AWF CEO Jennie Cashman Wilson talks about the Power of the Arts and Nurturing the Next Generation of Musicians

With just over a month to go until our five year anniversary gig on 11th May at Bush Hall our CEO, Jennie Cashman Wilson caught up with her pal, Nour Saleh from Art Breath to talk all things Abram Wilson Foundation, the power of the arts, jazz and nurturing the next generation of musicians (tickets here).

Art Breath: Could you share with us why you started the Abram Wilson Foundation, and what do you hope the Foundation can achieve?

I set up the Abram Wilson Foundation in 2012. In many ways it was a love letter to my late husband who passed away in June of that year. He was a brilliant, critically, acclaimed award winning jazz trumpeter from New Orleans. I’d worked with him on gigs and music education projects from the first day we met. He was incredibly inspiring and so many people were touched by his music and his passion; I didn’t want to lose that energy and so I created the Abram Wilson Foundation for Creative Arts to continue his legacy and finish what we had started.

My hope for the Foundation is that we inspire the next generation to achieve their greatness through music.

Art Breath: The Foundation works in schools as well as nurturing artists, what are the different projects you are working on?

We have our arts education programme, Achieve Your Greatness which we have been piloting in our two partnering secondary schools in Greenwich for the last two years. We’ve been targeting 11-12 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds who have been identified by their teachers as not fitting in, at risk of bullying or exclusion and not seen to be engaging in the arts. It combines music with theatre, dance and creative writing and gives participants access to high, quality professional artists who are trained in a range of disciplines including jazz, theatre direction, acting, creative writing, dance, and visual arts. We focus on skills development under our 5Cs, creativity, confidence, collaboration, communication and critical thinking.

The other area of our work is mentoring up and coming musicians and providing showcase opportunities for them. They then feed back into our work by training to become workshop leaders for Achieve Your Greatness, recycling their greatness by paying it forward, while developing important skills to sustain a career as a performing artist.

Art Breath: Can you tell us about some of the young people and artists you have helped through the Foundation?

We started mentoring Kansas Smitty’s founder and band leader, Giacomo Smith in 2014, helping him to secure two year support from the City Music Foundation resulting in the recording and release of the Kansas Smitty’s House Band’s debut album in October 2015.

Today Kansas Smitty’s consists of the Kansas Smitty’s House Band and an ever increasing community of young jazz musicians. They now run their own jazz bar in East London, have recorded two more albums and received praise across the jazz and mainstream press, including The Evening Standard, the Sunday Times and the Telegraph.

Kansas Smitty’s have recently ‘graduated’ to become Associate Artists of the Abram Wilson Foundation and their founder, Giacomo is now one of our Achieve Your Greatness workshop leaders. He was part of our most recent Achieve Your Greatness project which ran from October 2016 to March 2017.

A number of AYG students have stood out for me over the last couple of years. Most recently, Milly joined Achieve Your Greatness finding it difficult to concentrate and express herself in front of others. By the end of the week she was one of the first ones to share her ideas and ask questions. Her drama teacher said: “Before Achieve Your Greatness she never said anything in class. Now she always puts her hand up in class and contributes 100%.”

She also had difficulties keeping up with the rest of the group during the rhythm activities due to suffering from dyspraxia and scoliosis. It was a real pleasure to see her grow in confidence and join in with the rhythm and movement activities with greater enthusiasm. After the final sharing, her mum commented on how much Milly’s confidence had increased and how much better she had become at keeping in time. That really meant a lot.

Art Breath: What do you think are some of the attributes that music and the arts have that could potentially unite different communities and benefit society at large?

Although I’m not a musician, I believe that music has a unique ability to unite people very quickly, a universal language that can connect you with others despite perceived differences. It can inspire and uplift, and reach places within us that no one else can get to. For that reason I believe that creativity and freedom of expression is something that everyone should be able to enjoy regardless of their background. It shouldn’t just be for those who have enough money to pay for it.

Sadly, our government doesn’t agree and therefore doesn’t prioritise the arts in a way where no matter you’re background you will get access to a high quality arts education. It means that we live in a world where those who are more underprivileged suffer the life-long impact of not being able to access the arts. This includes leaving school earlier, not going into higher education, not gaining employment in the creative industries and not engaging in cultural activities.

Imagine if the arts and arts education were a genuine priority for the government. With very little additional investment I believe it could help solve so many issues that we are currently facing.

Art Breath: Music is a tool that can and has highlighted political or social causes the world had or is facing, how much power would you say music holds?

Wow, that is such a deep question! I would say that music is incredibly powerful. I mean, just think about how many artists were reported as trying to disassociate themselves and their music from Donald Trump. I accept that it had as much to do with image and branding as anything else. However, I think the power of music and how we connect music with bigger themes and ideas played its part in many musicians’ alleged decision to turn down an invitation to perform at Trump’s inauguration.

It’s also the only artform that can bring together tens of thousands of people in the same way that football can. To be able to bring together that number of people in one space in a way that isn’t about competition and instead is about unity, and enjoyment, inspiration and passion. That is powerful.

I do feel that music is probably at its most powerful when it is combined with other artforms, be it story telling, or movement, poetry or painting. And it’s something the Abram Wilson Foundation really tries to emphasise throughout its work. Our artists are often multi-disciplinary i.e. trained in more than one artform. For example, I met one of our Achieve Your Greatness workshop leaders, Sheila Maurice-Grey when she was a teenager learning jazz trumpet and was being mentored by my late husband, Abram. She went on to do a visual arts degree at Goldsmiths during which time she collaborated with Abram on a project called Singing Pictures. He wrote music inspired by some of her artwork which he performed at music venues like Kings Place, London with Sheila’s work as a backdrop to the gig. After graduating from Goldsmiths, Sheila went on to do a masters at Trinity Laban in jazz. She’ll be leading one of our bands for our five-year anniversary gig on 11th May at Bush Hall, and she also designed the image for our poster and flyer.

In the end I believe that the thing that makes us human is our diversity and our ability to be many things. I know so many artists who are skilled in more than one genre but often find themselves being pigeon-holed. It’s frustrating for them and it’s a loss for us, why shouldn’t they be able to combine all of their artistic skills? And why shouldn’t we all be able to enjoy that?

I can see that our attitude to this is starting to change though. A lot of highly successful music acts have been experimenting with the idea of being multi-disciplinary for a while and the results have been pretty awesome. Last year may have been a turning point for this type of work with Beyoncé’s album, Lemonade. What I found exciting about this offering, more than anything else she’d done to date was that an international pop star, one of the most successful of all time, was making the combining of artforms mainstream (music, story-telling, poetry, art, theatre, dance), whilst at the same time highlighting issues about race and gender. Say what you like about Beyoncé but I thought that album was pure genius.

Art Breath: How have you seen the creative arts and music help people?

With our arts education programme, Achieve Your Greatness, our work is underpinned by music, but like everything we do it is also an opportunity to celebrate the diversity of our artists and show our students how music can work with other artforms. As I said before, most of our artists are trained in more than one discipline. So we have a jazz musician who is also a trained dancer. An actor who also has her own gothic/indie band. A director who is also a writer. I think that’s important, to show kids that they don’t have to be ‘one thing’, that they can combine all their interests to become truly unique in the world.

For me it’s about giving young people the tools to dig deep and figure out who they really are so they can realise their potential. And when I say potential I mean that they discover their passions and develop the confidence and skills to pursue them. The arts enable you to connect with yourself in ways that other subjects don’t. They activate your imagination, and they give you the freedom to try things out. They encourage you to be brave, and to take risks. Because isn’t that what our lives are truly about? To have the courage to not only figure out who we are meant to be, but to step out and actually become that person?

Art Breath: The Foundation has its roots in Jazz music, can you tell us a little about this craft and what does Jazz music represent?

Oh my days. Jazz. It’s such a dirty word for so many people. But for me, and the Foundation and for pretty much all of the artists with whom we work, jazz is the essence of everything we do. It’s our soul and our life-blood. I didn’t get into jazz until I met Abram. He grew up in New Orleans (the birthplace of jazz) so he had a thing or two to say about it. Where it came from – slavery. What it represented – strength in the face of suffering and adversity.  How it could bring people together, and how it inspired bravery. It has only been around for 100 years or so, but my goodness, it is probably one of the most inspiring western artforms around. Its impact on music has been enormous. It’s the bedrock for pretty much every contemporary musical style you can think of, soul, rock n roll, RnB, hip-hop, grime. And not only that, but so many of the musicians whom Abram mentored along the way are now working with today’s biggest music acts including Sam Smith, Adele, Kendrick Lamar, and Rudimental. Jazz musicians are everywhere, because they are massively talented, trained like you wouldn’t believe and can literally turn their hand to anything.

Art Breath: The Foundation’s 5 year anniversary is coming up, what are you planning to do? And how can people support the Foundation if they want to? 

We will be celebrating five years on 11th May at Bush Hall and raising funds for the next generation of artists at the same time. Tickets are £40 and are on sale We’ve got a super exciting line up of some of the best up and coming musicians working in London at the moment including the Rachael Cohen Quartet, Kokoroko and Madam plus a special guest appearance by multi-award winning, Nitin Sawhney.

Every year we celebrate our anniversary, and every year it gets bigger and better. So if you want to experience something truly awesome and inspiring get your ticket and come along!

People can also support us all year round by becoming an Abram Wilson Foundation Trailblazer! It’s super easy to do, you sign up by donating on a monthly basis and then in return you get access to personal updates, special invites, offers, and access to our artists as well as knowing that you’re making a difference to young people’s lives through music. More details about trailblazing with us can be found here:

Art Breath: What are your hopes for the future and what’s next for the Abram Wilson Foundation?

My hopes for the future? Well, if I’m being totally honest I think as artists and people who work in the arts we all need to wake up to our responsibilities in this world. The arts are a really powerful way to unite people from different backgrounds and perspectives and have open and honest conversations about issues that are currently tearing us apart.

I feel like artists with big platforms really need to step up and get more serious about opening people’s minds and educating them. There is so much noise at the moment, so many distractions, and so much of it is really superficial, it’s hard to know where to focus your attention, so you don’t. My hope is that more artists start to think about their communities, how they can bring them together through their work and how they can give back.

As for what’s next for the Abram Wilson Foundation, that’s easy. Greatness.

Tickets for the Abram Wilson Foundation’s five year anniversary gig on 11th May at Bush Hall can be bought here: