When Collaboration performs, the lesson is as important as the music.

"We write good compositions that have strong messages in them," says Kenneth Dickerson, drummer for the Washington-based jazz ensemble.

"Or we take music from artists like Marvin Gaye, the Isley Brothers--songs that really mean something when you play them. We have to be part of the solution or part of the problem."

If Dickerson's pedagogical tone reminds you of an old high school teacher, there may be a good reason for that.

Dickerson, like most of the seven members of his band, is a public school teacher. By day, he's music department chairman and jazz band director at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in the District.

By weekend, Dickerson is the leader of Collaboration, a Washington-based band that he's kept together for 20 years. The band will draw on its repertoire of jazz, R&B, pop, traditional and inspirational music Thursday at a performance in conjunction with the Prince George's Plaza summer concert series.

As Cardozo Senior High School students in the late 1970s, Dickerson and saxophonist Tracey Cutler played in the school's nationally recognized marching band. Joining forces with some students from Washington's Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the pair started their own band, Collaboration.

After high school, many of the group's original members went to college. Different members came and went, but Cutler and Dickerson, who had known each other since fourth grade, stayed with the band through their college days at the University of the District of Columbia, where both studied music.

While Dickerson and Cutler began their careers teaching music in the public school system (Cutler is a Greenbelt Elementary music teacher), Collaboration continued to develop. Over the years, in addition to playing the Washington jazz circuit, the band has opened for high-profile artists such as Peabo Bryson, Stanley Turrentine, War and Phyllis Hyman.

As it prospered, the group became a magnet for teachers. Yusef Chisholm, its bass player, teaches music at Anacostia Senior High School. Vocalist Lori Williams teaches music at Thompson Elementary School in the District.

The remaining band members teach outside the public school system. Guitarist Leland Edgecombe is a University of the District of Columbia architecture professor, while keyboardist Glenn Douglas has given private music lessons to Washington musical notables such as Marcus Johnson. Percussionist Mamadi Nysuma is a metaphysics and yoga instructor.

"We are blessed to be conduits and tools to deliver music and education," Dickerson says.

Collaboration's sound combines elements of contemporary jazz and R&B. "Some people are trying to do the smooth jazz thing," Douglas says. "I don't know if you could call it jazz or the rhythm section of R&B." Although jazz purists may dismiss the hybrid, Douglas says no one does it with more verve than Collaboration.

"We are contemporary jazz with a very energetic sound," Douglas says. "You'll definitely walk away feeling as if someone has touched your heart."

The band closes each show with a rendition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." The song reinforces the group's positive message, and it is also a tribute to the band's roots at Cardozo High School in the District, which Gaye attended.

"Collaboration means to work together toward one common goal," Dickerson says. "To us, it's not the rewards that music brings to you as far as the Grammys. The work we do in the community means more to us. That's more uplifting."

Collaboration performs Thursday at Prince George's Plaza, 3500 East West Hwy., Hyattsville. Admission is free. For more information, call 301-559-8844.

CAPTION: Tracey Cutler plays his saxophone at a performance by the jazz group Collaboration. Cutler, a Greenbelt Elementary music teacher, is one of the group's founders.