When Elijah Rock, a member of the jazz ensemble The Downtown Project, attended the Fowler Museum’s OutSpoken Conversation with Kenny Burrell, John Edward Hasse and Quincy Jones in March, little did he know that a simple conversation with Jones would lead to his own performance at the Fowler Museum this Saturday.
As part of the Fowler’s “Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World” exhibit that will run through August, The Downtown Project will be performing as one of the two featured music guests during its Summer Sunset Concert series.
In light of the Fowler Museum’s focus on the influence of world arts and culture, it worked with the Meridian International Center, a nonprofit organization that works to foster international understanding through programs, to host the exhibit and reach out to people of all ages interested in jazz.
Bonnie Poon, Fowler Museum’s manager of public programs, said, “We thought this topic touched upon the nature of our collections and what we do because these jazz musicians are from different parts of the world and are being featured.”
The featured performance by The Downtown Project will be preceded by an early afternoon event for kids to paint a pair of rhythm sticks and to learn how to scat and jive talk.
“Jazz history isn’t really taught in our schools, and it should be recognized earlier that jazz is an American art form,” Poon said. “I think if we can impart some of that knowledge to some of the young people to come through the door for our performances and our hands-on projects, that would be great.”
When Rock, a first-year opera studies student as well as the lead vocalist and one of the founding members of The Downtown Project, met Quincy Jones, Rock mentioned that he also was a jazz performer and, after auditioning, The Downtown Project was chosen to perform as one of Fowler’s Summer Sunset Concert series bands.
“They were talking about the state of jazz today and when you see our band … it’s hip and it’s classic. Sammy Davis, Cab Calloway and Esperanza Spalding, they were not only musicians, but they were also always clean in how they presented themselves and I want to carry on that tradition,” Rock said.
The Downtown Project, a six-piece jazz ensemble that has been performing for the past year and a half, will be performing a mix of swing, classic jazz, bebop, funk and tap music. The ensemble features singers Elijah Rock and brothers Clarence Allen and Paul E. Allen.
The group started by performing at the Edison in downtown Los Angeles for a year, where they performed every other week. Rock said that he had been talking to Paul about putting an ensemble together, and when D.J. Johnny at the Edison presented them with the opportunity to do so, they managed to put together a 10-piece band. When The Downtown Project started, Clarence Allen was not a member, but was later added to the group.
“Things sort of progressed, and when you have that big of a band, it’s hard to get that many people at every show, so over time we had to work that out,” Rock said.
This year, Rock also received a full scholarship to study opera in a program currently in development at UCLA under voice studies Professor Vladimir Chernov.
After performing for UCLA’s associate professor and voice division chairman Michael Dean and other members of the Ethnomusicology department, Rock was chosen to help establish the opera program at UCLA.
Rock, who acts and tap dances in addition to singing, also makes regular appearances on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. According to Rock, he will be working through the UCLA program toward a degree centered around his career.
Second-year humanities student Jennifer Nowick said that exposing younger generations to genres other than what is heard on the radio is important to help educate and stimulate the minds of the future.
“By exposing kids to music outside of what is usually played on Top-40 radio stations, they’re not only able to gain access to more music, but (also) open their minds to interpret music as an art form.”
Rock said he hopes the performance at the Fowler makes some of the older audience nostalgic, while bringing a sound of fresh energy to the younger audience.