ATLANTA—Kevin Oliver changes out a fresh reed for his alto saxophone in preparation for the class he’s leading during the College of the Arts Summer Jazz Workshop, a week-long intensive course of small combo instruction, jam sessions, master classes and a final concert. The workshop complements a series of year-long programs through the School of Music and the college’s Office of Educational Outreach that enroll middle-to-high school aged students. Oliver isn’t new this year, far from it in fact. He has been part of this series of interconnected programs since he was in seventh grade, first as a student, now as a student-teacher bringing along the next generation. Oliver started his studies in the Rialto Jazz for Kids, a partnership between the Rialto Center for the Arts and five Atlanta metro area middle schools, and rolled naturally into the high school-aged Rialto Youth Jazz Orchestra (RYJO) without skipping a beat.
In his case, those years of hard work are about to pay off, as he’ll be attending The Juilliard School in New York City in the fall of 2018. When it comes to jazz, there’s something in the water at the Georgia State School of Music, and jazz studies professor Dr. Gordon Vernick is busy making the fountain available to more and more Atlanta students.
RYJO, formed in June 2010 by Dr. Vernick, is a natural complement to the Rialto Jazz for Kids and creates a supportive, if challenging transition between entry-level instruction and higher education. Following auditions in August, students are filtered into small combos of four or five musicians according to their respective ability, and they spend the year listening, practicing, improvising and eventually, performing on and off campus.
Joining students from Fulton, Cobb, Dekalb, Gwinnett, Clayton and Fayette counties, Oliver always found that the saxophone was a natural choice for him. “I chose the saxophone because it was the easiest instrument for me to make a sound on. I wanted to start out on trumpet, but if I could go back and change my choice I wouldn’t,” he says with a smile.
The saxophone may be Oliver’s first and best instrument, but he didn’t stop there. Over a relatively short history, Oliver also picked up the flute, clarinet and the EWI, a versatile electronic wind instrument frequently associated with jazz/rock fusion music. Despite his fluency in other genres, he comes back to jazz for the freedom of expression it affords. “The main thing that attracted me to jazz music,” he explains, “was the opportunity to express myself without using words. I can express myself more fully that way.”
The ease with which Oliver found his niche comes both from inherent talent and careful study and practice. “I can usually tell by about seventh grade,” says Dr. Vernick of a student’s prospective future in music. “Which is when I met Kevin. There was a quality to his musicianship that you could see and hear – I knew he had what it takes.” In addition to being a professor of music, the coordinator for the jazz studies program in the Georgia State University School of Music and the founder of RYJO, Dr. Vernick is also RYJO’s current director, and his experience as a jazz studies educator and world class performer makes him an expert in identifying talent.
Dr. Vernick’s laureled history in the genre combined with the caliber of faculty involved with RYJO, folks like Billy Thornton, Justin Varnes and others make RYJO an enterprising incubator for young artists, and it comes with its share of triumphs and trials. Students are cultivated in groups of their peers and challenged to continually sharpen their skills through improvisation and performance experience. In a recent feature from ArtsATL, Vernick says, “The only way to find out if you know a song is to get up in front of people and play it.” The article goes on to describe jam sessions at the Red Light Café, a venue used as a proving ground for Vernick’s young musicians and more seasoned players alike.
“There’s no surprise that Kevin was accepted by The Juilliard School,” says Dr. Vernick of Oliver’s development as a musician. “It’s not unusual for our students to matriculate from RYJO and go on to the top conservatories in the country.” Not an exaggeration, the program boasts graduates like Josh Williams, a bassist also attending Juilliard, Isaac Reiss, a trumpeter enrolled at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and David Kim, a guitarist now at The New School in NYC.
Georgia State’s own School of Music also sees immense benefit from RYJO, and it offers a gateway straight to the Jazz Studies program through dual enrollment. Dr. Vernick finds that RYJO students who enroll in college-level music courses while still in high school get a taste of working with more seasoned artists and enjoy picking up the pace in their development as musicians. Most of these students like it so much that they opt to stay, giving them a head start on their college education. “Being able to meet serious musicians my age and being able to learn from the fantastic teachers helped prepare me for where I am today,” says Oliver on the specialized instruction. “The musicians helped challenge me to be better.”