The musician who’s the soul of Clark Atlanta’s jazz program

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For decades, James Patterson has inspired students and brought legends to his classroom

Jerry Freeman has vivid memories of the afternoon rehearsal on the Clark Atlanta University campus just over 30 years ago.

He was on trumpet as the school’s jazz orchestra applied its richly textured sound to a number of legendary jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie tunes — ”Things to Come,” “A Night in Tunisia,“ and his version of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” After painstaking hours of rehearsal, they had their fingers crossed about an upcoming live performance.

Nothing unusual about that — except that Gillespie himself was in the room.

“You have to realize that he was a trumpet God to me and still is,” said Freeman, who went on to a widely respected professional career creating high-end touring jazz bands and recording, performing and composing with the likes of John Legend and Janelle Monáe.

And to top it off, Freeman was still an undergraduate music student.

Plenty of sidelong glances were directed at the jazz legend, trying to gauge his reaction. Not to worry.

“His eyes and face lit up, based on the way we were performing,” recalls Freeman, a 1994 grad. “You could tell that he was digging what we were doing.

“That’s just something that’s always stuck with me.”

It was what another former student called a “keystone” moment — made possible by a CAU treasure, associate music professor and Jazz Orchestra/Jazz Studies director James Patterson. His broad and deep experience encompasses such roles as accomplished performer, jazz film documentarian, composer, conductor and historian.

He founded the Fletcher Henderson/Wayman Carver Jazz Festival and another concert series on campus, has performed with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra and has served as a panelist and moderator for Congressional Black Caucus events. He’s also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first Black Greek letter fraternity.

For helping thousands of students scale similar heights, Patterson earlier this year was presented with the “LeJENds of Jazz Education” award by the Jazz Education Network, an international nonprofit that works to build the jazz arts community by recognizing composers, providing scholarships to students and developing new audiences.

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Patterson’s stellar track record follows a long history of jazz musicians with ties to Clark Atlanta and its predecessors, dating back to pianist, composer and bandleader Fletcher Henderson (who graduated from Atlanta University in 1920) and composer, flutist and educator Wayman Carver (who graduated from Clark College in 1929).

(Atlanta University and Clark College consolidated in 1988 to create Clark Atlanta University.)

A thrill worth sharing

Patterson, in a recent Zoom interview, came alive when talking about his nearly lifelong love affair with bebop. He brings a solid historical sensibility to it — using the label “African Diaspora Classical Music” to place the art form in a larger context. But it’s more than that: Jazz has always appealed to him at a deeply emotional level.

“It’s a feeling,” Patterson said, a twinkle appearing in his eyes. “It sounded good and felt good. It was a thrill playing the music.”

While watching and listening to past performances, that energy is on full display, such as on a recording of his horn-backed saxophone solo at the 1988 Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. With a style that’s been described as warm, rich and organic, his two-minute turn soars, sending a shiver up the spine. It defines the totality of a Frank Foster piece, “Simone,” in the process.

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

At 85, that energy may have diminished, but the thrill shows no sign of wearing thin.

Patterson’s journey into jazz started with musical parents (his dad played in Black string bands, his mother mastered piano) and was honed by an encouraging high school music teacher, who was also a brother of jazz legend and bandleader Cab Calloway.

The Clark College 1957 music graduate came back to the institution in the early ’60s after serving in a music department chair position with Fulton County schools. He set to work teaching saxophone, flute and a variety of other woodwinds and building the school’s musical cred, founding the Clark Jazz Orchestra In 1968 as well and the school’s symphony. Course offerings expanded. The orchestra became part of the curriculum in 1976.

Patterson also taught jazz improvisation and history and conducting, among several other disciplines.

As Patterson put it, “There was a need, there was a void in the community. I felt in order to achieve as a school, we had to be marketable worldwide.”

To that end, Patterson adopted two notable long-game approaches. One involved bringing the jazz universe to Clark; the other exporting the school’s growing jazz expertise to the world.

Building a stellar reputation

The veteran instructor leveraged the roster of professionals he’d played with, including close friends such as Gillespie, bringing them to campus for clinics and performances. Members of the Marsalis family visited and performed at the college, as did Duke Ellington’s lead trumpet player Cat Anderson, along with Lionel Hampton and Clark Terry.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Sherman Irby, a 1991 Clark Atlanta graduate and lead alto saxophonist for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, remembers those occasions well.

“If you bring a master into the school to talk to and spend time with us, it’s not only going to elevate our playing but also show where we fit in in history and how to get to our goals,” Irby said.

ExploreWatch: Vintage footage of Dr. James Patterson teaching and playing

Then there was packing suitcases and instruments and heading out on tour.

The Clark Atlanta orchestra took the stage at signature jazz festivals — Montreux in Switzerland and the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, sharing the stage with Gillespie as well as Wynton, Ellis and Branford Marsalis, James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Mary Lou Williams and others. One notable domestic performance, and a point of pride for Patterson, was a smooth rendering of “Gillespiana,” a five-movement tribute to Dizzy, at a jazz educators conference in Atlanta in the early 1990s.

“We nailed all five,” said Freeman. He said the campus orchestra did most of the heavy lifting backing up such legends as trumpeter Jon Faddis performing solos.

Those occasions and others cemented the university orchestra’s worldwide reputation — a tribute to Patterson’s intense and focused teaching.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Proficiency was expected from the get-go, said those who studied under him, but there was much more, as the longtime instructor laid the foundation for improvising and developing a unique style.

To that end, former students such as Irby and Phil Davis remember painstakingly writing out scores from original music donated to the school by jazz legends. The complex and challenging work paid off: Irby has done extensive professional arranging.

“A huge learning curve,” is how Davis labels that exercise. After a 25-year road performance career, he returned to Clark Atlanta, teaching in the areas of commercial composition and music production.

Listening to and painstakingly analyzing recordings was another puzzle piece. And Patterson bathed his students in a historical and cultural appreciation for jazz, going back to its African roots.

“You don’t ‘teach’ jazz,” Patterson said. “You have to expose people to this culture. And you have to know the (performers).

“Expose people to their culture, and that will get them to the point of learning.”

A historian yet also a coach

The educational icon has lived that mantra. He has a treasure trove of jazz history: recordings, sheet music, classic instruments and the like.

Ask him about the history of jazz in Atlanta and he reels off a narrative on how it reached a peak here from the ’30s through the ’60s at such venues as the Magnolia Ballroom.

While thriving in its own way here, he said, jazz never caught on and moved into the mainstream in quite the way it did in, say, Kansas City and New Orleans.

“Although the white guys would come around and hang out at the clubs,” he said.

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In line with that historical backdrop, Patterson started the James Hardy Patterson Foundation, created to preserve and spread knowledge of African American history and culture, as well as jazz and blues.

Wendy Williams, general manager of the WCLK jazz radio station owned by Clark Atlanta, lauds him as a “walking historian” and says his reach has been long both on campus and off, including serving as a programming resource and establishing a long-running jazz festival on campus.

In the larger world, Patterson maintains a slew of involvements in professional jazz and musical organizations; including being a voting member of the Grammys. He’s also thrown his efforts behind a high school music camp.

“He’s like a Nick Saban,” said Freeman, referring to the University of Alabama’s dominating head football coach, in his recruiting of promising high school students, pushing them to the next level then watching many turn pro.

ExploreAtlanta Jazz Festival returns for Labor Day weekend

Patterson hasn’t performed as much in recent years, but his admirers said he can still mix it up.

Interim music department chair and Clark Atlanta music professor J. Robert Adams recalls watching him at a “Jazz Under the Stars” event on campus.

“He called off the beat and sat down and started playing (saxophone) and all of a sudden it was like he was one of the students. It was amazing to see someone his age still have that liveliness.”

The venerated instructor has no plans to hang up his woodwinds, despite reaching an age where many contemporaries have long since retired and having suffered an on-stage stroke in 2009 requiring hospitalization.

“I’ll keep going,” Patterson said, “until the creator says ‘enough.’”