YARMOUTH – Recently, a three-piece band was playing “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock when the hip young audience walked into that day’s best jazz club on Cape Cod, the Station Avenue Elementary School gymnasium.
“They know that funk feel. They know that rock feel that we’re doing,” said drummer, Bart Weisman of the Hancock song that opened a 45-minute presentation on the history of jazz.
The versatile, fun musicians – Weisman, of Orleans, on drums, Fred Boyle, of Yarmouth, on piano and Rich Hill, of Bourne, on bass – played for something of an actual “captive” audience.
That day’s audience – 430 students, grades Kindergarten to 3rd Grade, and their teachers – once seated, were quickly transported back 100 years with a rendition of “Ain’t Misbehaving” by Fats Waller.
The program, which started in 2014, of bringing live jazz into Cape Cod schools is the brainstorm of Weisman. It is funded by donations from the non-profit, Provincetown Jazz Festival and other donations and grants. It is booked by the Cape Conservatory of Music and presented for free in schools.
“This is a free presentation,” said Weisman. “How cool is that for the school?”
Weisman, who performs all over the Cape, is the founder of the Provincetown Jazz Festival and a teacher at the Cape Conservatory. “The one thing that kept coming up in my own stomach is that I am not passing this onto the next generation.”
And that’s how his dream of bringing live jazz into Cape Cod Schools was born.
The recent show at Station Avenue Elementary School was not just a listening experience.
Weisman played drums and also taught some jazz history and music theory between songs while encouraging clapping, counting and even dancing. It was an interactive experience.
Suzanne Christie, music teacher at the school, said the concert and history lesson were great. “I enjoyed watching my students enjoy it… There were so many smiles in the room.”
Principal Peter Crowell said, “I loved watching the kids… Having exposure to live music is not something these kids get enough of in their lives.”
Music and the arts, said Crowell, is part of “whole brain” learning that can help a student become well rounded. The creative aspect of learning is important, he said.
Having fun didn’t seem to hurt either.
As this large group of small people walked into the gymnasium/jazz club, there were a lot of instant air drummers among them. Many others began moving to the beat as they filed to their seats on the floor.
Yet others paused briefly, wide-eyed while looking and listening in questioning wonder at this thing called jazz.
A few students even held their hands over their ears.
Ah, a live audience. In jazz, anything can happen. Especially in this dynamic which switches the roles of audience and band members upside down. In this case, the band chose the audience.
Weisman said he has focused on bringing the music to elementary schools and middle schools.
The students got to clap along and at one point voted on one of four versions of the song, “Summertime” by George Gershwin. Then, with the winning version chosen, Weisman encouraged the students to get up and dance.
Weisman told the students about the Big Band Era and then his band played “Take The A Train,” written by Billy Strayhorn and made popular by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. “This was your great grandparent’s music,” he told the audience. “This was their rap music.”
On January 8, Weisman brought the program to the Barnstable Community Innovation School. According to Sarah Greer, project based learning coach at the school, “We have a diverse population. For 50 percent of our students, their first language is not English.”
The Jazz In Schools program was bought into the Barnstable Innovation School, said Greer, because, “We were looking for enriching experiences that our students may not otherwise have a chance to see.”
“It was definitely worth it,” said Greer. “Music is the universal language.”
The band “hooked the kids from the second they came in,” she said of the music.
“I didn’t think it would be as interactive as it was,” she said. “It was fun.”
“Even the kids who don’t speak English very well and are pretty reserved in the classroom would light up and smile and dance. It was pretty amazing to see them all interact together and dancing and laughing and listening and understanding.”
“I can’t speak highly enough of the show,” she said.
“This is pretty unique,” said Weisman. “Most places you go around the country are not doing this. We are trying to go to every public school we can on the Cape,” he said.
The focus is on elementary schools and middle schools, said Weisman. “Many of these kids are listening to live jazz for the very first time,” he said.
“We’re taking America’s music to them,” he said. “This is one of America’s only original art forms… and now it is played all over the world,” said Weisman.
The 45-minute history lesson included American classics by the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, and it also included Afro Cuban Jazz as well as smooth jazz, including a great original, “Smooth Sailing” written by the piano player, Boyle.
Just before the program ended and the students left the gym to another Herbie Hancock Song, “Watermelon Man” the students were asked if they liked it and there was an enormous roar and then an ovation.
As the students left, again, there was bopping, ponytails swings, and even something of a conga line.
Weisman reflected on why he is bringing jazz into Cape Cod schools. “I was watching Star Trek, The Next Generation. And they’re in a lounge playing live jazz. They’re playing jazz,” he said again.
“It is science fiction, of course, but it survives,” he said. “Three hundred years into the future.”
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