Playing in Time with David Rojas

Turner Foundation Music and Imagination Program Uses Jazz and Blues to Teach Life

Playing in Time
with David Rojas

Turner Foundation Music and Imagination Program Uses Jazz and Blues to Teach Life

By Charles Donelan | January 6, 2022

David Rojas | Credit: Erick Madrid

Five afternoons a week, a group of teens converges on the 500 block of West Canon Perdido for band practice in a new open-air studio. Despite their musical apprenticeship — the stops and starts, the flubs and retakes — a curious listener might be surprised to recognize that the themes and flights of lyricism are from the great Black music canon: jazz.

Approximately 40 students from the Lighthouse and Village at Santa Barbara apartments are currently enrolled in the Turner Foundation Music and Imagination Program (TFMI), where they are learning to play classic jazz and blues compositions by mid-20th-century greats, such as Thad Jones, Herbie Hancock, Hazel Scott, and Sonny Rollins. Whether they are 14-year-old veterans or 9-year-old beginners, these Westside kids choose to spend their precious after-school hours practicing the chord changes of bebop and the intervals of the blues. What, in 2021, could be motivating them to do this?

The answer is the story of the Turner Foundation Music and Imagination program (TFMI) and how its director, David Rojas, is bringing the joy and the discipline of structured musical improvisation to the youth of the city’s Westside.

Santa Barbara Boy

Born and raised in Santa Barbara, Rojas has pursued a passion for music since he was a teen. He plays multiple instruments, reads and composes music, and sings. His current group, the Rent Party Blues Band, has roots in his years at Santa Barbara High School, and the band gigs around town regularly. Although he heard all kinds of music growing up​ — rock and salsa, funk and world music​ — the great figures of jazz and blues have always been his personal heroes. 

When discussing Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters, or Charlie Parker, Rojas’s expressive face lights up. Thanks to his personal initiative, plus his education as a music major at Santa Barbara City College, his knowledge extends to every corner of American music — the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, Chicago, New Orleans, and Texas. You name it, and Rojas can play it. Yet within this expansive musical mindset, there’s a special place reserved for the character-building qualities he associates with jazz and blues improvisation. Any doubt about the effectiveness of his approach vanishes when his students talk about their experience in the program. 

BOTH SIDES NOW: David Rojas brings years of experience as program director at Notes for Notes on the Eastside to his current role as director of music programs at the Turner Foundation on the Westside. | Credit: Erick Madrid

The Turner Foundation Music and Imagination program is free and open to all residents of the Village at Santa Barbara and Lighthouse apartments. Thanks to generous support from SONOS, the Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation, DW Music Foundation, individual donors, and TV Shield, there are plenty of new musical instruments. The facility is open Monday through Friday from 2-6:30 p.m., and students who demonstrate serious commitment to the program can earn the privilege of taking their instruments home to practice on nights and weekends. In the adjacent office and practice space where Rojas stores the instruments, there’s a library of music books, recordings, and instructional DVDs.

The heart of the TFMI program resides in the welcoming, modern space that Rojas has created within the Village at Santa Barbara Community Learning Center. The SONOS & S.B. Bowl Foundation Open-Air Music Studio (OAMS) is a handsome space with wood paneling and a large canopy shade to protect the musicians from the sun. A professional mixing board sits locked inside a tool chest until Rojas opens it and a hydraulic system lifts the board to working height. When all this great gear is connected through a laptop, students can plug in their instruments and see themselves play on a large flat-screen mounted on the wall. 

Jazz Lives 

As anyone familiar with the challenges of improvised music will tell you, it takes a long time before you can do it with confidence. Rojas incorporates self-awareness into the curriculum and builds confidence in his students by asking them to assess their progress at regular intervals. 

Fatima, the 12-year-old guitarist, with her Mickey Mouse T-shirt and her Fender, seems both a child and a budding rocker. She said that when she began the program, she was at the humble level of one on a scale of 10. She had no previous musical instruction but has learned to handle her instrument, read music, and play some jazz changes in less than a year. For her, the environment that Rojas and his students create is “always smooth and always fun.”

Paul the pianist and Juan the trombone player both agree. They all started in the program knowing nothing, but today they see themselves as modest fives or hopeful sixes on that scale of competence.

What makes this ad hoc self-assessment so compelling is not so much the numbers but rather the evidence the students produce to back their claims. Fatima says that when she arrived, she “didn’t even know how to strum,” and now she “can play all kinds of chords.” Paul says that now he knows the value of every key on the piano, can read music, and can “build chords.” And Juan speaks of changes and intervals with the confidence of someone well on his way to performing and composing.

You may have heard that jazz is dead. Yet to the young members of the TFMI Youth Blues & Jazz Band, the charts from The Real Book, the jazz musician’s bible, are fascinating. For Rosa, 14, the band’s singer, unlocking the secrets of these mysterious compositions is one of her favorite parts of the program: “I get to learn songs that I’ve never known before.” 

Why Jazz?

What makes jazz, with all its specificity to the African-American experience, such a valuable and beneficial introductory music curriculum, especially in a context where students have not necessarily been exposed to the music before? Rojas describes his method as fundamentally communal and based on the shared experience of being musically “in time.” “In the beginning, when they are first getting comfortable with their instruments, I will ask them just to play scales, but I always ask them to do it in time with the rest of the group,” Rojas told me. “As long as they feel the rhythm and stay with the pulse, it doesn’t matter so much what they’re doing because they’re in the groove.”

When playing in time becomes a habit, students start to hear progressions and think about making a statement with their instrument. “That’s what I’m after,” says Rojas — the moment when it feels natural for players to express their voices.

PLAYING IN THE BAND: Through the Music and Imagination program, students like vocalist Gabriela, 14, and trumpeter Juan, 14, receive free instruction, access to musical instruments, and the chance to perform in a group. Credit: David Rojas

A substantial body of knowledge has been devoted to the value of learning to improvise. One of the most comprehensive discussions is Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life, by the Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize winner Wynton Marsalis. He defines this time-based approach to improvisation in terms that apply to all kinds of situations, not just playing music. “Jazz reminds you that you can work things out with other people,” the trumpeter and bandleader writes. “It’s hard, but it can be done.” 

Marsalis notes how “the pressure of time forces you to be spontaneous in jazz,” and he offers a helpful framework for comprehending the core concept of “swing.” He writes that there are three kinds of time​— actual time, as measured by clocks; your time, which is a matter of perception; and “swing time,” which he defines as “a collective action.” According to Marsalis, “jazz is the collaborative effort to create a flexible alternative to actual time.”

Listening to Rojas and observing the setup of his studio, where students can see themselves on a flat-screen monitor while they play, it’s easy to understand the practical application of these concepts. As Fatima put it, in the band, each person has a “role to play,” a role that comes from their willingness to work things out with others “in time.”

(Marsalis will be in Santa Barbara on Friday, February 4, with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to perform a concert presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures at The Granada Theatre.)

Behind the Music

One dividend of visiting with David Rojas was learning about the Turner Foundation. This philanthropic organization, which began in Southern California, now owns and operates both the Village and the Lighthouse, a similar, more recently acquired property on San Pascual. In 1958, the Reverend Dr. Alfred J. Turner created the Rose Garden, a 214-unit project in Riverside that offered low-cost housing to seniors for more than 30 years. 

Turner passed away in 1987, and his daughter Patty and her husband, Rev. Jonathan Wilson, took over the Turner Foundation. In 2005, the Foundation sold the Rose Garden to California Baptist University and invested in the property that was then known as Casa Perdido and is today the Village at Santa Barbara. The couple had fallen in love with Santa Barbara when their two sons were attending Westmont, and they knew from the Foundation’s experience in Riverside how to work with city and federal housing authorities to finance properties that serve the elderly, working families, and those with disabilities. Today, between the Village and the Lighthouse complex on San Pascual Street, the Turner Foundation operates 200 such affordable rental units on Santa Barbara’s Westside.

Each Turner Foundation apartment complex has a Community Learning Center. In 2019, David Rojas came to the Village CLC as director of music programs after spending six successful years as program director at the Notes for Notes studio facility on Santa Barbara’s Eastside. Rojas told me that when the Turner Foundation reached out to him about coming west to start a new program, he was unsure at first because he didn’t want to leave the community he was serving. Encouragement from his girlfriend nudged him into creative mode, and once that started, ideas and initiatives came thick and fast. 

Through Notes for Notes, Rojas knew how to outfit the studio with donated equipment from SONOS and other generous companies. The Santa Barbara Bowl Foundation, the Squire Foundation, the DW Foundation, and the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture all contributed money and instruments to the project. 

IN THE SPACE: Rojas reports to TFMI parents and sponsors in the open-air music studio at the Village. | Credit: Katelyn Kirchner

At TFMI, Rojas has developed a seven-part curriculum that covers everything from writing lyrics to studying the physical properties of sound. Students enter through Music Exploration, an introductory course that provides them with basic knowledge, and then can choose the next step, depending on their interests. Many elect to begin Private Music Instruction, which leads to participation in the TFMI Youth Blues & Jazz Band. Others pursue Music Enrichment Excursions that expose students to different genres of music through concerts and studio visits.

Another program came about through the joint effort of TFMI and AHA!, an S.B.-based nonprofit leading in social and emotional intelligence programming. They created EQ Vibes, launched in the summer of 2021, which teaches students to exercise and expand their social and emotional intelligence (EQ) skills with their peers in an authentic professional music studio setting. Participants reflect on their experiences with music and discover their music personality.

The Music Production Program gives students a hands-on experience using recording equipment, software, and techniques associated with the contemporary music recording studio in order to capture and share musical expression. Students learn how to communicate effectively with others in the music field on subjects relating to music production. 

The seventh offering, Cross-Curricular Studies, employs active learning protocols that lead students to discover connections between music and such disciplines as science and the culinary arts. Activities in the Cross-Curricular Studies class may involve cooking foods associated with a particular musical culture or conducting physics experiments based on the material properties of sound. In one such lesson, students make Chladni plates — flat surfaces mounted in such a way as to react to and visualize the patterns contained in sound waves. 

For Rojas, the adventure of connecting music to other disciplines and exploring the physical qualities of sound commands the same respect and attention as mastering a challenging composition on your instrument.

Blues People

Like jazz, playing the blues cultivates a wide range of fundamental skills that apply in most social situations. Blues musicians have to adapt to change without losing their balance. They must respond to crises in the moment with clear thinking. Players in a blues band have to concentrate on a collective goal even when their conception of that goal does not dominate. Most importantly, they need to know how and when to express their feelings and expend their energy sustainably and productively.

Yet when compared to its near-cousin jazz, blues has a metaphysical aspect that’s ordinarily more immediately tangible. Singing about pain and loss, blues musicians at once acknowledge the challenges of living in this world and commit themselves to the work of continuing to do so. As the great sociologist of music Charles Keil wrote in his 1966 classic, Urban Blues, “The blues exist because some men feel called upon to address themselves to certain basic problems, and because these songs meet a cultural demand.”

By incorporating blues into the TFMI curriculum and playing and studying the blues in his own music, Rojas commits himself and his partners to an ongoing conversation about what makes a just society.

The earliest blues songs considered an astonishing variety of subjects. A list compiled by the musicologist Paul Oliver gives some idea of the range and freshness of the genre. There are blues songs about “mules, boll weevils, highways, trains, boxing, prisons, hurricanes, floods, bloodhounds, lawyers, chauffeurs, Pearl Harbor, fire departments, cities, rivers, gambling, beer, whiskey, voodoo, and sex.”

While not all of these topics may be suitable for young teens, they suggest the amplitude and sheer wonder available to writers in this idiom. Rojas achieves a balance and range that comprehends most of life by supplementing the airy abstractions of jazz improvisations with the gritty, no-nonsense of the blues.

When I asked Rojas about the relation between the music he’s teaching and what’s most popular today, he told me about a recent experience he had in December at the Once Upon a Time in L.A. music festival held in Exposition Park. Some of the most significant figures in the history of Black music would be performing alongside today’s top rappers. Rojas spoke with feeling of the set laid down by the Reverend Al Green. 

“Al Green was amazing,” he told me. “He was in great form.” But what impressed Rojas most was how Green talked to the crowd. He called everyone together and created a “circle of community” that resonated deeply with everyone.

But just then, LAPD helicopters began circling the stadium, shining powerful spotlights into the audience and backstage. At first, Rojas assumed it was part of the show. He remembers thinking that Snoop Dogg, who was scheduled to come on next, had gone all out on his entrance.

But the audience soon learned that the rapper Drakeo the Ruler had been fatally stabbed backstage.

It would be easy to lay much significance on what was, in all honesty, not that unusual. Drakeo, whose birth name was Darrell Caldwell, came up through poverty and was incarcerated multiple times as a juvenile and adult. One of his best-known tracks, “Thank You for Using GTL,” namechecks a communications company, GTL, that provides telephone service to correctional facilities. His album The Truth Hurts contains vocals he recorded by phone from prison while serving time for conspiracy to commit murder. 

But as he does most things, David Rojas took the incident in stride. He’s respectful of the talent that rappers bring to their music, and he doesn’t preach against it in his lyric-writing classes. Instead, he insists on honesty, regardless of how naturalistic and even profane his students might want to be in their original work. The truth does hurt, but it can also help, and that’s what Rojas and the Turner Foundation Music and Imagination program intend — to give young people a way to be heard that’s skillful, honest, and humane.


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