One block south of the Cottage Grove Green Line station, the history and the future of Chicago music converge. Woodlawn’s Grand Ballroom, known as the Loeffler Building in earlier years, has played host to some of the greats of American jazz—Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, and Charlie Parker, to name a few. Today the building leases ground-floor space to the two-year-old Coltrane Conservatory of the Arts, a jazz school founded and run by Joe Pace III.
The conservatory functions as a nonprofit, powered by the dedication of Pace and five other volunteers. Specializing in the instruction of all things jazz, it offers lessons for piano, saxophone, trumpet, guitar, and percussion, Pace’s specialty. Those who have never touched an instrument start off with the basics—scales, notation, methods—while more advanced students jump right into complex theory.
Stopping by one Saturday morning, I opened the door to the pulsing beat of hand drums. Behind the closest drum sat a student working on the rhythm from “King Solomon’s Marbles” by the Grateful Dead. Pace and another instructor sat with drums on either side of the young musician, providing the base beats. The student’s mother and several others looked on, heads gently nodding to the beat.
Although lessons are offered throughout the week, Saturday is the day at 6353 South Cottage Grove. Throughout the morning, students come in from Woodlawn and beyond for the weekly percussion program, which is free after a small registration fee. Saturday evening concludes with a jazz jam session open to everyone with an appreciation for jazz and their mother, as the website has it (“So, come on out! Bring someone with you. Let’s have a good time”).
But to classify Coltrane Conservatory as a jazz school would be an absurd oversimplification. One can get a sense of the spread of the organization’s objectives and interests from the strata of papers covering Pace’s desk: calculators, biographies (The Echo of Dealey Plaza), booklets on community policing, corners of posters for political candidates peeking out from underneath, a copy of the Bhagavad Gita sitting on a trigonometry textbook.
The conservatory also runs a tutoring program that garners just as many students as the music programs. Pace believes the two go hand-in-hand. “Music seems to be intrinsic to the human, and we believe that it’s also very therapeutic. So math, biology, and writing—they’re all the more palatable when music is involved in the learning experience,” he says.
After a pause he added, “It’s also an attempt, albeit not nearly enough to make up the difference, but it’s an attempt to help to bridge that gap.”
According to Pace, the “gap” is a consequence of the CPS’s disregard for the arts (just this year, the barely existent provision for music education was cut by a whopping fourteen percent), which he calls an “epic mistake” on the part of the city of Chicago. But it was this same gap that encouraged him to take the initiative to create his own model for music education in the first place.
“Coltrane Conservatory is the brainchild of twenty-five years,” said Pace. It all began decades ago, during his time in the Navy, when he sustained a serious injury to his hand. When he was finally able to pick up his drum sticks again, several years later, he spent time playing professionally before realizing that the classroom was his true calling. Though he had received a B.A. in paleoanthropology from Roosevelt University years earlier, he returned to his studies, this time focusing on music instruction, at Chicago State University. He taught mathematics at the elementary and high school levels before opening the conservatory in 2013.
Pace’s inspiration to open the conservatory also came, in part, from the conviction that he could provide a service to the community. “I wanted to extend to young people an opportunity to plug into something they could say yes to, especially given the many things going on in the community that people find it very difficult to say no to,” he said.
Beyond instruction, Coltrane Conservatory serves as a gathering place for the community at large. The glass-paned storefront lends itself to this end, welcoming curious glances inward from passers-by; the large white letters on the windows remind them that the space is “Free To The Public” (but also that “Donations Are Welcome”).
Although July marks only the second anniversary of the organization’s existence (and February marks its first full year on Cottage Grove), the space is already developing its presence and programs—on its own time. Pace, whose hands are quite full between music instruction, tutoring, and the finances of running a nonprofit, is hoping to find a volunteer to coordinate art exhibitions and poetry recitals. Equipment is slowly gathering by the back wall of Pace’s office in preparation for a recording studio.
What Pace promises his students won’t see in the course of expansion is any sort of drift away from the conservatory’s initial objective. Above all else, he emphasizes that the current rate for lessons ($15 per hour for saxophone and guitar; $12.50 per hour otherwise) will remain the same. “We keep it like that because we want it to be a service. We want everyone to be able to afford it. Most people are able to come up with that if they sincerely want to learn to play an instrument,” he says.
The conservatory does not yet have the financial leeway to offer compensated positions, as revenue from lessons goes toward rent and ensuring that the lights stay bright, the space warm. But several sheets of paper lie scattered across Pace’s desk; across each, a name is scrawled, with qualifications and a number at which to phone back below. The papers, otherwise unremarkable, list names of people who have called to express interest in working for the conservatory. If this year’s grant proposals and recording studio find as much success as Pace’s program has in just a year and a half, he may be able to return those calls sooner rather than later.