Jazz Program Teaches Skills, Opens Doors

By Stan Friedman

PITTSBURGH, PA (September 19, 2013) — The Hazelwood neighborhood is barely a shadow of the thriving community it once was when 30,000 people lived here and enjoyed the benefits of the steel boom. When the industry fell apart, so did the neighborhood.

Today, fewer than 6,000 people live here. No schools exist here anymore. Students are bused elsewhere, and many drop out before they finish high school. There are no recreation centers, either. Drugs and prostitutes are easily found, but jobs are not.

So it was a surprise when four young men from the neighborhood traveled to Monterey, California, and won top honors in the Open Combo division of the Next Generation Jazz Festival, which is organized by the international Monterey Jazz Festival.

They were the first group from Pittsburgh ever to win an international competition. Anton “Fish” DeFade, Brett Williams, George Heid III, and Benny Benack III, and Mike Stephenson all came up through the Center of Life (COL) Jazz program, an outreach of Keystone Covenant Church.

They became just one of the signs of hope the nonprofit faith-based organization has produced for the neighborhood. Founded by Tim Smith, pastor of Keystone Covenant and the organization’s executive director, COL is at the center of revitalization efforts in the community.

Smith founded COL in 2002 because he believed that revitalization happens within neighborhoods. It started in his basement with two sons and friends who wanted to start a jazz band.

Now COL offers multiple programs that focus on music and the arts, promoting positive messages, athletics, and education. Nine full-time staff members coordinate the programs.

It has grown through partnerships with public schools, universities, businesses, and other nonprofit organizations. Last year, the Heinz Endowment awarded the nonprofit a $1.35 million grant to further expand its programs.

Students work with the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health to research topics such as poverty, drugs, violence, and early sex, and then develop messages they deliver to the community through multiple venues that include local schools and outdoor concerts, says Julian Powell.

Powell, a promising jazz artist who came up through the program and has performed internationally, comes back to help the students. He notes that the kids write their own rhymes, help choreograph dances, lay down beats, and then pull it all together. “It’s all pretty amazing,” he says.

The jazz program is part of the KRUNK movement (Kreating Realistic Urban New School Knowledge), which teaches music skills, dancing, audio engineering, and marketing. It includes a summer camp for neighborhood youth, who perform weekly on the “Live on Second Avenue” series in Hazelwood. Each performance includes original raps, dances, and other musical compositions and performances.

Every student who has come through the jazz program has been accepted into college, Smith says.

This past summer KRUNK gave a special performance in the former Fred Rogers Studio at station WQED. On hand to film the performance was Rusty Cundieff, a Hazelwood native who has found success in Hollywood.

Cundieff has acted in movies directed by Spike Lee and Robert Townsend. In addition to writing his own films, he has written and directed episodes of Chappelle’s Show, The Bernie Mac Show, and The Wanda Sykes Show.

Cundieff told Steeltown, a nonprofit that seeks to develop the entertainment industry in Pittsburgh, that he was enthralled with COL’s work. “Once I got to meet Tim and learn a little more about him, I realized that there is really a lot going on in this small church in Hazelwood. In fact, since I’ve been here, I realized that there are so many kids and so many stories that I needed to call for backup cameras.”

The KRUNK program is about more than teaching music, says Smith. The students operate it as a business and raise money at some of their events and then reinvest it in the program, which has included producing several CDs.

The skills they learn impact the rest of their lives, says Smith. He references the adage, “If you give someone a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach someone to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” He adds his own entrepreneurial spin. “If you teach them to own the pond, then they can put others to work and learn how to create new ponds.”

COL also provides educational programs that have spread to various sites in the city. It works with the public schools as well as universities. Over the summer, kids participated in science days at Duquesne University, where they learned from graduate students.

COL’s Fusion outreach offers tutoring at the Hazelwood Library on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It provides homework help, literacy activities, educational games, and college preparatory resources for students in grades K-12.

Parents or guardians are required to attend the tutoring program at least one day a week so they can better help their students with lessons at home. College students and adults, many of them public school teachers, volunteer their time. COL partners with Duquesne University and the Hazelwood Branch of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Students who participate in Fusion are able to join the Crossover program. Adults from the community mentor students while leading various athletic competitions. Involvement is dependent upon academic success.

Smith says he came up with the name for Center of Life after God led him to read Romans 11:33-36. What caught his attention were the words in the final verse of the doxology: “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” God was at the center of life.

Since then, the nonprofit has been helping center the lives of the young people who live here.

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