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Lilly Jazz Project teaches the soul of jazz for children and adults

Cambridge College alumna Dar Lilly
Cambridge College graduate Dar Lilly

Jazz music is like a good bowl of gumbo. All the ingredients are from different cultures blending into a soul-pleasing mixture. In San Diego, many people are hungry for jazz because they can’t find enough of it. The San Diego culture and lifestyle is not yet ripe for it. Dar Lilly, a La Mesa resident, is on a quest to change that.

Lilly teaches after-school lessons called Jazz in the Afternoon, a program of the Lilly Jazz Project. It’s her way of educating children on what jazz is and how they can enjoy it. Lilly also holds lectures for adults, as she did at a recent one to more than twenty people at the La Mesa Library. She is graduate of Cambridge College Southern California.

“This is the first time we’ve done a live music presentation like this,” said Heather Pisani-Kristl, the librarian. “Dar is a local resident and we are proud that the Friends of the Library could sponsor this special afternoon.”

Lilly picked up her clarinet and played “My Ship,” a song from the musical production of “Lady in the Dark.” The rich, smooth notes filled the library. 

Afterwards, Lilly talked about how she became a jazz aficionado. She started playing the clarinet when she was 13 years old, she said. By the time she reached high school, she had learned enough about the instrument that she wanted to become a musician and she began college at SDSU.

“By then I had fallen in love with the jazz music, but I had no background to learn how to play it,” she said.

Like any serious jazz artist, Lilly moved back east for a while. Under the tutelage of Margaret Simmons Edward and Yusef Matisse, she flourished. 

“I discovered that I could create my own imprint on jazz. I got my feet wet in jazz with these people,” she said.

But when Lilly graduated, she still felt offbeat when it came to really knowing jazz. She moved to Boston. There she went nightly to a night club called Wally’s Jazz Club.

“I became totally obsessed with the jazz culture. I wanted to learn but I was still afraid that I wasn’t good enough,” she said.

Things started looking up when she met Lee Fish, a professional drummer. “He encouraged me to keep playing even if I just did the little that I knew,” Lilly said.

She started playing with a group called Energy. “It was ten of us in an experimental jazz group. All I would do is play little rifts that add to the sound that we did. That’s what jazz is, really,” Lilly said.

“And that’s the same for all of you. Anybody here play an instrument?”

Debra White raised her hand. “The piano,” she said.

“You still play?” Lilly asked her.

When White said she did not play much anymore, Lilly encouraged her to pick it back up again. 

“You’d be surprised at what you can do if you play for a few minutes a day. Just try a little tune, a little improvisation of your own,” Lilly said.

After Lilly showed a video about the origins and history of jazz, a discussion followed about where and when people could go to hear jazz. Not much was available in San Diego, it was agreed. However, Croce’s in Banker’s Hill, Humphrey’s on Shelter Island and Rebecca’s Café in South Park are some good venues for occasional jazz. Closer to home, people can hear jazz on Friday evenings at the Rook Bar in La Mesa.

“Jazz is not just about swing. It would be great for people to understand how jazz evolved from swing to jazz to cool jazz to bee pop and now even hip hop. Jazz is more than all that combined. 

“We obviously need to build up a community of jazz in San Diego. One way to do that is to teach people what jazz really is. A lot of people still don’t know,” Lilly said.

Devon White in the audience agreed. “Knowledge is power,” she said.

With an MA in Special Education and another in Interdisciplinary Studies, Lilly has the know-how to talk and play jazz to people of all ages, introducing them to the greats such as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Billy Holiday. She formed Jazz in the Afternoons in the spring of 2013. Lisa Washington and Thomasine Okey work alongside Lilly at the educational sessions. 

“Jazz is alive,” Washington read in her original poem called “Reawakening.”

There will be several more talks by Lilly at the La Mesa Library in the next months. Topics to be covered will include the origins and history of jazz, the jazz greats, women in jazz, subgenres of jazz and the fundamentals of jazz and education. Lilly will also teach about how to introduce jazz to the younger generations. Check the schedule at www.sdcl.org.

“In San Diego, we just get an appetizer for jazz. I want to help make it a main course,” she said.

To set up Jazz in the Afternoon session at schools and other places, contact Dar Lilly at 1-857-928-0548. She is also on Facebook at Jazz In The Afternoon An Enrichment Program.   

See original story at ecalifornian.com