Local News Making a Difference West Edition

Beat goes on at Jazz Hands for Autism


Whether they come to learn how to play an instrument or improve their technique, whether they want to learn music theory, write the next big hit, jam with others or work on their vocals, all are welcome at Jazz Hands for Autism, a nonprofit organization designed to engage musicians who are diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.

Created in 2014, by director Ifunanya Nweke, a behavioral interventionist, on any given day musicians of all levels from all over Los Angeles, converge on Jazz Hands for Autism because they love and appreciate music and want to learn all they can about the medium.

Jazz Hands Musicians Academy is a three-phase program that provides training that helps aspiring musician improve their social, professional, technical and musical skills. Phase one is job development. Phase two is internship and specialization and phase three is job placement and on-the-job coaching.

When it comes to the arts, some people with autism are regarded as savants.  

Folarin Ajileye, outreach coordinator for Jazz Hands For Autism, doesn’t like to use that term.

“I stray away from calling them savants,” he said. “I classify them as amazing and talented. I term everyone as human. This is not just an educational source. It’s a safe haven for musicians trying to expand their talents and continue to be involved. The musicians we work with are very talented beings.”

To participate in Jazz Hands For Autism, students must be at least 18. They can be formally educated in piano, guitar, drums, vocals or they can be novices. Currently, there are 20 students participating in the program with 11 teachers.

“The teachers are actually fellow artists and musicians who have dedicated themselves to enhancing other people and giving the talents they have,” said Ajileye, himself an artist. “The teachers are musicians, vocalists and recording engineers.”

Some students have formed bands and several students have released CDs, including Shayne Holzman, known professionally as Starving Darling, who released her self-titled EP, “Starving Darling” last year.

South Los Angeles guitarist, bassist and animator Sean McRae released the EP, “Dreamworld” last year at Culver City’s Industry Café and Jazz.

Jazz Hands For Autism offers vocational training, a nine-month program that includes job-readiness training, social learning training and on-stage training.

There is also a customized job scouting and placement program that offers a one-year, individualized (skill- and-interest-based) music-related job placement (residency) for all graduates of the vocational program. The program also offers on-the-job-coaching during job placement.

A key reason the organization was launched was to help participants find music internships and industry jobs.

“We’ve placed a number of our students,” Ajileye said. “For example, we were able to get Brandi, one of our students who is a singer, a job as a music teacher at Kayne Eras in Pasadena.”

Depending on the type of musician and artist a student is and what they want to accomplish, they can attend Jazz Hands For Autism every day, once a week or a couple of times a week.

“While our students are at JHFA, we do an evaluation,” Ajileye said. “We go over their strengths and weaknesses. We assess their disability. They let us know what they want to achieve while they are here and we put a class schedule together for them.”

Recently the organization held a workshop week where they invited music industry insiders to participate in a Zoom clinic.

Participants included Rene G. Boscio, a TV and film composer (“The Flash”); Jameel Roberts, a music producer who has worked with Arianna Grande, Nicki Minaj, and Usher; music supervisor Matthew Bailey, who worked on trailers for MTV; and Sindee Levin, a copyright and film entertainment lawyer. Roberts, who is Grammy-nominated, spoke to students about how to properly compose.

Before the pandemic, singer Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire came to the facility to host a master class on entry into the music industry.

Each year, Jazz Hands For Autism holds two concerts, one in the fall and one in the summer in an effort to showcase original or cover songs the students have been working on. Due to the coronavirus, this year’s summer concert was held exclusively online.

“We prepared our students to have a virtual concert,” Ajileye said. “It came across so beautifully. We had our students pre-film their performances. We combined the feel of duos even though they weren’t together. It worked very well.”

Through its Jazz Hands Concert Series and its Jazz Hands Musician’s Academy the organization supplies the tools and resources needed to make differences smaller between neurotypical individuals and those with autism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 59 children in the U.S. has autism.

“Before the pandemic, students would come into our location and have a range of classes like musical theory, electronic programs and vocal lessons,” Ajileye said. “We usually have a jam session on Saturdays. That’s when they would work on songs they’ve been learning or just practicing.”

During the pandemic, Ajileye said the nonprofit is still committed to its mission.

“We have been using innovation to promote integration,” he said. “We’ve been working digitally. We started our classes online. We quickly transformed our curriculum. It was a heavy task. 

“Once we did that, it expanded our thinking to how we can expand the program locally. We are big on the access to opportunities. We don’t want someone to just be a spectator. We want them to be participants. We decided to bring music education to the home through Zoom.”

The organization also has decided to make good use of social media.

“We started hosting performances on Instagram Live,” Ajileye said. “We were able to showcase new material that our students are working on. Those on the spectrum have certain inhibitions when it comes to socialization. Because of COVID-19, we have been able to open up students to social media a bit more. They already know about it, now they use it.” 

Those on the autism spectrum are often misunderstood.

“I think one thing we tend to misunderstand is the labeling of certain things as being a disability,” said Ajileye, who is from Nigeria. “They have dreams, aspirations and fears, just like the rest of us. 

“Some people think people on the spectrum don’t have emotions. The truth is they have emotions. They are regular people like everyone else. They are creative thinkers. They don’t look at the world and try to organize and place things in a box,” he added.

Ever since he started working with Jazz Hands For Autism in 2019, Ajileye said it’s been a wonderful experience working with students.

“The honesty they have is mind-blowing,” he said. “They will tell you if they are uncomfortable with something. It’s a growing experience for me interacting with them. What’s important to me is that we give them a place called home.”

“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to newsroom@wavepublication.com.

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer