Dorsey kids with the band

by Liz Fixsen.
With jazz, the earlier you start, the better. There is so much to learn, beginning with the technical mastery of the instrument. Then you need to learn the repertoire and the various styles. And it doesn’t hurt to take in some theory about scales and chord progressions. Finally, you face the challenge of improvisation.

These are all more reasons that one mission of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance is to foster youth jazz education, which it does through its “Jazz for Kids” program and by awarding scholarships to worthy youth who are studying and performing jazz.

Alto saxophonists Ebban and Ephraim Dorsey, siblings who are 12 and 13 years old, respectively, are prime examples of youthful performers worthy of support. Both received the Next Generation scholarship award presented by the BJA at its 2015 fundraiser at Caton Castle. The youngsters also represented the BJA at Artscape 2015 with a performance in the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance tent.

It was particularly gratifying to see the number of BJA member musicians and others who turned out to support the Dorsey kids’ first show as band leaders and headliners at Caton Castle on Saturday, August 13th. The two middle-schoolers held the stage with poise and aplomb, backed by a band of Baltimore’s finest: Brian Kooken on guitar, Greg Hatza playing keyboard, and Robert Shahid on drums, all regular performers at the club.

I missed the first set, but the second set included a range of favorite standards, starting with Joe Henderson’s “Recordame.” Ebban’s solo had a lovely melodic coherence: she set up an idea and pursued it with variations. Ephraim was featured on the Erroll Garner ballad “Misty” and gave a respectable interpretation with nice embellishments, particularly on a long solo coda. This was followed by the beautiful Lee Morgan tune, “Ceora,” with its tricky trills. The band then ripped into a lively rendition of “Tenor Madness.” The program continued with Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower,” “Giant Steps” and “Blues in the Closet,” with Ebban quoting “Blue Monk” on her solo. I heard later that during the first set Ephraim had sung and scatted on one of his favorite tunes.

It was clear that the two kids were seasoned performers. Both displayed considerable proficiency on their instruments, with great tone and pitch control. And they know their repertoire: there wasn’t a false note, and their improvisations followed the harmonic progressions with well-thought-out melodic patterns.

The pair began their musical career in elementary school bands, which was natural for kids coming from a musical family—their dad, Ezra, plays jazz trumpet and baritone sax, their brother plays bass, and their older sister played saxophone. Often on a Sunday afternoon they will hold an informal family jam session. Their mom, Bernadine, is their tireless supporter and promoter. The pair have won several awards and scholarships, including two scholarships to Peabody Institute, the Rosa Pryor Scholarship (with a trophy), and the above-mentioned award from the BJA. Certainly they are a credit to their teachers, including Carl Grubbs (they are regular participants in his jazz summer camp) as well as Craig Alston, Eric Kennedy, and, at Peabody Institute, saxophonist Ian Sims and bassist Blake Meister.

Present in the audience were a number of musicians with whom the Dorsey kids have played, including Meister and Sims, multi-instrumentalist Warren Wolf, drummer Quincy Phillips, bass clarinetist Todd Marcus, keyboardist Lafayette Gilchrist, and saxophonist Corinthia Cromwell. WEAA’s Doc Manning was also there, as was BJA board member and jazz promoter Vernard Gray. The club was packed and the crowd gave the band and the kids hearty applause after each number. Ephraim and Ebban have sat in with the band on past occasions at Caton Castle, which shares the credit for helping to encourage these two young jazz prodigies.

In an interview posted in Baltimore County Public Schools’ “Student Spotlight,” Ephraim says he would like to travel the world playing music and put out an album with all his own compositions. Ebban says she would like to restore the popularity of jazz and use her musical talents (she also plays classical piano) to influence younger children. She also says, “I would like to play a song with all of the famous jazz musicians together at one time.” She and her brother took a step closer to that dream, playing a whole evening of tunes with some pretty famous jazz musicians. It will be exciting to watch these two talented youngsters grow and mature, gain sophistication and self-confidence, and take their places in Charm City’s pantheon of jazz greats.

[Pictured: Ebban and Ephraim Dorsey with Brian Kooken (left), Greg Hatza (middle), and Robert Shahid (right).]