Cafe Coda inspires a new generation of musicians on Willy Street

Cafe Coda inspires a new generation of musicians on Willy Street

As the honeyed rhythm of saxophone poured onto Willy Street, Cafe Coda hosted its weekly youth jazz lesson, preserving the neighborhood’s artistic values in younger generations.

In the center of the creative Williamson-Marquette neighborhood, the jazz club, owned by well-established saxophonist and flutist, Hanah Jon Taylor, provides Cool School every Saturday morning. Cool School is a free jazz program giving local youth access to instruments and music lessons. The program accommodates kids of all ages and backgrounds. 

Through Cool School, Taylor aims to create an accessible jazz community on Willy Street and inspire children to express themselves through rhythm.

“Music is not just entertainment,” Taylor said. “I want to teach people how to communicate and give people the opportunity to communicate through sound.”

Kids participate in a music session with various instruments. Photo provided by Cafe Coda.

Although Cool School only started three years ago, Taylor always wanted to create a community program for kids in the neighborhood. According to Taylor, when kids lack an outlet to express themselves, it can harm their personal development.

Ranging from toddlers to teenagers, a dozen kids sat in a circle, varying in squirminess. Some kids brought their own instruments while others waited to borrow one. Taylor greeted every kid with a handshake and sometimes a hug, many of them being Cool School regulars.

At the end of the lesson, Taylor let the kids play the trombone — many had never tried it before. Taylor joined in on his saxophone to compliment the brutal beginner blows of the trombone. 

“I’m not trying to teach nobody no music. I’m just putting it in their hands and giving them the opportunity to touch it,” Taylor said.

Providing kids the tactile opportunity to interact with music can lead to positive impacts on the Willy Street community as these kids grow.

“We see elements of their humanity emerge, like self-esteem, leadership, cooperation, even democracy,” Taylor said.

Besides youth programs like Cool School, Cafe Coda also hosts community jam sessions, offering a space for kids and adults to play freely. Griffin Beronio, 20, a guitarist and pianist with an in-depth jazz background, performed in several of the jam sessions.

“Those are really fun and really open to people with all skill levels and all levels of experience with jazz,” Beronio said.

Much like giving kids in Cool School the chance to play a new instrument for the first time, Cafe Coda curates a safe space for musicians to grow together.

“At the end of the day, it’s improvisational music, so you have to be in a setting that will allow you to fully experience that spur-of-the-moment, creative impulse,” Beronio said.

Although the neighborhood underwent developments over the years and pivoted away from its historical, progressive blue-collar persona, the values of art, culture and music remained etched on the blocks forever. Cafe Coda carries on Willy Street’s original values.

Students preparing to practice a piece. Photos provided by Cafe Coda.

With inclusive businesses like Cafe Coda, young people living away from Willy Street are eager to participate in the community. Isabella Bellini, 20, a frequent visitor to the area, said places like Cafe Coda help keep the neighborhood’s diverse culture alive despite new developments.

“Cafe Coda is keeping Willy weird, I think,” Bellini said, referencing a phrase used by the Marquette Neighborhood Association. “Cafe Coda, its patrons, musicians and staff alike reinforces that key tenet of weirdness by simply doing something no other spot in Madison is doing.”

Passing down the spirit of the iconic neighborhood inspires young kids to keep Willy Street’s history alive. Despite critics calling jazz past its prime, the genre thrives among those who understand it.

“I think a lot of people who don't listen to jazz that much, or don’t really understand it, probably haven't seen it performed live or at a very high level, and that’s something Cafe Coda can definitely provide,” Beronio said.

Cool School combats misconceptions about the decline of the genre.

“I consider jazz music to be a contemporary, living music,” Taylor said. “Anyone who thinks it’s a museum piece or that it ended with Louis Armstrong is really not paying attention.”

According to Taylor, it’s vital to keep music present in these kids’ lives to better their personal identities and the community.

Girl playing violin
One of the students playing violin. Photos provided by Cafe Coda.
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