americans about jazz's power has guided Dyas' career and lies at the heart of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz bringing its “Peer-to-Peer” jazz education program to San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland public schools February 24-28. Dyas, the University of Southern California-based institute’s Vice President for Education and Curriculum Development, will share the stage with its student ensemble, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and vocalist Lisa Henry. The ensemble’s public performance is set for February 26 at Yoshi’s in San Francisco.
''Kids listen to kids, not adults,'' Dyas told me in that interview. ''So if you want to teach kids about our music – about their music, about America's music – then you have to have the kids teaching the kids.''
That approach is crucial in an era where many youngsters have virtually no exposure to jazz.
''In this fast-paced society, in this immediate-fix society, you can't just come across jazz and like it,'' Dyas said. ''You have to learn about it to get it. It does take a little effort. So you have to do that when the students are young, when their musical tastes are being formed.''
Dyas was raised in a Manhattan theater family. His father was a director and producer; his mother, an actress and drama teacher. They managed to raise a family despite their notoriously poor-paying profession.
''My father would always say, 'J.B., you can do anything you want just don't be an actor,' " Dyas said. "'This business is too tough. A guy who's smart like you, you can anything you want to be.'''
What Dyas wanted to be was a musician. He began learning guitar and, by his teens, was playing in garage bands. Instead of going to college after high school, Dyas spent 18 months seeing the country in a top-40 band.
Dyas, however, couldn't read music and didn't understand some of the terms his bandmates bandied about. He decided to go to college to learn more, settling on Western Michigan University because ''I had a friend who had a trailer and he said I could stay there until I found a place.''
It was a fateful decision.
''My roommate … was a total jazzer,'' Dyas said. ''I had access to his record collection, and I heard Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck. That was it.''
Dyas finished his bachelor's degree at Florida Atlantic University. Then, he switched to bass and was playing in a popular Palm Beach band, the Kids Next Door.
''It was all really good players and singers,'' Dyas said. ''I was making good bread. And I really had a revelation, like where you look in the mirror and you say, 'What's wrong with this picture? All I'm doing is having a good time.' There had to be more.''
Dyas found it in the students he taught at Broward Community College, Miami-Dade Community College, and New World School of the Arts. He went on to earn a master's degree from University of Miami and a doctorate from Indiana University.
Dyas moved to California in 1999 after being appointed the Monk Institute’s director of education. He returned there after a stint at the Brubeck Institute.
“'That's the most important issue: How this music enriches lives,” he said. “It's not just selling the music. It's selling what the music represents.”
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