Jazz Ambassadors brighten kids’ lives


Members of the Jazz Ambassadors host meet-and-greet with the children at Shriner’s Hospital.

By Nick Thomas


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On a dark and chilly Veterans Day evening, Phil Doyle, director of jazz studies, and his band of 18 sharply dressed Jazz Ambassadors trundled into the quiet lobby of Shriners Hospital for Children laden with awkward, heavy black cases.

They were there on a mission: brightening kids’ lives with the joy of music. This was their first event in what Doyle means to make a year full of community outreach. While further concert dates are in the works, they are off to a solid start thanks to a 4,500 grant from the Kalispel Tribe Charitable Fund.

“I can’t thank the Kalispel tribe enough for believing in the project and sponsoring it,” Doyle said. “The grant has allowed us to start, and that’s the most important part of a rewarding journey, … starting.”

“I believe that we should all focus more on one another, and the big picture. Music, with all the positive and creative aspects of it, is probably one of the most powerful, personal and transformative forces on earth,” Doyle said. “It only makes sense to use it for the enhancement of our community and to create positive change.”

In short order the intrepid musicians, featuring percussionists, packs of horn players, a keyboardist and two guitar players, were set up in a section of the brightly lit, toy-filled Rec room, ready to share their passion of music with a small crowd of kids, their families, and staff looking on.

Doyle introduced the group, and with a flick of his raised hands led the band into their inaugural event.

The song started with a snappy, subdued beat. It was a Latin tune — unified, smooth, soothing — after all, they are a Latin jazz band. They built up to a rousing midpoint before giving way to a foot tapping trumpet solo by junior Monty Boldt, a composition major from Vancouver, Wash. He carried the song through to its resounding crescendo.

In the silent pause that followed, everyone took in the miracle of song that echoed through the hard tiled room, then burst into applause. Judging by the wide smiles and sparkling eyes, the mother rocking her sleeping baby’s stroller to the song, the crowd was loving it. A look of relief washed over Doyle’s face.

Musicians passed around percussion instruments for the kids to try. Leslie tapped a drumstick on a blue bell, keeping time with the beat of the next swinging tune — La Bamba — smiling shyly all the while.

Leslie, excited to turn 10-years-old in a couple days, is a long way from her home city of Nogales, Mexico. She is here, along with the others, to receive specialized orthopaedic care. Both her legs are locked inside pink casts for the next six weeks, what is known as a Spika cast.

Shriners mission is to ”improve the quality of care and the quality of lives of children and their families.“ If the families cannot afford to pay, Shriners covers the costs.

Colton, age 5, played a set of bongo drums, his dark eyes shining, with a grin made all the more wonderful by a few missing front teeth. He is here from Butte, Mont., awaiting back surgery. His head is locked into a secure position by a metal ring bolted to his skull, forcing him to maneuver his tiny body with a restraint unintended for a kid his age. He seems markedly undaunted by his situation, a trait matched by every child present.

After another song and introductions of each player, the band let loose with one last piece, making room for a few more soloists to steal the spotlight for a few moments.

The true spotlight that night, however, was on the children. After the show they hung out with all the musicians, getting tips on how to play a big red conga drum, or, like Leslie, took delight in helping to play a trombone.

In Colton’s case, he displayed keen interest in helping Tyler Zlatich, freshman music major, unscrew the keys of his silver trumpet. “I like taking it apart,” he told Zlatich, who took Colton’s industrious charm in stride, teaching him how to properly clean and oil a trumpet.

The only sadness came when the Jazz Ambassadors explained, with regret, that the time had come for them to pack their gear and make the journey back to EWU.

Future community outreach concerts are being pursued by Doyle and his students. One of the main goals is to develop a mentoring program to help kids discover and develop their own musical abilities, according to Doyle, who helped start a similar program in East St. Louis while working at the University of Illinois.