REPRINTED with permission
ASA|Cabaret Scenes January/February 2020
A NOTE from Cabaret Hotspot! Editor, David Sabella: In our effort to promote educational programs Cabaret Hotspot! proudly partners with Cabaret Scenes magazine and the American Songbook Association to bring you information on this important school program offered by the ASA. For more information on the program please contact the ASA at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Carolyn Montogmery
In my role as Director of Education for the American Songbook Association, I’m developing a musical curriculum, presented in the form of live performances, for New York City’s public-school students, Pre-K through high school. The programs are carefully scripted with age-appropriate language and material and are designed to spark delight and curiosity about three specific genres: jazz, musical theater, and the American Songbook.
Though I absolutely love this work, I have the same frustrating thought every time I close a program: I cast my eyes over each group of engaged, clapping, smiling students who never want the music to end and wonder how I might continue that engagement. This is one time when I don’t want to leave them wanting more! These eager learners deserve the educational enrichment that exposure to the American Songbook provides. How can I possibly give them more?
One very hot day last June, I was scouting potential schools in Harlem for my 2019/2020 program roster and passed by the original site of the Cotton Club on Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street. I stopped to buy a cold drink from a vendor who was listening to an Ellington recording that I happen to feature on my playlist. I said, “I love that tune. How many people do you think sang it right in this spot?” He smiled back at me and said, “Lots. It’s the best music there is, but nobody listens anymore.” I shook my head,
“Oh yes we do! There are people everywhere who live to keep this music playing.”
As I walked away, I thought about all of the children in Harlem, growing up exactly where so much music happened, and so many don’t have a basic knowledge of some of America’s greatest musical legacies. I wanted a student group to participate in a project that would immerse them in the Great American Songbook. I may not reach all the students in New York City, but Harlem seemed the perfect spot to start.
I did some research and found a good candidate for a school: PS 96, the Joseph Lanzetta School on 120th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. I made an appointment with two program directors, Jawn Bramble and Jordan Isler of Union Settlement After Care. Jawn and Jordan were very receptive to my ideas, but warned me that getting the students to participate might be difficult. I asked award- winning singer/pianist Eric Yves Garcia to partner with me for the project, which was an easy choice. Eric joined me in presenting a program to a middle school in Far Rockaway the previous May, and I was struck by his graceful rapport with the students as well as how effortlessly he held their attention.
Eric and I made our first trip to the school in September to speak to students and program coordinators and to determine what the school had in the way of space, equipment, and time for rehearsals. We performed a short program for the students, featuring jazz and standards, and asked if any of them were interested in pursuing that type of music further. To our immense delight and no small amount of surprise, a number of students indicated interest. We held auditions and asked if they would be willing to commit to considerable rehearsal hours over three months’ time and at least three performances in January, February, and March of 2020. As we were warned, some of the students refused to commit that much time and effort to music with which they are so unfamiliar.
After three weeks of encouragement and negotiation, we had our group. There are 10 girls and two boys, between the ages of 11 and 13. Few of them have had any musical training. Most of them have never sung a solo in front of an audience. None of them were familiar with a single song we’ve selected for the show. We chose these students not for their vocal prowess but rather for their enthusiasm and interest. Neither Eric nor I are seeking to create singing sensations. We want to cultivate a love for this music that provides them a lifetime of playing, listening, and perhaps even performing pleasure.
We settled on Johnny Mercer as the muse, which gave us an extensive and varied number of song choices. The best moment in this whole experience (to date) was when we assigned and introduced each child to his or her song. These assignments were made after interviews where we asked them a lot about themselves: their favorite places, best memories, favorite kinds of weather, and songs they like. One girl sat listening to her song, “I Thought about You,” and whispered, “It’s like she’s singing my life.” Another became slightly tearful as she listened to Blossom Dearie sing “I’m Old Fashioned” and said, “I love this song. It’s just like me. How did you know?” These students are learning about the power of a lyric. That’s powerful stuff, indeed.
Our first performance will be on Thursday, January 30 at 1:00 pm at the New York Council for Jewish Women in Manhattan. There will be two more performances in February and March, TBA. Eric and I have received some spectacular offers from venues that value young people embracing the old songs, just as much as we do.
We have our work cut out for us, but the work is a joy. The students are catching on fast, and we all laugh a lot as they grapple with unfamiliar language and challenging expressions of sentiment. We’re encouraging them to make a song their own, to design it for themselves as they would an outfit. We want them to be comfortable, until the music feels like a good friend. If the ASA can establish a warm, lasting relationship between middle-schoolers in Harlem and classic American standards, our mission to promote this wonderful music is wholly accomplished.