All that jazz

A performance by The Standard Vocal Jazz Ensemble, one of the student ensembles at Kansas City Kansas Community College. (All photos: KCKCC)

Winning one Student Music Award from DownBeat, the iconic jazz and blues magazine, is a cause for celebration. But when you win 15 each year over the past two years and nearly 50 since 2017 — which is what students in the music and audio engineering departments at Kansas City Kansas Community College (KCKCC) have done — it’s time to check out what’s in their sauce.

KCKCC, which serves just over 5,000 students annually, has a small music department, but its focus on serving students has garnered local, national and even international attention. The department is mostly a jazz and commercial music-based program, offering a range of eight to 10 ensembles per semester, depending on enrollment. That includes a jazz band, a funk band, multiple jazz combos, a concert choir and three vocal jazz ensembles, which are like small jazz choirs with about a dozen singers in each group, says John Stafford II, a professor of music who is co-coordinator of the department and heads its choral activities.

Key ingredients

The pillars that have helped the program succeed include support from the college leadership, small class sizes and performance experiences, Stafford says.

With backing from the college leaders, the program has been supplied with a good budget, student scholarships, recruiting time and flexibility (or “artistic freedom”) to do what’s best for students, Stafford says. The music program has an opportunity to record in the audio engineering program’s full-scale recording studio to offer unique learning opportunities. The college offers associate degrees in music, audio engineering and the music technology degree combines curriculum from both departments.

Professor Jim Mair, director of instrumental activities at KCKCC, on his saxophone.

Similar to most community colleges, the classes in the program are small. There are between 30 to 40 music majors per year, with about 65 audio engineering majors. And instead of working with graduate students, as is often the case at larger universities, students work with trained faculty.

“We meet with students and advise them on a regular basis. We aid them both in terms of academics and preparation for professional real-world scenarios,” Stafford says, noting that the faculty guides them in their career goals.

Getting out there

The final part is the performance experience. Many students in the program work as semi-professional musicians while in school or sharpen their skills in preparation to transfer to a four-year university, Stafford says. And since Kansas City has had a strong jazz tradition since the 1930s, there are plenty of places to perform, from jazz clubs to private events and restaurants.

“It’s possible for Kansas City musicians to perform six nights a week and just do that as a living,” Stafford says. “It’s a hustle, but it’s very possible.”

Listen to KCKCC’s The Standard Vocal Jazz Ensemble perform on its YouTube channel.

Students have also performed at national events, such as the American Choral Directors Association, National Association for Music Education and Jazz Education Network national conferences, which often require a blind recorded audition for consideration. The program is eyeing potential international performances, as well.

“It’s important to provide these opportunities so students can be inspired,” Stafford says. “It’s not just about the in-class education; it’s the out-of-class education, which is equally important.”

Other kudos

KCKCC students also have performed with or been critiqued by A-list musical artists, Stafford notes. They have opened a concert for the multi-Grammy Award-winning cappella gospel sextet, Take 6, as well as the Grammy-nominated vocal groups Sweet Honey On The Rock and the New York Voices. This semester, students also worked with internationally acclaimed jazz vocalist and bassist Kristin Korb.

Working with nationally and internationally recognized talent draws attention to the program, which helps with recruitment, Stafford says.

“It really has been helpful to build our resume with these well-known artists. It helps to get the word out about our college,” he says.

Recruiting and scholarships

A unique aspect of the music program is that its faculty recruit at local schools and offer scholarships. Most of the students in the program come from more than 20 different high schools in the greater Kansas City metro area. About three faculty members visit those local schools throughout the year, especially in the spring semester. They work with the high schools’ bands and choirs during their visits and inform the students about the college’s activities and full-tuition music scholarships.

“The college has been very helpful in supporting us logistically and financially to develop our unique program,” Stafford says.

The Blue Devil Funk Band from KCKCC performs at an annual vocal festival that the college hosts.

A good number of students majoring in music plan to eventually transfer to a four-year institution to study music performance or music education, Stafford says. And some are ready to start their professional music careers. Meanwhile, the audio engineering majors typically find employment with professional live music companies and recording studios, with some going out of state, including Los Angeles.

But not all the students in the program want to pursue music careers. Some just take it for fun. There are students studying business or nursing who performed in high school and they still want to enjoy that artistic aspect of their learning, Stafford says.

“It’s a very encouraging environment, among both the students and the faculty,” Stafford says. “We have built a strong musical community out of honesty, respect and a commitment to being artistic.”

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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