Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


The Bridge: The HJM Experience

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Hugh John Macdonald School, up on Bannatyne near the Health Sciences Centre, has been a weekly destination for a few of us since the beginning of January. We’ve been testing out and refining a brand new program called The Bridge—an outreach effort to connect with and support young musicians in the inner city.

Steve Kirby has been carrying this dream around since he left his own inner city neighbourhood and began his trek toward a career as a jazz musician. St Louis isn’t the same as Winnipeg, but the challenges are similar—too little money, too little access to musical training that’s ubiquitous in suburban neighborhoods, a damped-down vision of what’s possible in a lifetime. Steve experienced those periodic visits from the bigger world as a lifeline, and he’s been determined to offer it in turn.

Hugh John is a special place—the leadership is passionately committed to the kids who make up its community, and both the school and its after-school program, Peaceful Village, have created an extraordinary network of relationships with other schools and with support systems to help the students and their families thrive.

When we approached the school, it was quick and enthusiastic about piloting The Bridge. For them, we were not an administrative headache or an intrusion on the normal flow, but an opportunity for their students’ enrichment. So twice a week, Curtis Nowosad and Kristopher Ulrich and I joined Steve for a couple of hours after school making music with any of these junior high kids who felt like attending.

At the outset, Steve said, We’re gonna find musicians there. It’s not that I didn’t believe him—I just didn’t realize that the kind of kids we met there actually existed.

Imagine this: three girls, packed onto a piano bench, teaching each other to find E or B, then learning the hand positions for blues chording—and remembering them the next week. Or a young guy with basic guitar skills holding down a bass line in his first week. Or a posse of kids with sticks finding the coordination to play several different drum stylings.

We’ve met all kinds of learners over the past six months—kids who are there as soon as the doors are unlocked, kids who cruise through a couple of times a month, kids who come for a few sessions then wander off to other things. Their skill development obviously mirrors their investment, but what stays with me is the palpable excitement that accompanies their learning, whether they’re finding three different pitches on the upright bass or blazing through a blues tune and feeling that twelve-bar structure.

Their eagerness about everything we could offer and their fearless pursuit of the joy of making music inspires me to take better care of my own learner. I’ve actually picked up the bass at a few of our jam sessions—and I didn’t break it! These kids remind me of the special thrill of learning, and it’s not the same thrill that accompanies excellence. These kids have heart, and I love them for it.

It’s not that they don’t actually know the thrill of excellence—seven or eight kids have practiced faithfully and worked up some great repertoire. They’ve performed for special visitors to their school, and joined the Jazz on Wheels band at the Ellice Street Festival. Nobody in that crowd whooped because they were just kids—they erupted in applause because they’re good musicians. They’ll be back on the Jazz on Wheel stage several times this summer, making their own first forays as musicians.

Steve was right: we did find musicians there. And we’ll find more next year.

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