East High School tries to set a new tone with jazz

MADISON, Wis. — As jazz echoes though the halls of East High School students stop to groove.  They’re drawn to the band of seven as the musicians improvise some of the genre’s standards.  Their feet tap.  Their hips sway.  Their spirits lift.

It’s a welcomed sound at a school that’s coming to the end of a challenging semester.  Their principal was reassigned after protests over how the school handled an alleged sexual assault.  Their walls were vandalized with racist graffitiA fight in November escalated to the point where Madison police had to use pepper spray to break it up.

The band is made up of five students and two MMSD administrators who are also seasoned jazz musicians.  Chief Academic Officer Marvin Pryor and Chief of High Schools Nelson Render have played with music icons such as The Ohio Players and Ray Charles.

On Thursday mornings, Pryor and Render set aside time in their busy schedules and bring their trombone and trumpet to the East High mall.

“It’s more than just playing music,” says Pryor.  “I’m charged with leveling the playing field for all students,” he adds.

“There have been some things at East that haven’t been so positive.   But, what is happening is the resiliency of the staff and students,” says Render.

For students like Beck McDowell it’s a thrill to play with such accomplished musicians.  He also appreciates their commitment to represent the district.

“We don’t often get that face to face connection with the people downtown,” McDowell says.

The point of starting the school day with jazz is to set a positive tone and combat any division and distance.

“Male, female, blacks, whites, everyone just connecting.  That’s the power of music.  It brings people together,” says Pryor.  “It sets the stage for their entire day,” he adds.

As the musicians trade off solos McDowell makes it a point to take it all in.

“I take a step back and I look around and it’s just such an incredible thing to look up and see everyone groove out and close their eyes,” he says.

It’s exactly what Render and Pryor set out to accomplish.

“For that moment, for that very moment, nothing else matters. we just see the humanity that occupies that space,” says Pryor.