On a chilly Thursday morning in January, close to 300 grade school students packed the warm cafetorium at Westview Centennial Secondary School in Toronto and cheered as a few dozen of their peers took the stage.
One by one, small groups of three or four students approached the microphone, as a small band played jazz music behind them.
“I was going outside and the temperature dropped today,” one group sang into the microphone.
The rest of the student congregation joined in, repeating that phrase. The lyrics were improvised, made up just moments before they stepped up to perform.
The We Are One Jazz Project is not your ordinary school choir. It is the brainchild of Howard Rees, a Jewish musician and educator from Toronto, founder of the oldest independent jazz school in Canada.
Launched in 2008, and now partnered with the Toronto District School Board, the program brings students from grades three to five from priority areas in the city together to sing jazz compositions written for them.
The kids learn the music of jazz pianist, composer and educator Barry Harris, plus improvisation, scatting and more. Professional musicians mentor this large-scale jazz choir from October until a gala performance held in February.
This year’s We Are One concert performance is on Feb. 11 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. There, the 300 students will perform with a big band, an adult choir and a senior string ensemble from Humberside Collegiate.
“We have four conductors. We were thinking of applying to the Olympics as a synchronized conducting activity,” jokes Rees, who adds that three of the conductors are some of his former students.
Also joining the Jazz Project at the gala concert this year is Harris and Charles McPherson, one of the world’s foremost alto saxophonists. Rees says that it is important to hook up young students getting interesting in music with the masters of the art form.
“[Harris] is one of those important people,” Rees says. “In the classical world, it would be like having Chopin here. That’s his stature.”
Rees is also an apprentice of Harris and says he established the project as a way to inspire schoolchildren.
“What we’re doing is a community building thing that happens to use music,” Rees says. “It’s about giving the kids a chance, giving them something to feel good about. Most of these kids don’t have music in their schools anyway, so we’re their music program.”
Jazz has, historically, been a kind of music that brought about social change. Rees says he sees the project as a path for students who may be from low-income families and disadvantaged areas.
The program offers the kids the opportunity to express themselves through music. In December, a young boy came up on stage at a rehearsal to do some skat singing (jazz singing in which improvised syllables are sung to a melody). After he performed, the entire back row started to clap. Rees says that one of the teachers told him after that the boy has been mute the whole year and nobody had heard him speak.
“If you create a safe environment where [children] feel comfortable to try things without fear of embarrassment, their creativity soars,” says Adrian Goodman, a music teacher at Pauline Johnson Junior Public School, which was involved with We Are One last year.
The jazz project works in a different priority neighbourhood of the Greater Toronto Area each year. This year, the program runs for eight schools in the Jane/Finch corridor.
Although the students are young, Rees and choir conductor Brian Katz do not treat them like kids. At a rehearsal, when Katz leads the students in Harris’s songs, he abruptly stops the melody if he notices that the kids are off-key, off-melody or even off-volume.
Katz sometimes tests the kids, asking how many bars are in the intro. Most of the time, the students respond correctly.
“It’s amazing how kids from Grade 3 can learn [jazz and] all those syncopated rhythms,” Katz said “But, in fact, kids have such fast nervous systems. Kids totally get that. They live in that universe of really fast rhythms.”
When Katz conducts or leads the students in a warm-up, he acts like a big kid too. He swings his arms to emphasize the rhythm, and raises and lowers his voice in an animated way. Katz engages and excites the crowd so much that even some of the teachers join in with the jumping, swaying and singing.
Rees says there is an “angel” who provides most of We Are One’s operating budget and remains anonymous. Private and corporate sponsors fund the rest of the project.
The best part of the jazz project is that it offers these young minds something outside of their everyday experience that can have a positive influence on their lives, Rees says.
“The kids love it because it’s fun, it’s different and it opens their minds. You have to be disciplined, you have to concentrate. There is a lot of work involved. It helps you think about being a more creative person.”