As Luke Carlos O’Reilly walks onto the stage of the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, he is greeted by the cheers of hundreds of enthusiastic fourth graders.
O’Reilly, 2004 jazz piano performance alumnus, is a teaching artist in the center’s Jazz4Freedom program, which educates fourth graders from The School District of Philadelphia.
The program spans from December to March and sends teaching artists to various classrooms to educate them about jazz and civil rights concepts, said Susan Quinn, director of education at the Kimmel Center. The artists host dance workshops and poetry writing sessions in the schools, and then bring students to the center for a field trip performance.
“The coolest part about it is that we’re not going to the schools that can afford it, we’re going to the schools that need it,” O’Reilly said.
O’Reilly, along with other local performers, like jazz singer Warren Cooper, have performed for 300 students in the program’s live show at Perelman Theater. The program displays major elements of jazz, like a jazz quartet, tap dancing and scat singing several times a week for schools including Vare-Washington Elementary and Lewis C. Cassidy Academics Plus School.
Cooper, who’s known O’Reilly for almost 20 years, said they want to use jazz to inspire and pass it on to the next generation, so young people can express themselves.
“The great thing about educating kids about the music is giving them the principles of the base of the music, and equipping them to take the music to wherever the next place is,” Cooper said. “Jazz is an intrinsically organic music, and it’s kind of like tofu. It begins to take on the taste of the things around it.”
At the end of each field trip performance, Jazz4Freedom gives teachers a study guide to help them continue teaching jazz and performance art education. Students also participate in a post-show workshop about social change, according to the program’s website.
Quinn first came up with the idea in 2017 and the program started running last year.
“We looked around the city and the country and figured out what would be the best possible way to engage with the community, and one of the things we came up with were signature programs for fourth, fifth and sixth graders,” she said.
Quinn and her team negotiated with the school board so that the program could go hand-in-hand with what students are learning in class, she said.
“You can’t delve into the culture of Philadelphia without talking about jazz,” O’Reilly said.
O’Reilly, who was inspired by jazz pianist Oscar Peterson at a young age, also teaches jazz programs for preschoolers and high school students at the Kimmel Center.
He believes it is important for children, especially children of color, to understand jazz because of how essential it is in describing Black history in the United States.
“Even if you’re from a different country, jazz encompases so many different artists, so many different types of music, jazz is also a culture,” O’Reilly added.
The Kimmel Center wants to eventually expand the its programs so that it can reach more children, Quinn said.
“They’ve put together a very sound program,” O’Reilly said. “You’ve gotta find the formula to keep certain kids engaged.”