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Greenwich Musician Spreads a Passion for Jazz

GREENWICH, Conn. -- When the jazz saxophonist and Greenwich resident Bennie Wallace was growing up in Chattanooga, T.N., he received a gift from music teacher Chet Hedgecock. And these days, he's doing all he can to pass that gift along to young students in Fairfield County as the founder of Backcountry Jazz .

With his music-loving dog Maya by his side, Wallace sat in the living room of the backcountry home he shares with his wife, Jeanette, and recalled the time Hedgecock ”piled a bunch of us into a station wagon and drove us 100 miles to see Count Basie play. It was a life-changing experience, and that life-changing experience is what I want to try to give kids in Bridgeport, Norwalk, Greenwich and all over the area.”

Founded in 2006, the non profit Backcountry Jazz aims to stimulate communities educationally and socially while building future audiences for that unique American artform, jazz.

“People ask us what we do in a nutshell: We play concerts in Greenwich to raise money to teach music in Bridgeport and work with kids,” said Wallace. “It’s important for kids to get into music … it teaches them to think in an abstract form.”

Friday morning Wallace was setting out to award outstanding students with new instruments at the Student Opportunities for Arts Reinforcement (SOARS) public school summer music camp in Bridgeport. The camp was established through Backcountry Jazz’s partnership with Bridgeport teacher Tanya Kelly and Kids Empowered By Your Support, or KEYS . There is no charge for kids to attend the camp.

Wallace felt a sense of urgency when he learned that students who play music typically rent, so when the school year ends, the music does also. “This is probably the most concentrated musical growing experience they have throughout the year,” said Wallace. “These are great kids, but [they] can be in danger out there on the streets. [The camp is] a safe haven, a nurturing environment, and I’m just so proud of it.”

Wallace and other Backcountry Jazz artists hold workshops at the camp and at schools throughout Fairfield County. The artists include pianists Donald Vega , Kenny Barron , Mulgrew Miller and Hank Jones ; bassists Danton Boller and Peter Washington ; alto saxophonist and flautist Jerry Dodgion; vibraphonist Steve Nelson ; double bassist Eddie Gomez ; drummers Willie Jones III , Alvin Queen and Herlin Riley ; and trumpet player Joe Magnarelli.

Recently, Backcountry Jazz formed a partnership with John Yoon, director of the Greenwich High School instrumental music program, to bring artists and programs into Greenwich schools.

Wallace wants to expand Backcountry Jazz youth concerts to Bridgeport, Greenwich, Stamford and Norwalk and increase interaction between school systems. “We’re mixing up the gumbo,” he said with a grin.

Have you been to a Backcountry Jazz concert? Do you think it is important to instill a love for music at an early age? Leave a comment below.

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