Center of Life: outreach in Pittsburgh delivers music, dancing and energy with a message
Sam Harris, 18, of Point Breeze plays bass during a jazz band rehearsal at the Center of Life in Hazelwood this month.
Shailen Abram, 14, of the East Hills plays the keyboard as the Rev. Tim Smith watches. Rev. Smith is executive director of the Center of Life.
Ellis Durham, 14, of Monroeville plays the saxophone; David Watkins, 16, of Forest Hills plays bass guitar at the Center of Life in Hazelwood. The outreach has four jazz bands and an ensemble of rappers, dancers and singers.
Julian Powell, 22, of Braddock is on drums and Sam Harris, 18, of Point Breeze plays the bass. Performers earn and keep track of money as part of the outreach effort of the Center of Life.
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It was stuffy in the second-floor room of the Keystone Church one recent Monday evening when Mark Jackovic yanked open a tall window before chomping back down on the mouthpiece of his alto sax. Moments later, the sloping quiet of Hazelwood Avenue jumped with a punch of fusion funk.
On Mondays, when the old church is at full force -- singers in one room, rappers and dancers in the nave and the jazz band pumping upstairs -- it can seem like the center of life. Little did the Rev. Tim Smith know when he named his fledgling outreach Center of Life that it would become a Hazelwood destination.
In the past 12 years, Center of Life has become COL, an acronym now known at the Next Generation Jazz Festival, organized by the venerable Monterey Jazz Festival in California. The COL Jazz Band took first place this year in the Open Combo division.
"All of this out of little old Hazelwood," Rev. Smith said.
He was active in the church and working as an investment banker in 2000 when he and his sons started playing music in their basement.
"They were threatening to be musicians, and I'm an old musician myself," he said. "As they got into middle school, other kids started to come around.
"I decided to start a program because all the kids said 'We need jobs.' The idea was to connect their talent to opportunities and teach them how to run their own businesses. We did it with landscaping, with digital imaging and how to market and sell their art. And the group of young musicians were getting good -- a jazz group and a hip-hop group."
Rev. Smith eventually left his 16-year banking career to commit full time to Center of Life.
Today COL has four jazz bands -- one a "farm team" of middle schoolers -- and an ensemble of rappers, dancers and singers whose acronym, the KRUNK Movement, stands for Kreating Realistic Urban New School Knowledge.
The purpose is to deliver music, dancing and energy with a message.
"We're trying to spread a positive message for physical and mental health," said Lebraya Latimer, a dance instructor who came to the program as a dancer. "Nobody wants to be told 'Don't do that,' but everybody likes to hear music, so we put the positive message in the music."
COL worked with the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health "to translate technical language into a hip-hop message about money, poverty, early sex, drugs and violence," Rev. Smith said. "They get bookings and have to keep track of the money they make and make sure everyone gets paid equitably and put something away. That's mandatory."
A percentage of money from gigs is plugged back into the program, which has helped the jazz and KRUNK groups cut several CDs. COL operates largely with support from the Grable and Pittsburgh foundations and The Heinz Endowments.
"Tim is one of these guys who is seemingly in the middle of a thousand different social webs and is one of the people who makes Pittsburgh a smaller place," said Rob Stephany, the Heinz Endowments' director of community and economic development programs. "Once you're connected to him, other people are connected to him. He takes seven degrees [of separation] down a notch.
"Neighborhood recovery always starts somewhere and it starts with people doing incredible things, and that's where Tim is."
COL has brought young people together who otherwise might never have met.
"At first, all the kids were from the neighborhood," Rev. Smith said. "Now they come from all over, and they come back during college to work with students in jazz and hip-hop summer camp."
Drummer Julian Powell hails from Braddock and has performed with the jazz bands and KRUNK.
"I started as a way to make money performing" as a 15-year-old classmate of Rev. Smith's son, Tim, also a drummer, at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts . "It has turned into something I can do for the rest of my life."
A recent graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mr. Powell is preparing to tour Japan with the John Hall Band this summer.
Sam Harris, 18, plays stand-up bass in the same jazz band with Mr. Powell, 22, Mr. Jackovic, 23, and Ben Clifton, 19, on keyboards. He just graduated from CAPA and will be attending Temple University this fall to study jazz performance.
"I have a lot of friends working $7.25-an-hour jobs," he said. "We do a little better than what you make scooping ice cream, but the real difference is that my friends gripe about their jobs and I get to say, 'Tonight I've got a gig! Tomorrow I've got a gig! Next week I've got a gig!' "
COL holds two auditions a year "and can only take so many," Rev. Smith said. To meet wider demand, the model is being replicated in several local schools, where it "connects the dots" to academia, he said. "When you are creating rhythm, it is math you're engaging in."
Youths who are not performers are learning audio engineering, editing and marketing.
"It feels like we've touched a lot of kids, opened a lot of doors," said Ms. Latimer. "The dancers work really hard and they've gotten a lot of exposure."
"It's a blast," said Deasia Reed, 12, one of three middle-school girls from Lincoln-Lemington who participate in KRUNK. As she swirled and strutted on the stage in the nave, Janesha Turner, a volunteer, called to her, "You've got awesome stage presence."
Tap dancer Izzy Presberry, now 18, followed his sister, a dancer, to the program when he was 15.
"I see people walking around outside when a lot of music is coming out of this church and they say, 'What's going on?' I say, 'It's KRUNK. Come through; this is another way.'
"There's so much you can do in life," he said. "Before I got here, I didn't know how open the world could be for me."
First Published June 24, 2012 12:00 am