Christianity has its evangelists, and jazz has George Saunders.
Saunders, a retired technical school teacher, has devoted much of his life to sharing his love and knowledge of what some have called America’s greatest contribution to the arts.
He helped found the Jazz Association of Macon in the 1980s. He hosted local jazz radio shows in the late ’90s and early ’00s. He has given lectures on jazz through a program sponsored by Mercer University.
And for the past five years, Saunders has led monthly jazz appreciation classes at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer at Pierce and Ingleside avenues. The classes are held 6:30-8 p.m. the first Thursday of the month and 10-11:30 a.m. the first Saturday.
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Saunders, 79, gives attendees a CD of the music he discusses during the lesson, as well as a packet of information about the artists on the agenda. Each lesson has a theme, from the origins of jazz to bagpipe jazz. He plays samples of the music, culled from the extensive CD archive he has at home, through an iPod docked to a speaker system.
“Everything is structured. It’s not me talking off the top of my head,” Saunders said. “I’ve really got my stuff pretty much together.”
The lessons are free, including the CDs, although Saunders says he may have to limit the CDs to the first 10 people who arrive. He also asks attendees to make a small donation to the church.
Saunders’ passion for jazz is that of a listener, not a player. An unsuccessful attempt to learn violin as a child convinced him to drop any ambitions to make music himself.
But even as a child, he could appreciate the sounds that jazz artists were making.
Saunders was born in Spanish Harlem in New York. Many of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance were his neighbors. The poet Countee Cullen was one of his teachers and Langston Hughes lived in his building. His best friend was Richie Powell, younger brother of bebop legend Bud Powell and a talented pianist in his own right.
Saunders was also a dancer in a vaudeville variety act; once he performed to the accompaniment of Count Basie’s band.
He listened to jazz greats — often in their own homes — as they created their signature sounds. He once turned down free drum lessons from Max Roach.
“I had an opportunity to meet Miles Davis when he first came to New York,” Saunders said. “He got to New York by telling his father, who was a dentist, that if he allowed him to go to school in New York and get this out of his system, he would go back and study medicine. And when Miles got to New York, the first thing he did, he came up to Bud Powell’s house.”
Saunders dropped out of high school so he could work to support his family. He later got his diploma in his 30s. He worked in New York’s printing industry, but was prevented from joining the union because he was black. Ironically, his subordinate status opened up an opportunity for him. As an assistant, he was moved from job to job, allowing him to learn a variety of skills. This qualified him to teach in vocational schools, first in New York and then in Hackensack, N.J.
Saunders moved to Macon in 1973 to join the faculty of Macon Technical Institute, now Central Georgia Technical College. He taught graphic arts and printing until his retirement in 1992. Saunders has been a member of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer since 1973.
Jay Kramer, another member of the church, said he has attended almost all of Saunders’ jazz classes during the past five years.
“It was something that I have always been interested in,” Kramer said. “It’s a true American art form, but people really don’t understand all the changes that have taken place.”
Saunders is especially qualified to teach the subject, Kramer said.
“He’s not just someone who researches the information, he’s actually lived a lot of it,” Kramer said. “Listening to the history that is George is a significant part of it as well.”
Kramer has talked Saunders into presenting a special theme for this week’s lesson: Saunders’ own favorite jazz tracks.
Saunders says he is motivated by a desire to share the deep emotional satisfaction he gets from listening to jazz.
“I’m hoping that what I do, the legacy that I leave, will be that people will at least feel a little bit of what I feel. I don’t expect them to feel all that I feel, but a little bit of what I feel about the music,” he said.