Instruments of change

The Toronto Star - November 28, 2009

 

By John Terauds

Three hundred rain-soaked public schoolchildren are piling into Walmer Road Baptist Church in the Annex neighbourhood at 9:30 a.m. The kids, along with a phalanx of facilitators and music teachers from Orde St. Public School, Ryerson Community School and Earl Beatty Jr. and Sr. P.S., are part of a four-month choral project developed by local jazz masters Howard Rees and Brian Katz.

 

Toronto District School Board music coordinator Diane Jameson has shown up, too, to see how this partnership among the board and Rees is coming along. The special guest today is octogenarian New York jazz legend Barry Harris.

 

After a quick warm-up, the kids are singing Harris’s “Ay-ba-da-ba-wee-boo” minutes later. Two little ones are encouraged to come to the microphone to lead a scat-improvisation session, and have no trouble getting the attention of their fellow singers.

 

My own prejudices have crumbled. I’m shocked at how these little ones have taken to a series of downtempo jazz songs, introduced by a soft-spoken 80-year-old man.

 

“You have to be the best,” Harris croons into a microphone. “We’re just here for one thing. You’re not doing this for yourselves; you’re doing this for everyone else.”

 

Later, Rees explains how he tried these workshops at Jane-Finch last year with great success. As part of a five-year project, he’s moving the choral workshops to a different group area each year. The previous year’s chorus will join the current one at a concert at Koerner Hall in the new year.

Jameson’s role in all of this is not a simple one. She admits that music may not always be a focal point in the classroom these days.

 

“It is such a mixed bag,” she says. “There are schools with wonderful programs. There are other schools where that’s not the focus. There are schools that rely exclusively on community partnerships.”

 

But she’s doing the best she can to make sure there’s at least a bit of exposure to real, professional music-making for each of the 250,000 young people under her jurisdiction.

 

Hearing the kids leave their workshop singing “Baby, Let Me Tell You `Bout One Time,” convinces me that there will be plenty more to sing about in the future.

 

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