To say that Phyllis Leaverton of Urbandale is at home with jazz music is an understatement.
In fact, her home of 35 years that she shares with her husband has served as the headquarters for the Greater Des Moines Community Jazz Center (CJC) for 16 years. The CJC, for those who don’t know, is the metro’s longest-running, non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and advancement of jazz music. It provides young musicians the opportunity to develop their musical talents in a non-competitive environment; organizes monthly jam sessions at Java Joes Coffeehouse and local festivals for youth; publishes a newsletter titled “Straight Ahead;” and honors local jazz legends with its Hall of Fame, among other things.
“I don’t think very many people know that we’re here in Urbandale,” says the 79-year-old president of the CJC and longtime volunteer. “It’s a great organization for students and parents to get involved with.”
The CJC was founded in 1988 by Willie Thomas, a nationally-known jazz trumpeter and educator whose professional career spans more than 45 years. Thomas, who lives in Orcas, Wash., founded the CJC with help from a few local jazz enthusiasts, including Rod Leaverton of Urbandale, Phyllis Leaverton’s son. At the time the group was formed, Rod Leaverton was a teenager who played guitar for the Valley High School Jazz Band.
“It was Willie who had the concept for CJC, where he would work with students here on and off over the years. People kept it going, but it would have never happened without him,” says John Krantz, a Des Moines-based jazz pianist and CJC board member who founded the Hall of Fame in 2001 and operates its website.
When Thomas formed the CJC that year, Leaverton joined as a volunteer as a way to stay involved with her son’s music career. Rod was a CJC volunteer for 10 years, but his mother’s involvement in the group soon surpassed his when she and other volunteers decided to keep the CJC alive after Thomas left in 1992.
“I felt that if Rod was willing to donate his time with this program, old mom could, too. I was proud of Rod because he volunteered for the group when he was in high school and never expected to get paid for his work. That’s quite unusual for a kid that age,” she says. “So we had a meeting in my living room and decided to keep it going, and its offices have been located in my house in Urbandale ever since. Seven of the original board members are still here that attended that meeting, which speaks well of the group.”
In 1996, the CJC’s board elected Leaverton as president, a position that she has retained over the years. Always willing to give credit to others who volunteer their time and talent to maintain and grow the organization, she prefers the title of “coordinator.”
“The CJC is not about one person; it’s about the efforts of the volunteers and officers who help CJC. The board makes decisions and I like staying in the background. No one gets paid for what they do. Whatever money we make is given back to the students in the form of workshops, jam sessions and scholarships,” she says. “People like John Krantz in charge of the Hall of Fame and Abe Goldstien in charge of the newsletter and jam sessions, they’re the ones who work hard and deserve the credit.”
Leaverton’s dedication to the CJC is unlike that of most parents, says Goldstien of Des Moines, CJC vice president and jazz promoter. He calls Leaverton “the queen” and says that the group’s 80 or more members are “happy to be her subjects.”
“Most parents get involved with their children’s activities, but when those activities stop so does their involvement,” he says. “That’s not the case with Phyllis. She is still involved in the organization, and ‘involved’ is a mild way of stating it. Phyllis is the spirit of the CJC. She tirelessly gives her time and support to musicians of all ages, but it’s her ‘motherly’ approach to Des Moines’ young improvisers that really makes a difference. It’s amazing how many kids who are now in their 40s still keep in touch with her because she and CJC touched them.”
To two generations of young jazz musicians in Greater Des Moines, Leaverton is simply known as “mom.” It was a title she earned during the late 1980s while volunteering to help raise money for her son’s band trips.
“Some of them call me ‘grandma’ now,” Leaverton says with a smile. “It has been a very rewarding experience for me to watch these budding junior and senior high school musicians become involved in something they love. It is equally rewarding to hear from alums who have moved away but still take the time to keep in touch with me. In some cases, I’m even seeing their kids come up through music now.”
Krantz says every non-profit group needs someone to carry the torch and that Leaverton has dedicated much of her life to spearheading the CJC.
“She has attended hundreds of events over the years and spends countless hours answering phone calls and emails,” he says.
Goldstien says he enjoys seeing musicians return to the CJC’s monthly jam sessions, just to see their “jazz mom.”
“Quite honestly, I am not certain who is happier to see who, the former students or Phyllis,” he says.
Devoted to youth
Though the CJC hosts an adult jam session every second Saturday of the month and a performance by the CJC Big Band, which consists mostly of adults, every third Sunday of the month at Java Joes Coffeehouse in downtown Des Moines, its mission is to educate and assist young jazz musicians. The group does that through a variety of ways including hosting a jam session the first Sunday of every month at Java Joes for young players, as well as by hosting an annual Junior High Fest and High School Honor Band event.
“It is vitally important for younger musicians to have performance opportunities in a non-threatening, non-drinking environment and to interact with older jazz players in the community,” says Goldstien, who got involved with the CJC when his son was learning how to play upright bass. “Ask one of the kids that comes to the jam session how important it is, and I think they’ll tell you the jam sessions alone improved their skills, gave them confidence and connected them to a world of players they may have never had access to.”
Goldstien says that performing jazz teaches students valuable lessons such as leadership, creativity, teamwork, listening and diversity.
“I’m proud to be a part of a group that teaches those lessons,” he says.
Leaverton is also proud of the CJC’s work with local schools throughout the metro, including Urbandale’s middle and high schools. She says the CJC is fortunate to work with Myron Peterson, band director at Urbandale High School, and Daphne Monson, band director at Urbandale Middle School, both of whom help the group host its Honor Band and Junior High Fest events.
“The students learn a lot from those events, and the parents help sell food and get involved so that we can make a little money to keep us going. It’s a combined effort,” she says. “I just love the music and how it instills something in the students that sports doesn’t instill. It’s something they will take with them the rest of their life.”
Paying tribute to legends
Another way the CJC serves the local jazz community is by hosting its annual Hall of Fame and Special Recognition Awards ceremony each October as a way to recognize talented musicians who rarely get the respect that they deserve, organizers say. Since its inaugural year in 2001, dozens of legendary local jazz musicians such as Jim Oatts, Julius Brooks, Stu Calhoon, Speck Redd, Irene Myles, Bobby Dawson and Ellsworth Brown have been inducted.
“The Hall of Fame is John Krantz’s baby, and he does an outstanding job with it,” Leaverton says.
On Oct. 28, the Hall of Fame will open its doors to veteran trumpeter and educator Scott Davis as well as hand out special awards to other musicians during its annual event at Adventureland Inn in Altoona. The event kicks off with a 5 p.m. performance by the CJC Youth Combo. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the event includes food, the ceremony and live music.
“The CJC has been the perfect partner for honoring Des Moines’ jazz heroes. Over the past 11 years, we have provided fitting recognition for dozens of musicians who have dedicated their lives to this art form,” says Krantz. “Mayors Preston Daniels and Frank Cownie have always issued proclamations stating that the day of our Hall of Fame event is ‘Jazz History Day in Des Moines.’ That might not have happened without the support of a legitimate non-profit group such as the CJC.”