January 2007

We Are One :: Art of Jazz Community Voices with Barry Harris
presented by Art of Jazz
January 18, 2007 The Music Hall Theatre Toronto
What Is Jazz?
by Paul J. Youngman with photos by Mike Colyer
Dr. Barry Harris is jazz, a walking, talking, living example of a jazz musician 24-7. A jazz pianist, a composer, an arranger, a jazz educator, self-proclaimed as the world’s oldest living jazz teacher, commonly referred to as the keeper of the bebop flame. Dr. Harris recently guided the Art of Jazz Community Voices, along with guest artists, Don Thompson, Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer, through a wonderful evening performance of jazz music and singing. Songs like “The Big Foot Kangaroo,” “These Are The Things We Need” and “Ay-ba-da-ba-Wee-boo,” jazz standards, bebop classics... not quite, but just perfect for introducing 250 school children to jazz.

What is Art of Jazz Community Voices? An outreach program of The Art of Jazz, the non-profit organization founded in 2005 by Jane Bunnett, Howard Rees, Bonnie Lester, and Larry Cramer. Art of Jazz Community Voices includes over 240 students from 10 elementary, middle and high schools in the Jane/Finch area of Toronto lending their voice to this powerful children’s choir.

I asked Dr. Harris about the concert, just a few days before the show, I wanted to find out about the motivation for the show, what we could expect and whether he had done anything like this before. “Yeah, we’ve done this in Milwaukee and Detroit, but this one, I’ve never seen the little children be so... these children are just unbelievable,” replies Dr. Harris, he goes on to explain. “We’ve got about 250–300 children and they know everything they’re supposed to know. Then there are the grown ups and they’re doing their part. I mean elementary school kids. Really, it should be in a great big place, where a whole lot of people could come and see this. It’s going to be very special.”

The show took place at the Music Hall Theatre in Toronto, the balcony was reserved for the children’s choir, and they packed it tight. The main floor seating was full, mostly parents of the children from the choir, as well as parents of the children in the string section and the band, The Big Fish Jazz Orchestra, Senior Strings & Jazz Choir from Earl Haig Secondary School (seniors), Claude Watson School of the Arts (juniors) in Toronto. The stage was aglow with red and white lighting, the students in the string section were looking eager, the band was seated to the right of the strings, they looked like a team of racehorses chomping at the bit, the adult choir, looking quite anxious, was to the far left. The adults make up the Art of Jazz Singers, comprised of Andre Brewster, Denise Leslie, Jacqueline Bouchard, Janice Knowles, Justine Campbell, Lenny Binder and Bonnie Lester.

I wanted to know if Dr. Harris was aware of the challenges faced by the children in the Jane/Finch area. “I can imagine, when we went into one of the schools, the kids were a bit difficult. Every one was concerned, what would happen when we got them in with the big group, some people didn’t want this group to be included, I said no, no, no, we keep those kids, we keep these kids, we keep all the kids. You know what — when we did the big rehearsal it was beautiful, every thing was perfect, I just can’t tell you.” Dr. Harris went on to explain how his previous projects were organized, “When I do mine, I hire a professional band and a professional string section. What we have is this, a high school big band, a high school string section and we have some of the high school singers. I wish the whole city could see it. This needs to be on television, because everybody needs to see this. It’s an example of people coming together from different areas of the community. It’s a beautiful thing man.” Dr. Harris is passionate about this and with good reason.

After the introductions, the first tune “We Are One” starts off with the band kicking it and the adult choir singing, the special guest artists taking their breaks, and Don Thompson laying down a swinging vibraphone solo. A young pianist sitting beside Dr. Harris comps behind Mr. Thompson, with a reassuring Dr. Harris tapping him gently on the shoulder, transferring the pulse, the meter of jazz, into the teen. Larry Cramer on flugelhorn rides into the song and adds tasteful accompaniment. Jane Bunnett is up next on soprano saxophone, and lends her tonal colorations to the melody, the song takes flight just a little higher, to climax with a dynamic finale. The next song begins, “Big Foot Kangaroo,” the children make their way on to the stage, they keep coming, rows and rows of them, all different looks, a wonderful, glorious, diverse mix of ethnicity, boys and girls with angelic voices.

Barry Harris

Jane Bunnett
Surrounded by 250 kids I was curious if any of them asked Dr. Harris "what is this thing called jazz?" He responded humorously, “Oh no man, thankfully nobody laid that on me. If they did though, I’d just give them my favourite answer: I don’t know.” When Dr. Harris says, “I don’t know,” it sounds jazzy, add sustain to the ends of the two last words and change notes, ascending a tone. He went on to tell me, “One time this young cat says to me, you aren’t playing jazz. Oh my lord, if I’m not playing jazz what am I playing? If it doesn’t sound like what he’s used to hearing, then it’s not jazz, that’s sad. Another time this young cat asks me what I do, I tell him I’m a jazz musician. Oh, I don’t like that kind of music he says. I said to him, you‘ve never heard me play; if you heard me play I can understand you saying I don’t like your music. See man this is why we have to get on television. These cats don’t even know what jazz is, if it’s not on television. When was the last time you saw a jazz musician on prime time TV? Probably years.”

The children would remain on stage for one more tune, “These Are The Things We Need”. This is for the adults, Dr. Harris would say. The song had a beautiful melody, the children sang, “We need a chance to fulfill our dreams … Give us a chance.” The children exited the stage while the band and remaining adult choir, cooked. The show was video taped, so possibly Dr. Harris’ wish to have the show televised will come true.

There was a birthday celebration for Don Thompson. Dr. Harris sang a happy birthday wish and Thompson played piano on command from Dr. Harris, up until the point, he realized it was for his own birthday wishes. He was served a cupcake with one candle. I think they were planning a party for him after the show. The final songs of the first set “Like This” and “We Are One” were played with fire and passion.

After a 15 minute intermission, the band took to the stage for the last act. A blues based tune began, “AY-ba-da-ba-Wee-boo”. The children were ushered back onto the stage, they were at their rhythmic best, scatting away like old pros. Larry Cramer on trumpet soloed over the voices, the adult choir and the children’s choir harmonized, the band played the perfect accompaniment, Don Thompson and Dr. Harris took turns trading lyrical fills in wondrous harmony.

Dr. Harris has played with so many great jazz musicians, I wanted to know about some of my idols — "You’ve played with all my drum idols, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Billy Higgins, Kenny Clark!" “Yea, I’ve played with all of them, the least, I think was Kenny Clark, but the most is Billy Higgins. We did a lot of recording together and Elvin, when he got out of the army, he joined my trio in Detroit. I joined Max just after Clifford (Brown) and them there got killed — Ritchie Powell. Donald Byrd and I joined Max Roach right after that. It’s been a beautiful time all the way, ups and downs along the way, but a beautiful time.” When I mention his discography, which numbers in the hundreds, “See what we did back then, we did a lot of albums, we don’t do anything now. I remember doing more albums than months in the year.”

The show ended in a bit of a rush, the children had arrived in school buses and the buses had to go, preferably with the children. The children were to have received treats, books and jazz calendars, but due to time constraints, this would be put off to another time. Jane Bunnett thanked everyone for coming out in support of the Art of Jazz Community Voices and asked us to make sure we come back to hear more, during the Art of Jazz Celebration, scheduled for May 30 – June 3, 2007. There are also plans to have the Community of Voices take part in next year’s IAJE conference which will be held in Toronto.

As I left the theatre, feeling assured that jazz was in good hands, I walked past at least six big yellow school buses, it was just before 10:00 PM, a little late for school buses, but not for young jazz musicians.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Paul J. Youngman
• • • • • •
Mike Colyer
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The Live Music Report

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