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  • Donny Thompson, M.S., NPA

Kenny Rampton and JOI

Jazz Outreach Initiative (JOI) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to jazz education. It was founded by Kenny Rampton, an award-winning trumpet player who grew up in Las Vegas and is currently a member of The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis in New York. Kenny's father, Roger Rampton, was a percussionist who spent most of his career performing in Las Vegas hotel bands with performers such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Shirley Maclaine and Tony Bennett.

"I had an amazing education that you can't get anywhere else because of my dad and the work that he did playing on the Strip with all the great musicians in those bands," Kenny says. "I got exposed to a lot of great music from a very early age, and I had great teachers -- Tommy Porrello, Walt Blanton, Hap Smith. They were great teachers who were also world class players. Las Vegas is the community that taught me to love and play jazz, and now I'm at a stage of my life where I want to to try and pay that forward to the community that helped me become a professional musician who gets to play and tour with the greatest musicians in the world. I want to inspire younger players, the same way that I got inspired when I was first learning to become an artist."

Kenny studied music at both the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and the Berklee College of Music. In 1989, he moved to New York where he quickly established his reputation as being a versatile musician. His first road gig was a world tour with The Ray Charles Orchestra. After leaving Ray Charles band, Kenny went on the road with legendary jazz drummer Panama Francis and The Savoy Sultans and soon thereafter, with The Jimmy McGriff Quartet. He went on to play for many years with the Mingus Big Band which is run by Sue Mingus, the wife of legendary bassist/composer Charles Mingus, as well as with with Mingus Epitaph (under the direction of Gunther Schuller). As a sideman, Kenny has also performed with jazz greats Jon Hendricks, Chico OFarrill's Afro-Cuban Jazz Big Band, Lionel Hampton, Bebo Valdez’ Latin Jazz All-Stars, Maria Schneider, Charlie Persip and Supersound, Illinois Jacquet, Dr. John, Edy Martinez, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Reuben Wilson, Charles Earland, Tony Monaco, Clark Terry, Slide Hampton, Marcus Roberts, Christian McBride, Geoff Keezer, Richard Bona and a host of others. He has performed with George Gruntz’ Concert Jazz Band, and The Manhattan Jazz Orchestra (under the direction of Dave Matthews). In 2010 he performed with The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra at the Edinburgh International Festival, and was the featured soloist on the Miles Davis/Gil Evans classic version of Porgy and Bess.

Since 2010, Kenny has also been the trumpet voice on Sesame Street. Some of his Broadway credits include "Anything Goes" (lead/solo trumpet), "Finian’s Rainbow," "The Wiz," "Chicago: The Musical," "In The Heights," "Hair," "Young Frankenstein," "The Producers," "The Drowsy Chaperone," "Spamalot," "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me," "The Wedding Singer," "and Hot Feet." Kenny can also be heard playing on many R&B, Blues, Pop and Hip Hop recordings. He toured the U.S. with the pop band Matchbox Twenty and has recorded dozens of jingles for such products as Bell Atlantic, Coca Cola, Dos Equis, Pacific Bell, Garden Burger, Popeyes Chicken, Hersheys, Mercedes, Sears, KoolAid, Head and Shoulders, Blistex, BestBuy.Com, Huggies, Pampers, Burger King, Hummer, Red Lobster, AT&T, Verizon, PEDA, Ameritrade, Wheat Thins, Miller Lite, Charles Schwab, Kohls, Arbys, Wendys, Old Spice, Nivea, Stay Free and York Peppermint Patties.

The inspiration to launch the Jazz Outreach Initiative came from the educational mission of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) where Kenny works today. Under the leadership of Wynton Marsalis, JALC has become a driving force in music education for young people. Its Jazz Academy sponsors a variety of educational initiatives for children, teens, and adults to advance musicial appreciation, understanding, and performance. Kenny and other individual members of the orchestra are encouraged to lead school workshops in addition to the work they do as performers onstage. JALC's Essentially Ellington competition is a free free program for high school jazz bands that culminates in an music festival in May of each year. Participating schools have access to instructional videos as well as more than 120 Duke Ellington compositions and arrangements for free for their bands to play. Each year, Essentially Ellington brings together the top 15 high school bands in the United States to come and play in New York. "My mom always visits town when they have it so she can come hear their performances," Kenny says. "A few years ago, she asked why there weren't any bands competing from Las Vegas. I decided to reach out to a couple of band directors back home."

In September 2016, Kenny visited Vegas for a performance with Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. "We invited students from the local high schools to come to  our soundcheck and I did a Q&A session with them," Kenny recalls. "I was so impressed just with the attitude of the kids. They were very respectful. They had very thoughtful questions. They were dressed nice...and there were a lot of them there. I think we had 250 kids at the soundcheck. They really inspired me to want to do something for them and for the community that I grew up in."

"After that Q&A with the kids in Las Vegas, I reached out to all the band directors that I could in the city. I told them about the Essentially Ellington program in New York and explained that it's free to sign up online," Kennys says. "A couple months later, I contacted the head of education at Jazz at Lincoln Center and asked if any of them had signed up. He checked, and it turned out that there was a big surge. All of a sudden we had 18 high school and junior high school bands that had signed up for Essentially Ellington in not only Las Vegas but throughout Nevada. And I said, well that's great. Maybe one of these bands will be really good and will make it to the finals and come to New York and perform at the festival. He told me, 'No, you don't understand. You've got enough -- more than enough -- bands signed up where you can actually set up an Essentially Ellington regional festival in Las Vegas.' So that got me really excited."

Kenny reached out next to Dave Loeb, the director of Jazz Studies at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. As it happened, Loeb was on his way to New York to perform with Ben Vereen. Kenny invited him to a JLCO performance, and afterwards they did some planning. Loeb invited Kenny to perform as a soloist with the UNLV Jazz Ensemble in February 2017 as part of the university's celebration of Black History Month. They gave away free tickets to the concert to area high schools. Kenny spent a week in Las Vegas giving free jazz workshops in local schools. "It was a lot of work, but it was really inspiring to see all these kids so eager to play the music," he says. "All sorts of people were expressing support for the idea of a regional Essentially Ellington festival -- Dave Loeb, Gary Cordell, my mom and family. I realized that I needed to start a nonprofit organization just so we could have a structure to organize and channel the funds and resources needed to make that happen."

In addition to the Essentially Ellington festival, Jazz Outreach Initiative is looking to sponsoring other musical events, a concert series and a lecture series. Kenny is interested in bringing in other musicians like himself who came up through the system in Las Vegas. He points out that Las Vegas has always had an underground jazz scene, dating back to the days when talented musicians came there because they could get steady work after spending much of their lives touring with big bands fronted by legends such as Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie or Fletcher Henderson. They settled in Las Vegas because there was a lot of work in the show rooms, but that didn't always give them an outlet for the kind of music they loved playing. Jazz music.

The Las Vegas Musician's Union had its own rehearsal hall where musicians who weren't working would form what they called “kick bands” to play impromptu sessions. “It would be like three or four different kicks bands a night in different time slots, playing big band jazz,” Kenny recalls. “The kicks bands provided an outlet for the musicians to get to play music that they loved as opposed to playing the scripted, commercial music that they were paid to play for Vegas shows such as Siegfried & Roy. And I remember my Dad would have jam sessions at the house when I was a little kid. I'd go out to the garage in the middle of the night, and there's Dad jamming with Carl Fontana and Tommy Turk.”

Jazz Outreach Initiative is bringing together this talent that has always existed within the Vegas entertainment scene and using it to educate young people who will be the future performers and the future audience for jazz music.

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