Paying homage to melting pot musicians

Gumbo Le Funque talks jazz and Green Party ahead of Mardi Gras

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Robert Johnson

For Gumbo Le Funque frontman and sax player Jason Justice, there is more to music than having a good time. Getting instruments to kids facing tough economic conditions and high-stakes school testing provides a crucial opportunity for experiential learning, he says. He’s joined by the band’s backup singer and manager, Andrea Merida, a classically trained soprano who grew up in a working class family in west Denver.

The New Orleans-style funk band sees music and music education as a tool for change, but that’s not the only way they’re engaging in their communities and working to give the next generation the kinds of opportunities that are at times tough to come by. Merida has served on the Denver Board of Education, fought to prevent the closure of the Montbello High School when students who weren’t proficient enough to take English-only tests were included in the determination that the school was failing and joined the Green Party.

In an official response from the party to President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, she said, “We welcome the intent to make community college affordable. … But we are wary, given the president’s track record of tying student achievement to the worst of the corporate agenda, including merit pay for teachers, the use of highstakes standardized testing to close and privatize the public schools of the poorest and the least protected by privilege. These ‘reforms’ have strengthened the school-to-jailhouse track and entrenched segregation by race and class in school communities.”

Merida called for more early childhood education funding and a reprieve from predatory student loan debt, accusing the Department of Education of watering down curriculum and creating “a profit center” for charter operators.

“Greens need more outreach and grassroots organizing, more infrastructure for the state party,” she says. “We’re on the road to 10 percent in Colorado. Harry Hempy received more votes in Denver County than there are registered Greens. Statewide, there was a huge impact on voter turnout because people feel disenfranchised, but the Democratic Party has progressives on lockdown. Even one Green state legislator could pull that caucus in a really progressive direction.”

The band’s music is decidedly more fun than confrontational, but lyrics don’t shy away from populism. Justice sings, “Don’t let the man stand on your neck / they just don’t give a damn,” on the song “Jump Up, Run Down the Alley.” Gumbo Le Funque contributed digital download proceeds for the song to a bail fund organized by Coloradans for Justice for people arrested during “Black Lives Matter” protests.

“Pushing back on the powers that be is really a form of survival,” Merida says. “Free speech needs to rule. Funk is one of the musics of the people.”

“What we do in Gumbo Le Funque is we pay homage to all these musicians from the melting pot that birthed jazz,” says Justice. “We always call out the writers of the cover songs we play. That includes Mardi Gras musicians and jazz cats.”

Gumbo is bringing Le Funque this weekend in Denver and Breckenridge, followed by a gig at the University of Colorado for Fat Tuesday. The event marks the fourth year Dining Services has raised funds to benefit The Roots of Music in New Orleans.

“They put instruments into kids’ hands,” says Pat Nelson, manager of Libby Dining Center, of The Roots of Music. “The main objective is to get kids from low-income households, who range in age from 9 to 14, off the streets and playing music.”

Anyone who buys a meal ticket (in advance through the Center for Community or in person the day of the show) can attend the student-driven event, featuring a Louisiana-themed menu.

“We’re psyched to do it,” Justice says. “After Hurricane Katrina, schools were greatly affected, most of them privatized. We’re proud to be helping to keep music going for the kids. All the nationally known New Orleans artists like Trombone Shorty and his band came out of these music programs.”

Nourishing young musicians is familiar terrain for Justice, who formed the nonprofit Instrumentos de la Libertad around the same time his band got together five years ago. To address the shortage of diverse students in the jazz education scene, Justice began giving West Denver kids free music lessons and free instruments, supported by donations and an endorsement from instrument manufacturer RS Berkeley.

“Used instruments, even broken ones, are cool because we can use them as parts,” he says. “Music has become such a game of the elite. Working class folks really don’t have the time or money to put into instruments and lessons. I look at Instrumentos as a vocational program, not just a touchy-feely arts program. We’ve run about 100 kids through it.”

In New Orleans, it’s Carnival time. The youngsters who perform as the Roots of Music Marching Crusaders are in the midst of a week worth of nonstop parades.

After playing their biggest gig yet at City Park Jazz last year, Justice looks forward to showing audiences Gumbo Le Funque’s newest material during Mardi Gras season.

“Some new songs are political, but at the same time, it’s gonna be bootyshaking,” Justice says, quickly adding, “I mean that in a non gender-specific way. We’re all in this together. People work hard all week long, and we want them to be able to come out to our shows and dance and have a good time. We’ll also slip some stuff in here and there to raise up people’s consciousness. We need that right now.”

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