Two music teachers are keeping jazz alive in Zionsville
It began purely by chance.
One evening this past June, Zionsville Middle School music teachers Chris Murray and Josh Weirich were at Plum’s Upper Room for dinner and some jazz. Coincidentally, former Zionsville High School student Alex Young and his group, the Brick Street Quartet, were on the bill.
Wheels began turning. The duo looked at one another.
“I’ve got an idea,” Murray said. “This could be awesome.”
It has been. Since that night, the co-band directors have set up a weekly jazz night – Wednesdays – at Plum’s, attracting some of the Indianapolis area’s most highly sought-after acts. But, that’s not all; much of the focus is about exposing youth to the genre.
“It seemed like a good project to take on and make successful,” said Murray. “I was frustrated growing up by not having anywhere to go see jazz, and there’s always talk about jazz dying. It’s not; there are many people interested. But you have to bridge that gap.”
That’s what the project has done. Weirich, a seventh- and eighth-grade specialist, reports that the venue has been nearly full every night since the Aug. 22 debut – and his students make up a large part of the crowd.
“We seem to see the same kids come back,” he said. “And maybe with a few more of their friends the next time.”
Murray and Weirich, who routinely play together and with others in several area bands – Murray a trumpeter, Weirich on saxophone – are also regulars on Plum’s accommodating stage, as well as in the crowd. So are some of their students, as providing pupils with the opportunity to get hands-on experiences are paramount to the pair.
“We try to create an environment where they are never afraid to take risks,” said Murray. “I look around and it’s not smoky, 1:30 a.m. on a Friday night – I see a couple fifth grade trumpet students, and they are hearing the same music I heard a few weeks ago in a bar. They are able to see live, organic jazz and they pick up on things more quickly by being there. It’s just that osmosis of being able to see professionals do it and have a chance to try it.”
“It’s rewarding when a 12-year-old kid learns a song so he can play along with you,” Weirich said, noting that he and Murray created a Dropbox folder in which they share potential setlist items with their students, so that they might practice in preparation for a Plum’s stage appearance.
It wasn’t that long ago that both Murray and Weirich were in their pupils’ shoes. Murray grew up in eastern Indiana, participating in every musically-slanted program and class his school could provide while listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
“I was a nerd,” he joked.
Weirich went to Ball State and met Murray at Butler, but spent time playing the sax on the Carnival cruise line in the Bahamas and played on a jazz album that was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2001. The pairs passion for music is evident, but even more conspicuous is their affection for what they’ve begun at Plum’s.
“There was nowhere here to see jazz that was accessible to kids,” explained Murray. “Some kids would hover outside the doors of these places, just listening. We wanted to educate and create an opportunity where there was none, and we wanted to make a model that would work with the restaurant. We tie in the school to the community, and we’re all together with no dividing line.”
Both Murray and Weirich made it clear that Jayne Nolting, owner of Plum’s, has been instrumental in the process.
“People are very careful economically these days,” said Murray about the prospect of Plum’s paying to have acts come in. “But Jayne was on board and she used to be a teacher, so she was in favor of the idea of tying this in with the school. She was excited about it and we’ve been continuously pushing forward and tweaking here and there. It’s because of her we’ve been able to do this, and she is in it for the long haul.”
It appears as though the jazz community is in it for the duration, as well. Murray and Weirich already have acts booked through mid-December and would like to see the idea branch out across the region.
“In six months’ time, I’d like this to be the model,” Murray said. “I want there to be hubs around the city where people can see jazz, and push the jazz generation forward.”
“We have to make this music accessible,” summarized Weirich. “It’s a labor of love.”
Plum’s Upper Room (112 S. Main St.)
6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
No cover charge
Upcoming acts at Plum’s:
Oct. 17 – Sophie Faught
Oct. 24 – Zach Lapidus Trio
Oct. 31 – The Aperture Quartet
Nov. 7 – Rob Dixon
Nov.14 – MW Quintet
Nov. 21 – Jared Thompson
Nov. 28 – MW Quintet
Dec.5 – Clifford Ratliff
Dec. 12 – MW Quintet
Dec.19 – Brick Street Quartet