When the houselights dim and stage lights go up at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on the evening of February 26, artists will stand in the wings ready to sing Ray Charles classics. Joining the jazz fans in the audience will be hundreds of high school musicians who spent the day talking with performers and watching rehearsals and sound checks, anxious to see how it all comes together.
Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating Ray Charles is a tribute to the Albany, Georgia–born legend. Clint Holmes, Nnenna Freelon, Take 6, Kirk Whalum, Shelly Berg, and students from Clark Atlanta University will capture Charles’s career, performing “I Got a Woman,” “What’d I Say,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and other hits, including, of course, the title song. The performance also closes out the second season of Jazz Roots: A Larry Rosen Jazz Series.
The Rosen series is a community partnership to educate young people. Artists visit high schools to talk about music, the industry, and their careers. “We would not be doing this program if it weren’t for this educational component,” said Tom Rowland, director of marketing and sponsorship development for the Cobb Energy Centre’s foundation. “This is about trying to show [teens] the connections between today’s music and the heritage of jazz music, the connections between jazz and rap, or jazz and other things they may currently be interested in.”
The Charles tribute is particularly appropriate for the program, explains Rosen. “Every singer you hear today has to pay tribute to Ray Charles for their style,” he says. “When you talk about Ray Charles, he did country music, he did gospel, jazz, and R&B.”
Through the series, Al Jarreau dropped by Benjamin E. Mays High School, guitarist Jonathan Butler visited Tri-Cities High, and pianist David Benoit visited Lakeside High. “He was the salt of the earth,” Rowland said of Jarreau. “He was like, ‘I’m just like you. I’m just a humble kid from Milwaukee, and I made it big, but you can too.’”
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue under the headline “Jazz Class.”