The name of Rick DellaRatta’s organization says it all: Jazz for Peace.
It was created in 2002 after the New York-based pianist-vocalist was asked to lead an international group of musicians in a concert at the United Nations. DellaRatta dubbed the ensemble Jazz for Peace and has since performed more than 650 benefit concerts under that banner, performances designed to “raise funds, publicity and awareness for outstanding organizations in need worldwide,” according to its web site. The performances have featured such jazz artists as Paquito D’Rivera, Lenny White and Dave Valentin.
Its focus, however, is not merely overseas. “In addition, Jazz for Peace performs educational programs bringing music and jazz back into the schools and donates musical instruments to underprivileged children.” Another goal: “Help to bring music back into the schools and jazz into schools (many for the first time) so that children of today will gain the exposure, understanding and acknowledgment of America's greatest art form that previous generations did not have.” We caught up with DellaRatta via e-mail and asked a few questions about Jazz for Peace.
Question: Let me start, oddly enough, by playing devil's advocate. Jazz for Peace is obviously a wonderful concept but how effective is it in bringing about real social change? I am struck by the fact that far too often it's leaders who make decisions regarding conflict, not the people themselves. How does Jazz for Peace address this reality?
DellaRatta: In order to bring about real social change, and decisions that are made by people and not leaders, you first need to have people who are empowered. During the very first interview and article about Jazz for Peace back in 2001, I made this quote: “When we fill our souls up with creativity, artistry and intelligence, things of that nature, we have a better chance at avoiding the behavior that leads to destruction.” By embracing our greatest qualities collectively such as creativity, artistry, humanity, individuality, intelligence and so on, we find common ground as people and now have a better chance to deal with the issues at hand in a more positive and constructive way.
We not only suggest that people embrace these qualities collectively, but we also walk the walk by helping outstanding organizations in need through our Benefit Concert Series, stimulate the intellect of children through our Education Series, and give the underprivileged a fair chance through our Instrument Donation Program.
Question: What are the qualities – musically, socially, historically – that make jazz so well suited for this role? After all, could there not be Klezmer for Peace?
DellaRatta: When you listen to the great American art form of jazz, you will find ALL of these qualities that I listed above. And that’s EXACTLY what makes jazz such a perfect fit! And in doing some historical research, we also found that Jazz for Peace reinforces what history has proven: Jazz creates a positive effect that transforms and unites people; thus transcending the barriers of different cultures and beliefs. The art form of jazz has the ability to effect people in profoundly positive ways. Of course, there are probably many other possibilities and variations that could also apply here and make a positive impact. But I honestly can’t think of a better one than jazz.
Question: How much of your personal and professional time is devoted to this project? Are you still able to take a quartet and play an NYC club?
DellaRatta: With recent concerts taking place as far away as Africa and Brazil, and as close to home here in the U.S. as last week’s concert in Jacksonville, Fla., Jazz for Peace has taken on a life of its own. And more often than not my answer to your question would actually be “no.” However, (last) weekend I (made) two Rick DellaRatta appearances in two different jazz clubs – one in Upstate NY and the other in Houston, Texas. Perhaps this might be the beginning of an attempt to find a place for my before Jazz for Peace life while continuing forward with this project.
Question: The year is coming to a close so it seems appropriate to ask what's on the Jazz for Peace agenda in 2010?
DellaRatta: When I was in Brazil a few weeks ago, I was watching a TV show and, in the middle of showing video footage of Bruce Springsteen to promote his upcoming concert and Michael Jackson to promote the movie about him, they showed clips from a video on YouTube of me performing John Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird,” which I had written lyrics to in promotion of my show there. I was quite surprised as well as wondering why they had chosen THAT selection, and then yesterday I found out that piece along with two originals from my new CD titled “Improvisation” (on Stella Records) were on the ballot for the Grammys. So I guess that’s potentially an exciting thing for our agenda.
In addition to concerts for outstanding organizations such as Global Community Engagement in Ft Myers, Fla., Williams Syndrome Association in St. Louis, and Sickle Cell Thalassemia Patients Network here in NYC, we are also receiving an enormous amount of overseas interest. So I suspect that Jazz for Peace may be a bit more “global” in 2010.