Jazz for all — with a big dash of whimsy

By Steve Greenlee
Globe Staff / April 11, 2010

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Jazz has long suffered from an image problem.

You have to know something about jazz in order to enjoy it, the thinking goes. Or jazz is music for intellectuals.

The guys of Quartet of Happiness know none of this is true, and they’re making it their mission to attract the masses. To do that, the Boston-based group takes its case right to the top: to the kids.

The quartet, which formed in 2003, doesn’t usually play jazz clubs — in fact, its first-ever show at a big-name jazz club occurs May 18 at Scullers, where the group will kick off a fund-raising campaign to help bring its programs to schools as well as celebrate the release of its new CD, “The Monster Returns!’’ Mostly the band plays schools and educational workshops, performing what it terms a “theatrical jazz experience’’ that makes the audience part of the show. The band’s tenor saxophonist, 30-year-old Kelly Roberge of Jamaica Plain, has been known to put on a scary mask and transform into a monster mid-set.

But just what do these guys think they are trying to pull, making as though just anyone can listen to jazz? We tracked down Roberge to find out. An edited and condensed transcript follows.

Q. What’s the big idea, trying to get kids interested in jazz?

A. Jazz is often presented in a dry and intellectual manner, and I don’t think that really presents itself well to younger audiences. We’re just trying to get kids inspired. In the TV age, where attention spans are about five seconds, it’s important to hit them with stimuli. We kind of trick the kids into listening to more avant-gardish music. But they’re not listening to it with that in mind; they’re following a story.

Q. Isn’t jazz complicated, though? What makes you think a little kid can get it?

A. That’s why we don’t present it as just jazz. “This song is about my house burning down. You’ll notice some screechy sounds; that’s the fire. You’ll notice some sound that’s more textural; that’s the water.’’ What is this song compositionally doing? We don’t get into that. One of the songs we do is called “Copycat.’’ Rick [Stone] and I, the saxophone players in the band, battle. It’s like Simon Says.

Q. But adults can also enjoy your music. I thought kids’ music was supposed to be corny and unappealing to grown-ups.

A. Right! That’s the tricky part. You say, “This music is for kids,’’ and people get the wrong idea. I think everybody has a kid in them. I remember talking to a lady in her mid-90s at one of our shows. She said, “I’ve never heard something like this, where [the audience] can be part of it.’’ My big pet peeve about jazz — having gone to school to study it — is that it isn’t relatable to a generable audience. I love the art form, and I like to make it accessible through other means. But don’t dumb down the music.

Q. How do kids react when they hear your music?

A. Because of the story line, sometimes they just go completely crazy. When I run around with my virtual fire hose and squirt them with virtual water, they go nuts.

Q. Do they get up and dance? I assume they don’t just sit there.

A. We do this song, “The Bully.’’ There’s a scene where I beat up Rick with a saxophone. The kids get in there and try to fight me off.

Q. So mostly you do workshops at schools?

A. We did 40 last year. Framingham hired us for all of our elementary schools. We were in Idaho, Iowa, the West Coast. We’re going back there next month.

Q. And when you play clubs, do you get kids at those shows too?

A. That’s a different kind of scene. It’s a mix of adults, college kids, high school kids, and we invite a lot of our students. We’re all teachers.

Q. Do you ever feel hemmed in creatively, playing this kind of music? Don’t you just want to blow for a half hour on one phrase like Sonny Rollins?

A. Yeah, sure. But we’re all involved in so many different groups, so we get to do that. This is our outlet to express ourselves this way. The point of the group is to have a theatrical, interactive element. I wouldn’t say improvisation is the key element. But I actually prefer to play in a school than in any club. You’ve got a contained audience, and you’re definitely on good terms with them: You’re getting them out of class.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at