Scott Slade, WSB Atlanta Top Drive time radio program interviews
producer Larry Rosen about the launch of JAZZ ROOTS in Atlanta, GA.

You got the feeling Thursday afternoon at Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta that if Al Jarreau taught class every day, scat would be on the core curriculum — somewhere between English and geometry — and the drop-out rate would be right around zilch.

Jarreau, 72, the legendary jazz and R&B singer and composer, dressed in cool cat black from head to foot, had an audience of about 250 teenagers in his very hip pocket the second he hit the stage. He started by congratulating them for showing up: “You got up this morning and decided to go to school and a lot of kids didn’t do that. ”

Then as he was about to deliver the U.S. Department of Education statistics that music students on average perform better academically than other students, he strayed onto a jazzy vocal riff about singing in a church choir that was so unexpected and giddy, the kids erupted with applause and laughter.

A few minutes and vocal riffs later, he was taking questions from the audience. The first: What inspired him? About three sentence into that answer, he was off singing again, this time a rendition of the first song he ever sang in public — in church — at age 5: “Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam.”

That’s how it went throughout an hour of instruction on the importance of an education that couldn’t have been hipper if it was staged in a jazz club. The 20-piece Mays Jazz Orchestra set the tone, opening the presentation with a bright, tight version of Miles Davis’ “Four” as Jarreau walked onto the stage.

The singer is in town for a performance Friday night at the Cobb Energy and Performing Arts Center, with Ramsey Lewis. His appearance at Mays was in connection with Clark University’s jazz radio station. WCLK’s “Jazz in the Classroom” program was created to introduce students to the history and role jazz has played in American and black culture.
Jarreau told the students to follow their passion, do what they love, whether it’s music or mathematics, but that it all starts with the bedrock of an education. He learned that lesson early from his father, a preacher, and his mother, who played piano for the church choir.

“My mother and father would have beat me bloody with a wet noodle if I had any ideas of not going to school,” he said.

The graduation rate last year was 74 percent at Mays, which has about 1,500 students. That’s compared to a graduation rate 52 percent at all APS schools. But it never hurts to drum the message in with the accompaniment of an orchestra.

Tyler Brown, a 16-year-old 11th grader who plays alto saxophone, said he was inspired by the singer.

“I like that they brought somebody here to talk to us who is such a success and doesn’t act like a superstar,” he said.