30 Seconds with Jazz Artist Jawanza Kobie

This musician wants to make his art more accessible. His residency at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia may be just the ticket.

North Wilmington resident Jawanza Kobie wants to introduce young people to jazz music, and may have gotten his chance. He recently earned a coveted jazz residency at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Kobie, 61, is a retired electrician who has written and played music on the side. He released his first album, “Feels Better Than It Sounds,” in 2013. The Kimmel Center has paired Kobie with a playwright to help him write a story, which he will then set to music. Look for three performances at the Kimmel this spring, ending May 13.

DT: Congratulations on your residency. Did you have to audition?
: It was a competition among 29 people, and we submitted our music to the judges, and that’s the way we were selected. There were people from Berklee College of Music, Juilliard and other schools. There was a panel of judges from the Kimmel that selected the three of us for this particular year.


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DT: Have you been involved with jazz your entire life?
: I’ve been at it a loooong time. I came out of Berklee in 1979. Even before that, I was scouted by a record company. 


DT: What did Berklee teach you about music?
: I was working as an electrician. I was doing music, too, but I worked as an electrician to eat. (Laughs.) Then I learned about Berklee and decided to go there. That was the best decision of my life. Berklee taught me theory and everything like that, but what it really taught me is how to listen. I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate some of the bebop stuff like Bud Powell. 


DT: Could this residency take you to another level?
: I’m hoping it will. I’m very excited about this. I can’t even put into words how honored and grateful and humbled I am that I was chosen. I play around the area, and a lot of things I do are playing standards or some of my originals. But this is a different type of writing. This is the type of writing I like to do because I came out of a composition major. It’s writing in the genre of jazz, but expanding on an area of jazz and making it more inclusive. 

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DT: You said you want to make jazz more inclusive. How?
: I know how I was introduced to jazz, but that was a different era. Young people today are more visual with avenues like YouTube and Instagram. So what I would like to do for young people is to work on another sense, besides hearing the jazz music. I want to use a narrative to describe some of the things we are doing, like a story line like “Peter and the Wolf” and “Carnivore of the Animals.” Basically, I want to tell a story. I remember how fascinated I was with some of the music growing up. Leonard Bernstein used to do a series every couple of months called “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” with the New York Philharmonic. I thought that would be interesting if we could do that with jazz. 

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