It’s all about the children. We need them to do right, to stay in school. That’s what’s important. That’s my message. That’s what I want people to remember. – James Brown, 2003
It’s easy to hear the music through the thin walls of Augusta’s C.H. Terrell Academy, a small privately funded school just a few blocks from James Brown’s childhood home. The hard snap of the snare, keeping time on the one, and a slinky bass line announce the song as “Soul Power,” Brown’s funk-fueled anthem of emancipation and empowerment. With a practiced ease, the guitar comes in, followed by hard-hitting horns. It’s a big band, a musical requirement for the complex composition. Each part is essential and precision is paramount. Successfully channeling the Godfather is a lot to ask of any ensemble, but it’s particularly demanding for a band without a single member older than 18.
Originally envisioned as a summer music program, the James Brown Academy of Musik Pupils, or J.A.M.P., was organized by Deanna Brown Thomas (James Brown’s daughter and president of the James Brown Family Foundation) and Kimberly Baxter-Lee (administrator of C.H. Terrell Academy and what’s now known as the James Brown Academy of Music). The academy uses the music of James Brown to teach students not only how to play, but about history and heritage as well. “I knew that I wanted a fine art component, a music component, at the school,” Baxter-Lee says. “So when this opportunity came up, and we saw what we could do with it, it just seemed natural.”
Thomas says the goal of the James Brown Family Foundation has always been educational. With J.A.M.P., she saw an opportunity to introduce the first generation coming of age after her father’s death to his significant songbook, as well as his ideas on education and a life well lived. “You put that knowledge and discipline into these kids, and it becomes about more than just the music,” she says. “It’s his teaching, his philosophy that is still going forth. It’s those old-school principles. It’s passing on a legacy. This, for me, has been a bright light.”
Though raised in a musical household, Thomas never became a performer. Her connection to her father’s music is as a fan. She knew that in order for the J.A.M.P. program to succeed, she would need to bring in someone who not only possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of James Brown’s music, but also shared his philosophy on the responsibility of performance.
Enter Keith Jenkins. An Augusta native, Jenkins was tapped by James Brown to play guitar in his band when Jenkins was not much older than his J.A.M.P. charges. For 13 years, he backed the Godfather of Soul, whom he still refers to as Mr. Brown. James affectionately dubbed him “Doogie,” but nowadays the children respectfully call him Mr. Keith—or maestro.
Jenkins initially considered the J.A.M.P. job a temporary engagement, an opportunity to talk to kids about the music he loved and perhaps teach them a stripped-down version of “Pass the Peas.” “I knew this was something he would have wanted us to do, but I also thought it would be kind of a one-off,” he says. “But I figured out pretty quickly that Deanna was in this for the long haul.”
At first, Jenkins says, the songs were simplified. But as the band progressed and, more importantly, connected with the songs, he began altering the arrangements. Soon, they were playing the music as it was written by Brown. Jenkins says his approach to musical education comes from the only formal instruction he ever received. “This is how he would get it done,” Jenkins says with a laugh. “I mean, I don’t know how real band directors do it. I only know the one way—his way.”
Jenkins says that although he’s taught the band how to play and what it means to perform as a professional, he credits J.A.M.P. co-founder Thomas with giving the group opportunities to see, feel and understand what it means to be a working musician. Be it arranging studio time to record a Christmas single or securing a spot playing for patrons before a Prince concert in Chicago, Thomas manages while Jenkins leads the band.
“Deanna has done so much,” Jenkins says. “She’s booked them so many places, and they’ve had so much exposure that they have become veterans. They have been in the studio. They’ve traveled. They are professionals, at least in the way they conduct themselves. Sure, they sometimes get awed, but they always remain cool.”
A true grassroots operation, the school and band live a hand-to-mouth existence. Thomas says that sometimes the association with James Brown is as much a curse as it is a blessing. She feels like people assume that the connection to a legend means fiscal security. The truth, she says, is much less glamorous. Instruments and equipment are visibly battered and patched and something as simple as a malfunctioning mic stand is a cause for concern. Still, although the days of private jets and police escorts are long gone, Thomas believes the spirit of James Brown remains. “There’s an energy my father had that I see in these kids,” she says. “There is never a dry eye for me. He channels through every one of these kids. It comes out of them every time they perform.”
In the end, though, the proof is not in anything observed by Jenkins, Thomas, parents, the staff or the audience. It’s in the way the kids relate to the music. It’s in the lessons it teaches them. It’s in the difference between the people they were before becoming acquainted with James Brown and the people they’ve grown into today. “Being in the band and having … the opportunity to play with different musicians and the opportunity to really hear what music is all about has meant a lot to me,” says Neema Colon, J.A.M.P.’s bass player and occasional vocalist. “It’s taught me what being part of something is all about. It’s about one band, one sound.”
Colon, one of the program’s success stories, had never picked up a bass until a year ago. In a matter of months, she’s become an astonishing player, locking in expertly with those distinctive Brown grooves. Jenkins laughs when her talent comes up. “They tell me she is 14,” he says. “I’m not so sure about that.”
Jenkins says that while the kids are still kids (never quite adhering to Brown’s strict policy of silence during rehearsal and performance), he recognizes how playing in the band has encouraged them and helped them develop.
Kevin Reed—J.A.M.P.’s tall and lean drummer—has only a few months left in the band. He’s already 18 and will soon graduate from the school and program. He says his initial challenge was learning to play the James Brown way after growing up playing gospel. Later, though, he found he had more significant lessons to learn—and pass on. “I think it was always more than learning to play these songs,” he says. “It was learning to be an example. It was learning to act the way everyone in the band needs to act. It’s giving them something to follow, whether they are playing or not.”
Jenkins says it’s this kind of attitude that would’ve made James Brown proud. Brown considered an educational program for children an important part of his legacy. “What he believed in was giving people a chance,” Jenkins says. “He gave me a chance. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here. We’re giving these kids a shot at something better.”