Christopher Dorsey’s melodious journey began in Chicago when as a tenth grader he joined his high school’s band. With undergraduate and graduate college degrees in hand, his path took him through a few South Florida schools as a music educator before landing him at Ft. Lauderdale’s Dillard High School in 2004. Our telephone interview could not contain the band director’s obvious passion unleashing musical talent in students, and so much more. He wants the black community to realize the treasure that exists in its midst, almost as much as he wants his students to embrace the life lessons being a part of a band affords them.
His arrival at Dillard was the result of others recognizing his talent; and his uncanny ability to help students maximize theirs. Equipped with a plan, Dorsey intended to take Dillard’s Jazz Ensemble to greater heights. Based on the number of awards the group has won and acclaim it routinely garners, he has already accomplished that goal; but he’s not done. As good as the band currently is, he expects next year’s ensemble to be even better.
“When I got to Dillard, I made a decision that I was going to take the program to another level and put the band on the national spotlight,” he shared.
The band has earned first place at Swing Central Jazz Competition in 2010, 2011 and 2012; and in 2011 and 2012, first place at the Essentially Ellington jazz band competition. Swing Central is a part of the annual Savannah Music Festival. Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival is an innovative jazz education event that brings high school musicians from across North America to New York City to spend three days immersed in workshops, jam sessions, rehearsals and performances.
Dorsey said the band took a break from competing this year, but will likely rejoin the process in 2017.
The collegiate experiences of his students confirm that his plan is working. Many have gone on to Julliard, Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University after leaving Dillard. “The success of the program is these students are getting to go to any school they want to go to. They’re getting very generous scholarships,” Dorsey said. “A number of them are going to Michigan State and to schools here in Florida. They’re going all over the country.” Seventeen-year old Taylor Young has been play- ing the trombone for seven years. “Being in the Dillard Jazz Ensemble is family. A lot of it is about working together and learning how to deal with each other while making beautiful music,” said Young, who hopes to attend The New School of Contemporary Music in New York after graduating from Dillard this year.
As wonderful as it is to have students attend some of the finest universities in the country, Dorsey said what’s he’s doing goes beyond that. “This is really not about music; it’s about life. I’m trying to teach life skills through music, in particular jazz,” he explained.
When asked to elaborate, he talked about the importance of hard work. “Getting my students to understand (that) sometimes in life, it’s important to work hard, but hard work doesn’t always guarantee success.” After a brief pause, he added, “But I can almost guarantee failure without it.”
The students’ hard work was on display at the March 13 performance before a packed house at Dillard. He appreciates the support from non-black audiences, but can’t help wishing African Americans would be as encouraging. “We had a big predominantly white audience, a few blacks, and that’s the parents of those kids in the band. Seventy five percent of the audience was white, and that’s the way it’s been for the past five years,” he said.
He’s clearly perturbed by the seeming apathy from the black community and the reluctance of parents to take a chance on a winning program that prepares children for college by teaching them about “being organized, taking care of business and not wasting time,” he said. “Are we getting the numbers that a nationally ranked band should be getting?”
He answers his own question. “There should be 50, 60 kids lined up trying to get into the program. A lot of times we don’t have it because of the neighborhood. You have people who are naysayers. They see the success that we’ve been having, but some parents, they’re not going to send their kids over there.”
The presence of the black community at the ensemble’s events would not only provide moral support, but also financial, as the proceeds from the performances help the program to “do some extra things with the kids, bring consultants in, help pay for extra teachers to come in,” Dorsey explained. “I want them to get the ultimate experience. I’m really trying to simulate what goes on in the colleges.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Dillard Jazz Ensemble performs at ArtsPark
WHEN: April 2 at 8 p.m. WHERE: ArtsPark at Young Circle
CONTACT: For more information, call 954-921-3500 or visit www.DCAJazz.com.