Earlier this month, trumpeter Clyde Kerr Jr. resigned from his 16-year position heading the jazz program at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA). In addition to Kerr, flautist/teacher Kent Jordan also verbally offered his resignation.
"You know what this is all about?" asks Kerr. "I want respect for that department. I just want the students to be treated with respect and given their due."
Jordan declined to discuss his reasons for resigning. NOCCA principal John Otis says he doesn't want to discuss the specifics of the departures, but says he has respect for both teachers.
"This might sound canned, but I really mean it," says Otis. "I've worked with both gentlemen and through that experience I can say honestly that I really appreciate their contributions to our program. Nothing lasts forever, and sometimes it's hard to know how long a situation might take to come to an end."
Kerr took over the slot in 1986, following the departure of pianist Ellis Marsalis. The trumpeter says he became disillusioned with what he calls the school's lack of appreciation for him, the program and jazz in general. "We are still struggling to have this music come into its own to be respected as a serious art form," says Kerr. "If it takes for me to do what I did in order to get that respect from the school ... then it's all worth it."
NOCCA's jazz program boasts a distinguished roster of alumni and teachers and is widely considered a factor in propelling the school to national prominence -- and the school's move from its old Perrier Street digs to the sparkling new building on the riverfront in the Faubourg Marigny. Student jazz combos perform both locally and around the country, often to benefit NOCCA.
"The jazz department at that school is the reason why that school is what it is and the building and all that," Kerr says. "Everybody in that school -- all the departments -- reaps the benefits of the efforts of the jazz department. So I don't like the fact that we were like little whatnots on a shelf that you just take them off when you want to play with them and use them and then you put them back."
Kerr says the last straw came this past spring, when he was excluded from a meeting attended by some members of the music department and administration that resulted in the demotion of Jordan from head of the music department to a teacher on the faculty. "The whole process wasn't handled correctly," says Kerr. "The whole deal was that he didn't get a fair hearing and nobody included me in that."
Kerr has also been dealing with numerous health problems. "I knew if I went back there I would really get sick," he says. "I had no more to give. I hated leaving my students behind but they understand. They know exactly what I'm talking about."
To fill its immediate needs, NOCCA has hired three well-known musicians -- trumpeter Nicholas Payton, pianist Michael Pellera and bassist Chris Severin -- to join the faculty on an interim basis. Both Payton and Severin are NOCCA alumni. Payton, who studied under Kerr, will act as the program's "master teacher in jazz music." Otis says he recognizes that Payton's heavy bookings often take him out of the city, but says they've worked out a "fairly regular schedule" for the Grammy-winning trumpeter.
"We're rolling with it," says Otis, who acknowledges he tried to lure Kerr back to NOCCA by offering him incentives like decreased hours.
Meanwhile, Kerr, a teacher of 38 years, is staying in academia. He'll be teaching jazz at NOCCA Prep, a school for sixth through eighth graders housed in the former Live Oak Middle School on Constance Street.
"It's in worse condition than the old NOCCA when we left," exclaims Kerr, who looks forward to both the building and the program being operational in October. "In teaching jazz and the way jazz developed, it came out of places where a lot of people wouldn't go. That's the whole history of jazz. I can teach music in any conditions. I've taught in schools under the stairwells, in cafeterias and closets. It's all about the people involved with what you're doing."