Lydia Salett Dudley tells her students to walk around. This isn’t a social studies class, she says, you don’t have to sit still.
“You can walk to your friends,” she says. “One friend may know how to do beats. Someone else may know how to rap. The kids are not isolated. All of a sudden, they’re coming up with something, and they want you to come listen to what they did. It creates a community, and it’s pretty cool.”
The scene, Dudley said, is one she said she’s seen play out on a number of occasions during the programs she conducts for her organization, the Salett Art Center, which promotes music education in underserved communities.
Dudley, a pianist and singer, will perform Saturday evening at the N.C. Folk Festival with her group Jazz Xpressions.
The group placed third in the festival’s inaugural Not Your Average Folk Contest promoting N.C. artists and will play the #DGSO Stage at South Elm Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
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When not onstage, Dudley tries to educate people about jazz and the blues to get their creative juices flowing and “open their minds up.”
“I feel it’s my responsibility to not just hold on to knowledge, but to share it,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to connect underserved communities with universities to really give them a pathway to study music, maybe help people become professional musicians.”
Dudley, who grew up in Cleveland and now lives in Raleigh, first became interested in music while attending a Baptist church, where her parents served as musicians.
She holds a master’s degree in jazz composition from N.C. Central University in Durham and describes her own music as a “gumbo.”
“If you listen to my music, you will hear gospel, which is my foundation,” she said. “You will hear jazz, you will hear some blues, and you will hear a little bit of R&B. It’s a mix-up of different genres. I enjoy telling a story through music, and I really like inspiring people.”
The Salett Art Center, which operates as a nonprofit, got its start in 2011. She was taking a jazz appreciation class at the time and thought about trying to connect with professional musicians, as well as music professors, to put together classes and competitions for children in underserved communities. Before the pandemic, the organization also hosted after-school and summer camps, and over the past year-and-a-half, Dudley has conducted a series of virtual programs.
Currently, she is taking part in a program for troubled teens.
“Many of them are dealing with mental illness, homelessness, drug addiction,” she said. “They’re highly at-risk. But I go in there, teach them how to write music, teach group piano lessons, record them, have listening parties. I will have tracks for them to put lyrics against ... A lot of them, because of medication to control their behavior, may put their head down when you’re teaching. But when I brought in some keyboards and set them up and gave everybody headsets, for the first time, I saw some of those kids smile. It changes the whole atmosphere.”
Dudley said she doesn’t set forth many rules, and tells kids to “come up with whatever you want to come up with.” Getting some of them to open up, though, can be a challenge.
“Some resisted,” she said. “They’re not required to participate. There’s always new students coming in. Sometimes we would have outbursts in class, some disagreements. But some of them would realize that ‘I want you to be successful.’ And that was a highlight. My whole attitude is ‘I’m in this to win it. By the time I finish showing you your potential, you’ll get it.’”
Dudley said she is looking into ways of cultivating other skills that can be tied into musical creativity.
“I’m now at Wake (Technical Community College) taking one class at a time to familiarize myself with different software packages,” she said. “I want to be able to teach them how to use, for example, PhotoShop to create a character that represents them. And I see a real opportunity to work with kids who are maybe going to group homes. I don’t want you to just be successful in class. I want them to work, to walk away with a skill they didn’t have before, and a skill that’s marketable.”