Since moving to New York City, jazz musician Kenny Rampton hasn’t been able to perform in his native Las Vegas very often. But he’s made those rare hometown gigs count—the past two have inspired him to create a new organization dedicated to stirring interest in jazz music in Las Vegas.
The nonprofit Jazz Outreach Initiative (jazzoutreachinitiative.org), which aims to promote the great American art form through education, live performance and advocacy, is rooted in many things: Rampton’s unique musical growth in Las Vegas, his parents’ roles as local music educators and the work of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the cultural institution for which he has played trumpet since 2010. But the spark truly happened before the JALC Orchestra’s 2016 tour stop at the Smith Center, where Rampton participated in a Q&A with about 250 high-schoolers. Their earnest interest in playing jazz moved Rampton to tears.
“I saw myself in every one of them,” he says during a recent phone call while on tour. “I remember when I was that kid and looking up to someone in the real world doing it … and getting to talk to professional musicians. I see how they’re looking at me and I realize I’m on the other side of that coin. So I want to make a positive difference in their lives and inspire them to follow this path of being a musician.”
From there, Rampton sought help to encourage Las Vegas high school orchestras to enter Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington jazz band youth competition in NYC. When 18 applied—up from zero the year before—the head of education at JALC told Rampton he had enough bands to start up a regional Ellington festival in Las Vegas. After coming back home to sit in with UNLV’s Jazz Ensemble 1 during a February concert dedicated to Sir Duke—and then hosting no fewer than 10 jazz workshops with local high schools—Rampton knew he had to make it happen.
The only problem: He didn’t know how. “In speaking with some of my family members, we decided to start an organization to have something in place, [where] to channel funds through to make the fest happen,” he says. After placing friends and family as officers, JOI—named largely to create an optimistic-sounding acronym—was born.
In a short period of time, the Essentially Ellington Regional has been set for January 2018 at UNLV; Rampton has helped start a jazz program at the Nevada School of the Arts, where he once studied; and work is being done on creating a concert and lecture series, where established native musicians can pay it forward to a younger generation of players. Rampton is even hopeful about finding a place where students can perform. “If we consciously create venues and programs and festivals, the music will start to thrive more than ever,” he says. “That’s my goal: help the community and jazz to thrive in Las Vegas.”