The California state budget crisis has devastated many Bay Area arts organizations, cutting them off from public funds. Jazz drummer and educator E.W. Wainwright is among those feeling the ill effects, and the future of his African Roots of Jazz Performing Arts Academy, which has provided musical education to countless children in Oakland and San Francisco since 1977, is in jeopardy. "Our last governor [Gray Davis] hit us directly with his cutbacks," says Wainwright from his artist loft in West Oakland. "He canceled our contract with San Quentin Prison, where we were teaching creative writing, drama, and music. Grants for our after-school programs and the Saturday school, which is done at a homeless shelter as part of the Salvation Army's Children's Program, were completely knocked out when he cut back the California Arts Council."
To top it off, his consultant's salary with the Oakland Unified School District was frozen when the state took over the ailing district. And now Wainwright, who has performed with a long list of jazz luminaries such as McCoy Tyner and Pharoah Sanders, is hustling to survive. "We've been really struggling and got through the last two months, and I am humbled by this experience, thanks to the music department at SF State who did a great benefit for us after we put out the alarm over the Internet," he says. "Donations came in and it got us through September and October."
This Sunday, E.W. Wainwright and the African Roots of Jazz host the ninth annual Youth Arts Benefit at Sapphire's Restaurant and Grill, 380 Embarcadero West in Oakland's Jack London Square, starting at 4 p.m. The benefit will feature E.W. with a dynamic new band and a plethora of special guests, including Howard Wiley (sax) and Ricky Kelly (vibes). More information is available at 510-205-3882.
"How I opened the AROJ Performing Arts Academy came from an experience I had in 1975 at the Kool Jazz Festival in Houston, Texas," Wainwright says. "I'm playing with McCoy, and as they're driving us in, these kids are running along the side of the fence yelling, 'Can I have that pass?' I said, 'You ever hear of John Coltrane?' They answered, 'No!' 'Clifford Brown?' 'No!' 'Dizzy?' 'No!' We're naming all these famous jazz musicians and they never heard of any of these cats. We tore the badges off our chests and handed them through the fence. They were in high school, and these passes allowed them to come right up beneath the bandstand. They heard us play, and their mouths just dropped open. After that, they wanted our autographs and offered to carry our instruments. If we could turn around these young cats who came to hear Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and the Pips -- that's what we needed to do. That motivated me to open up African Roots of Jazz Performing Arts Academy."
Jazz great Rahsaan Roland Kirk used to dedicate his anthem "Bright Moments" to "all the wonderful people that have never known bright moments." Wainwright now carries that torch, enlightening the poor and inspiring with his music and, despite adversity, doing it with his infectious smile intact.
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