Under the glow of rainbow Christmas lights at Rembrandt's Coffee House, the whir of a milk steamer whistled out above the shrill clamor of dozens of chatty middle schoolers. It was Thursday night in Eagle—the weekly ArtsWest jazz night—and a tangible excitement pulsed through the private arts academy students as they tuned instruments, scribbled in sketchbooks and slurped an assortment of various dessert coffees. In the middle of all this chaos, ArtsWest Artistic Director Justin Nielsen seemed right at home, alternating between cracking jokes with students and speaking passionately about the school he helped found. Over coffee with Nielsen one recent Thursday night, BW got the scoop on how he's using jazz to awaken young minds.
You're a co-founder of ArtsWest, right? Explain how you got started and where the idea first came about.
The idea of ArtsWest came about five years ago. It was kind of a thing where we just started talking about what would be your dream job and dream life? We started talking about the concept of ArtsWest and just got really excited. So we went for it, and five years later, it's kind of cool. Now we've got a beautiful building and 103 students and the school's just doing really well. It's cool to be able to tell our students to go after their dreams or passions because we did that and it worked. It's been an amazing, life-changing experience to start this school.
What would you say is the philosophy behind ArtsWest?
For me, not only is it my dream job, it's the school that I would've loved to have myself. I grew up in Rexburg, Idaho, in a really small, rural community and had very little access ... One of the goals for me at ArtsWest is that when our students go out into the bigger artistic world, they don't have to get a big huge wake-up call. In Rexburg, I was like the big whatever and then I got out of that little town and realized how much talent was out there and how trained kids were from other schools in other areas. The students at ArtsWest get half their day to work on an artistic discipline.
A discipline that they choose?
Yeah, they choose music, art, dance, drama, creative writing, digital photography. They get half their day to work on that, and then the academics are really demanding because we have to give up that time. It's tough, but we have an overwhelmingly positive response from the student body. The students at our school are glad when it's Monday and sad when it's Friday. They love being at school. I started with that concept of wanting to prepare kids to be professional artists, but it's become more than that. It's become a safe place for students who have more of a creative spirit to go to school.
What are some of your main day-to-day responsibilities at ArtsWest?
I mostly teach jazz students. The school itself covers every area of music but we do have a large portion of students who are interested in playing jazz here. All day long, I'm teaching kids how to play jazz. It's an amazing job.
Are you a multi-instrumentalist?
I was a professional pianist before. I made my living between performing and teaching private lessons ... I can teach kids how to play bass, drums, guitar, all that.
What's your background in music?
My dad is a conductor of classical music. My mom was a piano teacher at home. So I started playing piano when I was 6. I got really into classical music in high school. When I was 14 years old, I was probably practicing like six hours a day. We kind of set it up so that I could skip some school so that I could practice. Then when I was 21—and this is why we need a school like [ArtsWest]—when I was 21, I heard jazz for the first time. When I finally heard it, it was like an immediate conversion.
Do you find that the kids you teach take the same interest that you took at that age?
You mean like practicing six hours a day and that kind of thing? Tons of students at our school do practice that much. I mean, before they even get out of school, they've already practiced like 3 ½ to 4 hours. So then if they put in a couple of more hours after school, they're there.
Do you think they're forming that same attachment to jazz music that you did? Do you think that form of music is even resonant with them?
Is jazz appealing to a kid who's listening to hard-core music on their iPod? Absolutely. They love playing this music. Jazz is, I think, one of our national treasures ... I think that it bleeds its way into every kind of music that we have now. The stuff the kids are listening to wouldn't have even been there if we didn't have jazz.
What's your approach to teaching music?
I think that this night is one of the major motivators. It's one thing to tell them they're going to get a B if they don't learn the tune. But if they're going to play in front of 300 people on Thursday, they're going to learn the song. Plus, it's so fun for them, it's not even work anymore.
So when did you guys first start playing here at Rembrandt's?
I used to have a weekly gig here with my trio. Then when the school started, I started asking the kids to come and sit in. It just morphed into the kids coming every week. The community loves it; they love watching them play. We've been doing it for two years.
Do the kids get to choose the songs that they play here?
There's this point with the kids, before they have the turn-the-light-on moment where they realize how cool jazz is. Before the turn-the-light-on moment hits, they don't know what songs are fun to play, so I have to tell them. Then after that happens, they start listening to it and finding what they want to play. It becomes more and more their thing and less and less my thing.
What are some of the biggest musical success stories at ArtsWest?
Almost every week, there will be something like this happen, where a student gets up and something takes over, and they do something they never dreamed they could do on stage in front of everyone. They're surrounded by their friends and the crowd goes crazy. That's one of the most beautiful things that I've ever seen. Sometimes it's the kid who everyone already knows is going to be a star, and sometimes it's the kid you never thought could do it. That's probably one of my favorite things to see, those moments when they do more than they thought they could.