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Home » On the Cover » Jazz, Education, and Unionism as a Way of Life ‑‑ Dr. James H. Patterson

Jazz, Education, and Unionism as a Way of Life ‑‑ Dr. James H. Patterson


Woodwind player, jazz musician, and educator James Patterson of Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA) is also a leading figure in the history and promotion of jazz in the United States.

It’s not common knowledge, even among AFM members, why some locals have hyphenated numbers. The system dates back to the days of segregation in this country: in the case of Atlanta, Local 148 was designated the Black local and 462 was for whites. The hyphens are an indication that these locals ultimately integrated and merged into a single local.

Given this history, it’s fascinating to chat with musicians who have not only been there since before these mergers, but who have also taken active roles in the process. Woodwind player, jazz musician, and educator James Patterson of Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA) is one such leader. Patterson, as it happens, is also a leading figure in the history and promotion of jazz in the United States.

Patterson’s union roots go back—way back. “I got my first union card in 1954. I was 17,” he recalls. “I still have that card today.” That was in the Black local, 148. He says he has never let his membership lapse. “It made me extremely proud, as a young kid, to get to make music with the older guys. At Clark College, my teacher Wayman Carver was president of Local 148. I wanted to be a professional musician, and he told me that, in order to say I was a pro, I needed to be in the union.”

Musical Beginnings

Patterson grew up in the Atlanta area in a musical family. His mother played piano, while his father played multiple instruments in what were known back then as Black string bands. “These were popular in the depression years, but the tradition is pretty much extinct today,” Patterson explains. “My father played fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mouth harp.”

His parents made him take piano lessons, which he says provided a solid foundation. These early pushes helped Patterson discover his own ambition in the late 1930s and early 1940s, which was also when he discovered that jazz felt “completely natural” to him.

Over the years, of course, there were a multitude of other influences, and Patterson’s roster of musical role models reads like a who’s who of jazz history. “We lived not far from a club where Ella Fitzgerald would perform alongside my teacher, Wayman Carver, who was one of the first jazz flute players.”

In high school, Patterson learned from the great bandleader Cab Calloway’s brother, who taught music there and led a small jazz group in which Patterson played saxophone. And shortly after that, Charlie Parker came to town.

“Parker was the first professional sax player I ever heard. After that, I was stuck on him for life. Soon after, I got to see him and Dizzy Gillespie playing together,” says Patterson who also got to experience many other greats, including jazz singer Sarah Vaughan. Patterson, by then, was 17.

“I gravitated to all of them. I would find out where they were playing, and I absorbed their work and their art like a sponge,” he says. He got to play with many of these people later in his career. “Years later, I got Dizzy to come to Clark Atlanta University. We played together many times and were close friends up until his death.”

Patterson spent his college undergraduate years developing and refining his abilities under the previously mentioned Carver, the band director at then Clark College. Following undergraduate studies, Patterson enlisted in the US Army, organizing musical groups and performing around Europe with the Seventh Army Band based in Stuttgart, Germany, and then earning a master’s degree from the University of Michigan.

A Life in Jazz, and Giving Back

Musical journeys have taken Patterson around the globe, with performances far too numerous to list inclusively. Concerts have taken place in far-flung locations like Egypt and South Africa, and he has performed with a host of big jazz names including Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Cab Calloway Orchestra.

“In the 1970s I was also invited to audition as assistant conductor for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,” he mentions with pride. Honors (and honorary degrees) have poured in over the decades.

Patterson says he is extremely proud of his recent association with composer Lalo Schifrin of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)—perhaps most famous for his Mission: Impossible TV theme. He collaborated with Schifrin on a recent work about climate change, “The Ill-Fated Air,” written for chamber orchestra. “It’s an important piece of music on a timely topic,” he says. “I’m anxious to get it recorded.”

Patterson’s students have benefited from his decades of knowledge and experience. For a half a century, he has been an educator at his alma mater, known today as Clark Atlanta University. He is the founder of numerous jazz groups, including the Clark Atlanta University Jazz Orchestra, conceived in 1968 to preserve jazz “in its purest form.”

One of the group’s hallmarks is its lack of electronic technology or enhancements. Patterson remains its current and only director and has led the orchestra in international appearances with a host of jazz artists. “Since 1981, we’ve played eight separate times at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and five times at the North Sea Jazz Festival [in the Netherlands],” he says proudly.

Over the decades, Patterson has also taken an active role in several jazz educator conferences, including the Jazz Educators Network (JEN), which this year bestowed upon him its biggest honor, the JEN LeJENds of Jazz Education Award. The honor recognizes “educators, artists, and contributors with a long and distinguished service to the jazz education community.”

Many of Patterson’s students have gone on to assume leading roles in the jazz world. While it’s hard to single out any names, just one of the many he’s proud of is lead reed player and composer Sherman Irby of Local 802 (New York City), who was a member of Winton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra.

“I recruited Sherman to Clark Atlanta University as a young sax player from Tuscaloosa,” says Patterson. “Producing guys like this who are pros, either playing or writing or both, is what I’d consider my greatest legacy.”

Legacy Acts

Beyond education, Patterson has made a personal and lasting mark on the jazz world through his ongoing efforts to preserve it as a pure American art form. Nowhere is this more apparent than the self-named foundation he started in 2011. The James Hardy Patterson Foundation in Atlanta was launched with a mission to preserve, promote, educate, and disseminate information about Black history and culture, as well as to provide experiences, opportunities, and information on the integral role of jazz and blues in American history.

“My aim was to preserve this music for future generations,” says Patterson. “It’s crucial to give jazz its due in America, and a big part of that is preserving the culture surrounding it.” The foundation also provides scholarships to summer jazz music camps.

An offshoot of the foundational work has been Patterson’s involvement in several acts of congress designed to cement the role of jazz as a fundamental American art form. “I was invited by the late Congressman John Conyers, Jr., who was a great friend of labor, to participate in the Congressional Black Caucus as a panelist, moderator, and conference participant,” says Patterson.

Among other bills, Patterson played a key role in helping Conyers craft and promote H.R. 4280, introduced to the 113th Congress in 2014. Formally titled the National Jazz Preservation, Education, and Promulgation Act of 2014, H.R. 4280 establishes a National Jazz Preservation Program, to be carried out in collaboration with several Smithsonian museums in order to preserve knowledge and promote education about jazz. The Act also provides for live jazz performances in Smithsonian affiliates.

Following a September proclamation in his honor by the City of Atlanta and a feature spread in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Patterson received yet more well-
deserved recognition for his decades of dedicated service to Local 148-462. The local named its new rehearsal hall after him, recognizing his more than 25 years of service as vice president to the local and a lifetime of dedication to spreading the importance of unionism.

Patterson says his deep union roots will continue to be a feature of his career and his life. “My aspirations as a professional musician have always been tied with union membership, which I understood very early on was crucial to reaching my goals. I always encourage my young people to join and benefit from the same protections I’ve had,” he says. “And that won’t ever change.”

For more information on the James Hardy Patterson Foundation, visit

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