Stephen Lee

Executive Director and Founder

Memphis Jazz Workshop

Cultivating the Future of Jazz

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The Genesis …

While living in New York, Memphis Jazz Workshop founder Stephen Lee had the privilege of meeting and befriending several talented young musicians. Not long after meeting these young musicians, Lee noticed that they were operating at a higher skill level at a very young age compared to their counterparts. They were incredible performers who were hanging with jazz legends at world-renowned jazz clubs, and most were enrolled in performing arts schools. It was very clear these musicians benefitted from extra mentorship, private lessons and group practices – things that the average public school music program cannot provide.

“Not everyone wants to be a doctor or lawyer. Some kids want to be professional musicians and make a living playing jazz, and I hope I can help them make their dreams become a reality. A big part of my job is to show students the steps they need to take to achieve their goals and use my personal experiences as an example.” Lee said. “Even if it’s not a professional pursuit, there are so many life skills that you learn in jazz improvisation – confidence, self-motivation, work ethic, time management, self-awareness, critical listening. It’s more than simply learning how to play an instrument.”

… and the Journey

After moving to Memphis in 2009, Lee taught public school for 3 years then moved on to working with nonprofit arts organizations like Visible Music School and Memphis Music Initiative. As he became more curious about how nonprofits work, he sought counsel from a friend who is an expert in that space. What he took away from those conversations was that nonprofits address a need that isn’t being attended to in the community, rather, they solve a problem. The problem he identified was there was nowhere to learn to learn the history and legacy of jazz in Memphis. He saw the need for young musicians to learn the music of jazz and performance skills specific to the genre. Lee knew that he could provide an opportunity for kids to play jazz on a more elite level. He also knew that students could benefit from the wealth of knowledge he had accumulated over the past 20-plus years as well as his connections to some of the genre’s most
talented and well-respected artists.

Seeing that learning gap, and armed with confidence in his own abilities, Lee knew that he was ready to transition into something more impactful in music education. He wanted to make a difference in the lives of young musicians. From there, Memphis Jazz Workshop was formed in 2016.

The first camp was held in summer 2017 at Visible Music School. It was free of charge and catered to 20 students. Since that first camp, MJW has experienced steady growth. Enrollment has doubled year over year and there are now 70 students in the after-school program and 80 students in the summer program.

MJW has experienced growth in other ways as well, having performed at approximately 65 events around the city since its launch. In addition, every high school senior enrolled in the program has graduated and entered college. And, as of 2019, MJW has partnered with the Memphis Mayor’s MPLOY summer jobs program, which paid 50 students to participate in the summer workshop.

MJW has come a long way in a short time, but the journey is just beginning. The organization seeks continued growth in engagement, enrollment and support from the community. The bigger vision will revolutionize learning in Memphis as Lee looks to one day build a performing arts school which will rival similar the Duke Ellington School of Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. or Lincoln Center School in New York.

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