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Little Jam, big impact

New music series sweetens the pot for beleaguered school music programs

Briana Wright performs with her band Nightingale at The Tulsa Little Jam

Lyndon Alvarez

The sorry state of Oklahoma’s public school arts funding is, of course, a national embarrassment. And like all policy issues, it has real-world, intersectional impact.

Carlos Moreno had been hearing the stories for years: public school band rooms with no instruments, music departments slashed, orchestras and choirs gone silent. His daughter reported broken instruments over at Edison, where she goes to school. “My friend’s son was at Wright Elementary and wanted to be part of the music program there,” he said. “But they didn’t have anything to play on.”

In a city that loves music as much as Tulsa does, he thought, every child should have a chance to learn to play.

Moreno, a graphic designer at the Community Action Project and co-captain of Code for Tulsa, took action in quintessential Tulsa style: by organizing a gig that could give back. Earlier this year he teamed up with writer/producer/director Juan Reinoso, who recently returned to Tulsa after 25 years in New York City, and PR/marketing consultant Meg Sutherland, and the Tulsa Little Jam was born.

Combining intimate musical performances with freewheeling interviews, the series showcases some of Tulsa’s sweetest talent in concerts at the Woody Guthrie Center’s 60-seat auditorium, filmed and recorded live, with all proceeds going to support music programs at local public schools.

It’s become much more than a one-off event. In addition to giving help to local schools, the Tulsa Little Jam is turning out to be a powerful way to tell the stories of Tulsa music to the world.

Reinoso, the show’s host and interviewer, described Moreno’s concept as “NPR’s Tiny Desk meets Austin City Limits.” So far there have been two Tulsa Little Jam events, each featuring three different bands, with more on the way. Acts range from well-known names like Casii Stephan to newer voices like Dane Arnold and the Soup—a group Reinoso was so impressed by that he ended up directing a music video for one of their songs after they performed at Little Jam.

The idea is for each of the performance/interviews to be released as a freestanding podcast. “I was inspired by the sort of listening experiences that showcase the artist in a way that maybe you’ve never heard them before,” Moreno said. “I listen to a lot of music podcasts and radio shows—KCRW and the like—and we wanted something like that multimedia experience
for Tulsa.”

“Because the project is not yet fully funded, the public hasn’t seen the real dream of what it’s going to be yet,” Moreno said. (There are some delicious trailers on Tulsa Little Jam’s Facebook page.) They’ve been paying the venue, the bands, and the crew out of their own pockets. Soon the producers hope to get enough sponsors that they can start releasing episodes, recording new ones, and maybe, Reinoso said, taking the show on the road to Austin, Chicago, Bentonville, even New York, to raise even more to put back into those empty music room shelves.

Here at home, Moreno hopes to bring in some hip-hop bands out of Oklahoma City, some jazz—maybe through the new Duet Jazz club downtown—and definitely some Latin bands. (“A Tulsa Little Latin Jam!” Reinoso exclaimed.) “Part of the idea is to give people a chance to hear something they might not have heard otherwise, with the kind of production quality Tulsa music deserves,” Moreno said.

In the end, it’s all about keeping the music alive and thriving, now and into the next generation. While showcasing three Tulsa bands, decked out with gorgeous video and sound, that first Little Jam taping raised enough to donate $500 to Edison’s music program. “The more we make, the more we can give away,” Reinoso said.

“All the gurus of education policy now are saying the important things are creativity, imagination, problem solving—not the information, but the synthesis of that information,” Moreno said. “The cuts in elementary music programs are a huge loss. Even if playing music isn’t your end-all be-all, it’s still something that enriches your life.

“Part of Little Jam is you’re seeing these great artists in Tulsa, but they got to be great artists because they learned to play the instruments,” Moreno continued. “They learned to play the instruments, by and large, as young people. If we don’t support the generation coming up, there won’t be any more Casiis or Dane Arnolds or Branjaes.”

“It’s an amazing opportunity to give to the next person,” Reinoso said. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”

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