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Jazz on Wheels: Rolling Out

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The summer of 2009 is another chance to roll out the Street Corner Symphony. I continue to reach for the original ideal which is a band where every musician knows how to feature themselves, and how to talk about their instrument in a very entertaining and engaging way. It’s important to have a lot of different instruments, not so much for the orchestration but because I want the people we play for to see them and get to know what those sounds are.

The idea for Jazz on Wheels is to engage audiences, but it’s also to absorb some of the culture of the neighborhoods we visit. This year’s band is young and spirited, and open to that kind of challenge. Turns out that everybody in the band is on the dean’s honor list—we even have this year’s gold medalist!

We’ve been out a few times now, and it’s clear that all of the band members really like kids. I see some of the more quiet ones like Simon Christie stepping up, making dance moves on the stage, coordinating kids to do it with him. Shannon Kristjanson is warm and open and friendly. Jared Castels-Rees is probably the most shy, but when I put him in situations where he could instruct young players, he took to it like a duck to water. Bert Johnson is one of the warmest hearts in the band and fast becoming a sensation on the piano. Curtis Nowosad is the confident professional anchoring the band, but at the same time, he’s the biggest kid. Then there’s Amber Epp—Amber was born to engage children.

We’ve also had a couple of chances to feature Jessica McMann. She’s a young flute player in the jazz program, but she’s also a nationally recognized hoop dancer, and has brought her amazing traditional aboriginal dances to our shows. She’s dancing in Europe for a chunk of the summer, but will be back with us when we’re on stage in September.

The Jazz on Wheels goal is to help the kids we play for to see themselves in the music. When this band visited some middle schools and high schools, we called up players from the audience and put them up there beside our guys. With a little instruction, they could really enter the musical conversation, and everybody—these young players, their teachers, their peers in the audience—got hooked by how exciting it is, and see that they can actually succeed.

The Street Corner Symphony players have been learning the ropes, and they’re really beginning to understand what it is we want to do. They’re getting inspired to research their own instruments, to learn some funny stuff—kids love funny stuff!—and then really tell stories with their horns. We’re building a “talking band” that combines a lot of seriousness with a playful attitude. I want a bunch of crackerjacks out there, like the Harlem Globetrotters!

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