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Jazz Odyssey

Dunbar Ensemble Makes Its Mark in Baltimore and Beyond

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Dunbar Jazz Ensemble

By James D. Dilts | Posted

A long corridor leads to the band room at Dunbar High School where director Charles Funn is rehearsing the 18-member Dunbar Jazz Ensemble. The room is bare-bones functional: some risers, chairs, and music stands. Clothing and instruments lie scattered about. Funn, a tall, handsome man with graying hair tied in a pigtail, sits in front of a desk, legs extended, doing what he seems to love to do best: teach kids to play jazz.

Actually, right now he is massaging his temples. "Saxophones," he says at last to that section, "I need to have the correct notes. Don't be afraid to play. You have to play the wrong notes before you play the right ones." Under his breath, he adds, "And Lord knows you play enough of the wrong ones.

"The only difference between you and professional musicians," he continues, aloud, "is the age and the experience, the sustaining power and the ideas."

They begin again. The tune is "This Bass Was Made for Walking" by the late trumpeter/arranger Thad Jones. "I don't want him spinning in his grave," Funn cautions. As they move into a new part of the score, counterpunching trumpets are pitted against the trombones--not easy stuff to play. The band sputters to a stop in response to a deprecating wave of the director's hands.

"Trumpets, don't analyze, go with your intuition," Funn says. "'Overanalysis leads to paralysis.' Who said that? Trudeau? We have to play this five more times before we play it in public. In public, not in pubic. After this, we're going to play something hard--like a scale.

"Don't play the notes, folks, play the music. Come on, this is Kansas City blues, Benny Moten, Mayor Pendergast, the Club Hey Hey."

A soloist has barely begun when Funn waves the band to a halt again. "We aim to keep it in the key of E-flat, dear," he tells the female trumpet player. "Loud, though," he adds, encouragingly.

Funn, 49, is a working musician, dancer, singer--and full-time improviser. A career teacher in the Baltimore school system, he established the Dunbar Jazz Ensemble in 1995. Last January, the group played with Wynton Marsalis at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and at the prestigious International Association of Jazz Educators convention in New York, an event that features appearances by top professional musicians. In March, it won first place at a high-school band competition at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, with renowned trombonist Steve Turre as the judge.

Funn, who also heads Dunbar's concert and marching bands, is proud of the Jazz Ensemble's accomplishments, but he can't resist a little waggish self-effacement. The ensemble "is practical as far as PR for the school is concerned," he says. "Also, they all fit on one bus."

Originally from Prince Frederick in Southern Maryland, where his father was principal of the all-black high school, Funn first came to Baltimore to study instrumental music at what was then Morgan State College. He obtained both his bachelor's and master's degrees at Morgan and began teaching at the elementary level in the city school system. Later he graduated to high schools, where he's been ever since, except for a 30-month leave of absence in the late 1980s when he appeared in a couple of off-Broadway shows, Satchmo and Harlem Suite, with which he also went on the road. Funn plays trombone locally in Gene Walker's big band and has appeared with the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Dells, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Wonder during their visits to the Baltimore-Washington area. His two sons are also musicians.

The Jazz Ensemble's leader sees his role much as a parent might: preparing children for the challenges they'll face in all areas of life. "At the beginning, the kids were interested in jazz," Funn says. "We teach them how to play, improvise, and learn their instrument. They have to maintain a B average to be in the band. I ask them to do so much down here [in the band room] that it's easier for them to get good grades. If a kid can improvise off a chord change, that's a higher order of skill. One of the greatest things a human being can do is to create something."

The members of the Dunbar Jazz Ensemble, dressed uniformly in black shirts and pants with colorful ties, are full of energy but all business a few weeks later as they took the stage on an early-June Sunday afternoon at the Arch Social Club at Pennsylvania and North avenues. They rip through their big-band repertoire of Ellington, Basie, and Kenton, propelled with power and showmanship by drummer Rashard Fountain, as Funn, similarly attired, keeps up a running repartee with the crowd and danced with Gillespian grace in front of the band.

The Arch Social Club began in 1912 and moved to its current location, the former Wilson Restaurant and Theater, in 1972. The club's leaders are doing their best to counter a dwindling roster of members, down from a high of 200 to their present 60, Arch President James "Big Jim" Staton says. One new idea is to leaven the entertainment mix of national artists (the club's hosted Houston Person and Etta Jones, and organist Jimmy McGriff) and local talent with high school bands once a month.

They've hosted Douglass and Poly ensembles as well as Dunbar's band, Staton says. "It's good for the kids and it helps them raise money. We've raised $2,500 since March. The club pays the band $300, plus we take up a collection of around $200." The club donated $900 recently to send another high school band to New York for a competition.

Between tunes, Funn works the well-dressed and sympathetic crowd. "We try to get out and play two or three times a week," he says. "Consider this your band. If you're having a barn-raising or a barn-burning, a backyard party or a street party, you can come and get us to play. The idea is to keep the kids on the instruments and me off the streets. We played a barbecue yesterday, a church service this morning, and this evening we're here. All of these students, when they graduate, get music scholarships that get them out of Baltimore and into the world outside."

That's exactly where 17-year-old Brandon Thompson aims to go. A heavyset trumpet player with a serious demeanor, Thompson hopes to graduate from Dunbar next year with a music scholarship and move, perhaps to the Eastern Shore, maybe out of Maryland entirely.

"There's so many crazy people here," he says. "We'll be coming back on the bus sometimes late at night and we see these kids out playing in the streets. I don't see how their parents let them out."

Thompson, who lives with his grandmother and father in the Loch Raven area, has been with the Dunbar Jazz Ensemble for five months. "The jazz band travels a lot. We went to Rockville--I had never been there before--and to the Eastern Shore. I missed out when the band went to New York in January."

The young musician listens to jazz (Duke Ellington, Wynton Marsalis, and Freddie Hubbard), gospel (Shirley Caesar, BeBe and CeCe Winans), and R&B (Monica and Brandy). Besides the afternoon band rehearsals several times a week, he practices long tones and scales at home in the evenings.

"Mr. Funn puts a lot of effort into the band," Thompson says. "Actually, I don't have time to be out in the street."

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