Seattle has been blessed with some of the best jazz instructors in the country, but their reach has been limited to students at a few schools. Now Robert Knatt and Seattle's jazz family are trying to change that through Seattle JazzEd.

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Mr. Knatt is spreading the love again.

I watched him rehearse a group of budding musicians Monday evening.

Too fast, he tells a drummer. Play it again. Better, he says, but was that luck or skill? Robert Knatt answers his own question. It was luck, do it again.

Seattle has been blessed with some of the best jazz instructors in the country, but their reach has been limited to students at a few schools and then mostly to kids whose parents could afford lessons and tutors.

Now Seattle’s jazz family is trying to change that through a program called Seattle JazzEd.

Co-founder Laurie de Koch started thinking about it two years ago. “I was really appreciating the experience my children were having at Washington Middle School and Garfield … and feeling like wow, what if this were possible for every child?

“The standards that were being set for them were very high, and they were expected to achieve,” she said. “It seemed really unfair that only a small group of kids in a few schools were getting that kind of exceptional education.”

She approached Clarence Acox, the nationally acclaimed jazz-band director at Garfield High School. He said he had been wanting to do something like that for years.

She told Shirish Mulherkar, another jazz parent, and he signed on and is co-founder and president.

They called Knatt, who had retired from Washington Middle School in 2008.

De Koch, whose sons play trombone and trumpet at Garfield, said when her kids were at Washington, she saw children from South End elementary schools, where there was no music program, come together with children whose parents had been paying for music lessons for years. The band was not representative of the school population.

Mulherkar said money should not be an issue. JazzEd charges tuition, $750 for 25 weeks, from October through May, but gives scholarships to children whose families can’t pay that much. Every family has to pay something, though.

The founders said that when they asked for support, the response from families that had experienced the Washington and Garfield programs was overwhelming.

JazzED started this fall with auditions for three ensembles; beginning (the kids have to be able to read music and play scales) and intermediate groups taught by Knatt at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center, and an advanced group directed by Acox at Cornish College of the Arts. Each group meets once a week. There are 59 children in the three ensembles, and JazzEd will hold auditions for a fourth ensemble in January. The new group will be for top musicians who want to get even better. Composer Wayne Horvitz will direct.

The kids in the first three groups come from all over city, and from Mill Creek, Issaquah, Bellevue, Shoreline. About 15 percent of kids are on scholarship, but the goal is to to have as many as half the kids on scholarship.

De Koch expects the demographics to change as word spreads to families that aren’t plugged into the music world. Eventually the founders would like to help elementary-school kids who’ve not been exposed to music.

Ultimately their work is about more than jazz trophies. Mulherkar said, “We’re not trying to create musicians, what we’re trying to do is create an atmosphere where kids can have an attachment point to the educational system,” and learn life skills.

Kids learn persistence, hard work, goal setting, teamwork. They gain confidence performing on stage.

This jazz community feels like a family. Knatt and Acox are getting help from former students who volunteer to tutor and mentor.

On Monday, Ian Zapolsky, a Garfield senior with a packed schedule of activities, was tutoring a middle-school boy on piano.

Zapolsky said, “It’s fun working with little versions of me.” And he’s pleased to be helping Mr. Knatt. “His style is rough, but it teaches you the value of working hard.”

De Koch said her older son says Mr. Knatt is the person who had had the most influence on his life.

In the rehearsal room, Knatt tells the musicians to get their parts right because “Every person is indebted to the people they are playing with.” They all need each other’s best.

That attitude of responsibility to each other suffuses the program. De Koch said, “This taps into something so good in our community and we’re spreading it.”

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or