Jazzing up the lives of Toronto kids

Local Musician Brings Music Program to ‘At-Risk’ Students

Post City Magazines - January 2010


By Michelle Ervin

IT WAS BY chance that Howard Rees found the inspiration for a program that would bring the joy of jazz to Toronto youth.


While cleaning one day, the Davisville Village resident uncovered pages composed years before by his mentor, jazz pianist Barry Harris. As he began to rehearse the melodies, the music evoked warm memories of the annual concerts he had performed while studying under the legendary musician.


Rees, also a jazz pianist, was reminded of how important the experience had been for him and imagined how wonderful it would be if he could put together a similar concert for children living in Toronto.


His Outreach Project, now in its sophomore year, introduces students to jazz music who wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to train with master musicians.


Focusing on a different at-risk neighbourhood in the GTA each year, this year’s program incorporates students from the downtown core.


“It’s about giving the kids a forum to feel good about themselves because I think that’s where real change starts,” Rees says.


In addition to the elementary school children who sing in the large jazz choir, the ensemble also features a big band, the Toronto Jazz Chorus and a string section from North Toronto Collegiate Institute. Participants meet over four months to rehearse for a final concert that will take place on Jan. 28 in Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory.


The five-year initiative was organized with the Toronto District School Board, Toronto Catholic District School Board and Howard Rees.


After a successful trial run attracted approximately 300 students, participation has nearly doubled this year. Rees says he plans to expand the program to accommodate more students next year.


The importance of exposing children to the arts is about nurturing creativity, Rees says. “Jazz allows one the ability to be free,” he says. “It’s the height of creativity as far as music goes.”


Not only does music help students tap into their creativity, it is a confidence booster, too.


In only its second year, the program has already garnered the praise of teachers, parents and government officials alike.


“We’ve had all sorts of reports from teachers on children who had previously been really quiet and shy in the class who are now happy to ask questions and stand up and answer things,” Rees says.


There was even one case where a child had stopped stuttering, he adds.


To date, the program has run on a $70,000 budget, donated entirely by one individual.


“We are incredibly fortunate that we have had the backing of a beautiful individual who basically just believes in the music and believes in reaching young people with the music,” he says.


The generous contributions of the anonymous Toronto-based donor have allowed Rees to deliver the program for free. KPMG and the TD Bank have also announced plans to sponsor the program, he adds.


Several Scarborough-area elementary schools — which have been hoping to participate for the past two years — are possible candidates for next year’s program, he says.


Rees says, at the end of the five year initiative, he hopes to renew the program for another five years.


It’s a way for Rees to carry on the teaching tradition that shaped his path in life. In his early 20s, he moved to New York for what he thought would be a six-month stay to study under Harris. Six months turned into seven years.


In Harris, Rees found a mentor and a friend.


Upon his return to Toronto, Rees set up Howard Rees’ Jazz Workshops — now Canada’s oldest independent jazz school. It has since attracted students from around the globe.


For Rees, his reward from the Outreach Project is simple: “To see the look on the kids’ faces when they’re at rehearsal or when they’re at the concert ... that makes it worthwhile in itself,” he says.



Project Partner
Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board
Lead Sponsors
Lead Sponsors Telus Mobility Black Artists' Networks Dialogue TD Canada Trust
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