LaGuardia High School, originally called the High School of Music & Art, is New York City's public school for young people gifted in the arts. It was the inspiration for the 1980 hit movie "Fame."
I was at the school last night as they celebrated the 40th anniversary of the school's jazz education program, which when it began in the early 1970s, was the first accredited program of its kind in any secondary school in the U.S. My friend Justin DiCioccio was the teacher who began that program, and he was honored at last night's gala celebration.
Note: The New York Times has a nice profile in the Jan. 30 issue. Click here to see it.
Justin loves jazz and he loves teaching young people. He still teaches -- now at Manhattan School of Music, where he is the Associate Dean and Director of Jazz Studies. And he travels literally around the world teaching and giving clinics. His excellence as a teacher has been recognized many times, including being inducted into the Jazz Educators Hall of Fame in 2001. His love of jazz is so infectious that he was named last year as the Cultural Jazz Ambassador to Tbilisi, Georgia. The jazz ambassador program, from the U.S. Dept. of State, uses the arts as a way to bridge gaps and establish connections with other countries. Georgia, a part of the old Iron Curtain, was one of those places where jazz had been banned under the old regime.
I met Justin back in 1987, when I was hired by a major PR agency to run the McDonald's business. One of the programs McDonald's sponsored was the high school jazz competition and Justin, working as a consultant, directed the program. I must admit it was my favorite project for two reasons -- I love jazz, and Justin was such a pleasure to work with. He brought in name musicians to work with the kids -- Branford Marsalis, Steve Turre, Dave Valentin, Red Rodney and others. And he gave so much of himself to the program and to the kids. Much more than he was being paid to do. I was able to convince the McDonald's people to support and expand the program.
When I left that job to start my own agency, the person who took over for me didn't have the passion for the music, and she let McDonald's drop the program within two years. I tried to help Justin find a new sponsor, but I just couldn't get it done. But Justin eventually got the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences -- the Grammy people -- to do a similar program, which to this day is run by Justin.
I'm far from the only person who admires Justin for his lifetime of dedication to jazz. At last night's celebration, 30 of the top names in jazz came together to perform in honor of my friend. Names like LaGuardia H.S. alumni (and former students of Justin's) Marcus Miller, Kenny Washington, Arturo O'Farrill, Don Byron and others who may not be as well known, but whose names can be seen on countless recordings. And others who weren't taught by Justin, but have worked with him -- Latin jazz master Paquito D'Rivera, guitarist John Pizzarelli and trumpeter Jimmy Owens, who graduated LaGuardia before Justin had arrived.
It was a great night and a fitting way to salute THE jazz teacher, with so many of his students and friends playing for him. I'm proud to call Justin my friend and I was thrilled to be part of the crowd gathered in his honor. And I'll see him again tonight, as he goes back to his role as teacher, conducting the Manhattan School of Music big band as they debut student compositions.
Justin with former student, drummer Kenny Washington