Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

Jazz on Wheels

Jazz on Wheels is an outreach program that brings jazz to youth.


Jazz on Wheels: Into the Neighbourhoods!

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Jazz on Wheels, Winnipeg’s jazz-based street party band, is back and rolling through inner-city festivals and outdoor parties throughout Winnipeg this summer. As always, the group is a mix of professional musicians and young apprentices—the energy is infectious and the music is lively. This is my first year as leader, and I’m excited!

Throughout the school year, I direct the Bridge: Music for Life program at Hugh John Macdonald School. It’s a unique program offering music instruction to junior high students, many of them new Canadians. Because we often don’t all speak the same language, we learn music by ear, focusing on rhythm and playing in time together. The repertoire is familiar, the results astounding.

I see Jazz on Wheels as a performance academy for the most eager and motivated students in the Bridge program. Performing for an audience is an amazing way to generate enthusiasm in young musicians, and JOW will be the perfect vehicle (pardon the pun) for Bridge students to experience that thrill over the summer.

Jazz on Wheels has always brought student musicians together with mentoring professionals. This year we have a number of Winnipeg’s top-tier professional musicians on board, including Todd Martin, my partner at the Bridge and front man for the Dirty Catfish Brass Band. As well as the professionals and the current HJM students, we’re inviting several graduates of the Bridge program back to perform with us and mentor our current students, fulfilling a long-time dream of mine. I’ve always told students they’re in the band for life, so I love the idea of bringing in some of my stars from years past to round out an exciting and diverse ensemble.

As dig! goes to press, we’re still finalizing performance dates. We do know that Jazz on Wheels will be performing on July 29 for the opening of the Canada Summer Games. We are also slated to perform for the Sherbrook Street Festival, CSI’s Summer Learning program, and the Daniel McIntyre Community Association. And we finish our season on September 6 at the Rossbrook House Street Festival. Check the dig! website, or follow me on Twitter, @nwatsonsax, and I’ll pass along the details as they’re finalized.

With a high-energy set list, including songs by Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Elton John, and Justin Timberlake, and a talented cast of professional and student musicians, Jazz on Wheels is a party in the making! Be sure to check us out when we roll into your community this summer.

David Sanborn: Master Mentor

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In 2010, I suffered a brain hemorrhage that initially paralyzed my right side. I was primarily a pianist back then and thought that my musical dreams were shattered. But saxophonist Walle Larsson knew different. He told me, “David Sanborn had polio as a child and spent a year in an iron lung. Like you, David experienced paralysis, yet he went on to become one of the most influential sax players of our time. If he can do it, so can you!”

Hugely inspired, I dug deep into the Sanborn catalogue, learning to use my right hand again on the sax under Walle’s watchful eye and spending endless hours playing along with David’s music at home.

In 2015, I got to see my hero live in Omaha, Nebraska. When I told my sax professor Jon Gordon that I was going, he made some calls and arranged for me to meet David. I thought that I’d be lucky to simply say hello and shake his hand. But when he heard a bit about my story, he was curious to know more. Incredibly, we sat down for over an hour together backstage talking recovery and music. I couldn’t believe it!

You might think that the advice I received would be technical or sax specific, but it wasn’t. David’s words of wisdom, gained from playing alongside such legends as Gil Evans, Christian McBride, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and the Eagles, apply to any musician.

David told me that his style was actually a result of his limitations—a real blessing in disguise. He couldn’t be the loudest or play the longest notes because of his shallow lung capacity. He couldn’t be the fastest due to his slow left hand, and he couldn’t be the flashiest because the effects of polio restricted his movement on stage. But within those boundaries David discovered the raw, soulful sound that makes every note he plays so compelling.

“Find what works for you,” Dave told me. “Not everyone is going to like your style, and really, you can’t be concerned about how someone feels about your music anyway. You can’t control what people think and everyone’s tastes are different. So you have to play the style that’s true to you and tells your story best. Be honest. Tell your story truthfully. Tell it from your soul. Copying other people and not playing what’s inside you may fool some people initially, but they’re eventually going to see through it. Audiences know when it’s not real.”

“You know you can go by the practice rooms at Berkeley and hear people tearing up ‘Giant Steps’ but the thing is, Coltrane’s already told his story, it’s already out there. When I play, I tell my story. You don’t want to tell my story or Trane’s story—you want to tell your own.”

I asked David how he brings so much emotion into his playing. He said, “Every time I pick up the horn, I just think about how grateful I am to be here. I’m grateful to be alive and blessed to be able to do this for a living.”

Music heals and truly is the best therapy. David’s shown that with a deep passion for music, anything is possible. “Gratitude, humility and patience,” David said. “I remind myself of those words every day.”

It sure is cool when your hero not only sounds as great as you knew he would, but is also the awesome person you’d hoped he’d be. I feel so fortunate to have met him. Thanks David!

CanU? Oh Yes We Can!

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Surprisingly, every year of CanU Jazz has been unique. In the beginning, no one really knew how this was to be done. Three hours of time. Several rooms with pianos and drums and guitars and microphones. Around twenty middle-grades kids from underserved schools pouring off school buses at the end of the regular school day. A handful of university students figuring out how to put pedagogy into practice. Let’s just say there was a lot of chaos and wonder—those were epic times.

Now we have a few years under our belts, and we know a bit more what to expect. There are a few variables, but for the most part, every year we get keen, curious, enterprising young fifth and sixth graders who are eager and hungry for information about how to play rhythm section instruments. The university students in the jazz pedagogy course become “jazz buddies” in feeling as well as in title. Some of them return year after year because they discover such a deep satisfaction in this work.

It’s a lot of fun watching the kids choose what they’re going to learn because they approach it with a sense of empowerment, and they’re enthusiastic about doing what it takes to learn. Some of them struggle more than others, but this year the big thing is the sense of cooperation and support that the students bring to the class. I’m gonna attribute some of that to the school teachers who have been tracking this project over the years, and also to the CanU staff—Roger Berrington, Britney Truman, and others—and how they’ve analyzed the outcomes each year.

What I’m seeing this year? The kids arrived knowing what’s possible, they’re eager to get it, and they’re bringing a desire to cooperate and a hunger for music.

Long story short, this year’s CanU class is a dream. The kids have chosen some really catchy popular tunes, and they are just working their hearts out to learn to play them. They’re looking forward to having a chance to perform them for their peers and parents at the big CanU windup showcase on
March 7. (If your faith in humanity is flagging, drop by—that whole event will fuel you for weeks!)

The “jazz buddies” are on the front lines, delivering instruction and supporting the learning experience. They have reflected time and again in their journals how rewarding this work is. I think it’s because they see themselves in those kids. They see the learning process from a different perspective. They get insight into their own struggles and their own victories. They learn more about empathy, an important element that often gets left out of the delivery of music education.

All of us have had a wonderful first term. The kids are terrific. We’ve loved having our CanU volunteer Josephine on hand to provide moral support and fix problems before they arise. I am inspired by the eagerness and accomplishments of the young musicians, and gratified to see these young adult mentors find new capacities in themselves. Bravo CanU Jazz!

The Bridge: Starting Strong

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When I see my students’ enthusiasm at rehearsal and the joy they take in performance I find myself questioning why more people don’t learn to play a musical instrument. Why doesn’t everyone want to do this? Readers of this space will be familiar with my mantra when it comes to teaching: success breeds enthusiasm. And my goal has always been to give my students a taste of that success as quickly as possible.

On Wednesday, October 12 we began year six of The Bridge, a music class for youth in Winnipeg’s inner city who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. It’s a voluntary class that takes place three afternoons a week at Hugh John Macdonald School. Saxophone, trumpet, trombone, flute, clarinet, keyboards, electric guitar, bass, drums and vocals are among the instruments students can choose to learn. The first class is our opportunity to meet the newly arrived students at HJM—it’s our one chance to pique their interest and get them excited about joining The Bridge. For that hour our goal is to give students packed into the school’s theater an idea of how amazing it is to make music with a band.

We do this by giving all the students in the room some instant success. Yes, they make music—together—on Day 1! We focus on rhythm, the oh-so-important foundation of all music and the starting point for everything we do at The Bridge. One third of the room are our drummers. One third “plays” bass, and the last group plays keyboard. Three separate rhythms are played at the same time.

Drum rhythm


Bass rhythm


Piano rhythm


We practice clapping and stomping until each group is playing on the same underlying pulse. It’s an extraordinary, exhilarating sound that reverberates throughout the school. It’s like hearing fans stomping and clapping to “We Will Rock You” at a hockey game, only here we have three interlocking rhythms being played simultaneously.

Now the fun part. Volunteers from each section—and there are many!—come up and get a quick technique lesson on how to hold a drum stick or pluck a bass string, or what notes to play on piano. Then they play that rhythm on their instrument while I improvise a melody on my saxophone. Presto! In one class students are making music. With some early success there is a ton of enthusiasm for The Bridge and the year ahead.

While that Day 1 experience is very much an introductory class, it is the basis of everything we will do over the course of the school year. Rhythm always remains our primary focus, and everything else—scales, sound, harmony, note-reading—will come from that foundation. It is, in my experience, an incredibly effective, organic, and fun way to learn music. Students achieve remarkable success quickly and that success kicks off a lifetime of music-making.

Preparing for Lift-Off

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Things are warming up in the band room at Hugh John Macdonald School down on Bannatyne as the Bridge Program gets started for another year. Director Neil Watson has been presiding over a growing band program in this inner city junior high school. Last year saw a lively group of young musicians connect across languages and cultures several times a week, then perform for peers and community on multiple occasions.

This year, they’ll be carefully unpacking trumpets and trombones, drumsticks and guitars, saxophones and microphones, getting ready to do it all over again—the experienced ones supporting the newcomers. All of them are gaining confidence and pride along the way, all of them learning that they belong, and that their particular voice matters.

At the south end of the city, the next incarnation of CanU Jazz is getting ready for lift-off too. Every week, as part of the CanU program offering enrichment opportunities to underserved schools, a cluster of vibrant, energetic middle school kids bus to the University of Manitoba campus for a three-hour hands-on musical experience.

With Steve Kirby at the helm and the Jazz Studies pedagogy students as the “jazz buddies,” these kids learn that they’re actually young guitarists, bassists, drummers, pianists, and singers in training—they just need to choose pop songs they love, then hunker down and figure out how to play them. Musical games, dancing, team-building, food, fun, and periodic melodrama are also part of the mix.

As Hugh John Macdonald principal Vinh Huynh once observed, “there are no fences around talent.” As we make music learning opportunities available to kids who fall outside the usual circle, we discover musical gifts, resilient spirits, and untapped capacities in these terrific young kids. As instructors and jazz buddies, we find those things in ourselves too.

Crossing the Bridge with Courage

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As we wrap up another year of The Bridge: Music for Life—our most ambitious year by far in terms of student enrollment, rehearsals, and performances—I want to take a moment to talk about the remarkable people at Winnipeg 1 School Division and, in particular, Hugh John MacDonald School.

HJM has served as host school for the Bridge program since its inception in 2011, and behind-the-scenes support from the staff, led by Principal Vinh Huynh, has been tremendous. Transporting 25 or 30 students plus all of their instruments and sound equipment to a gig (did I mention the plethora of performances we’ve had this year?), then getting everybody home safe and sound means a lot of teachers and Educational Assistants are loading up their cars and criss-crossing the city to various performance venues. It takes the support and effort of many people to make these performance opportunities work, and I’m grateful to the team at HJM for their dedication.

I find the culture Vinh has helped shape within the walls of his school inspiring. Earlier this year, I heard him talk about the Circle of Courage, a First Nations philosophy outlining what young people need as they grow. There are four points in the circle: Belonging, Independence, Mastery and Generosity. As I listened, it occurred to me that The Bridge embraces these same key characteristics.

The unique environment in which we teach, with a diverse student body from all corners of the globe, encourages inclusion or Belonging. Music is inclusive—it always has been. In our class, students belong to the band and we make music together regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomic status.

Students develop Independence—and, along the way, leadership and teamwork—as they help shape the repertoire we learn and the direction our rehearsals take. Everybody adds something to the music, and when all those moving parts come together in rhythm, beautiful art is created.

Mastery of a song takes months. Mastery of an instrument takes a lifetime. Students begin to develop an appreciation of this concept as part of the band and the reward of a masterful performance has long-lasting benefits.

Generosity is something I see when the Bridge band performs, spreading music’s positive energy to our audience. Truthfully, I’m only beginning to appreciate the effect this energy has, and we’ve made it our mission to reach as many people as we can with that positivity, one performance at a time.

We have one more concert slated for this year, on July 9 for the National Trustee Gathering on Aboriginal Education, and our incredible team of students, teachers and EAs will gather once more as we bring people together and spread good will through music. I’m looking forward to it!

The Bridge: On Stage

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The 2016 members of the Bridge: Music for Life program at Hugh John Macdonald School have been busy. With numerous performances augmenting our regular class time I’ve noticed something remarkable: my students have grown to love performing. Their joy on stage is palpable. Without a doubt, there is much value in playing for an audience!

As I watch these young musicians stretch themselves as performers, I find myself reflecting on my first experience as a teacher. When I was 18, I opened a music school with a couple of friends and began teaching saxophone. In my studio I had a MacIntosh LC, loaded with a play-along program called Band-in-a-Box, connected to an enormous old amplifier. The first song my beginning students would tackle was the Flintstones theme. We would play it while the computer program provided harmonic and rhythmic support. Finally, I would open up my 13’ x 9’ studio to parents who would squeeze in around the giant computer and even giant-er amplifier to hear us play with our fake band. My thinking was “success creates enthusiasm,” and I wanted young musicians to experience success as quickly as possible. Being able to perform the Flintstones theme for appreciative parents was a tremendous motivator for those beginner musicians.

Fast forward 22 years, and my philosophy remains the same. Over the course of the last four years as director of The Bridge program, I’ve seized every opportunity to showcase students’ talent and passion for music, and to give them a taste of success on their instrument.

This year has brought a seemingly endless stream of invitations for the Bridge band. The Healthy Child Conference (with a national audience of 500 or so people), Hugh John MacDonald’s Village Feast (for a few hundred fellow students and parents), a provincial education press conference (with Premier Selinger himself in attendance), and several Winnipeg School Division events have all included memorable performances by our junior high musicians. Looking ahead, Shine Your Light with the ANANSI performing arts group, Arts in the Heart of the City, and a show at the West End Cultural Centre promise to be highlights on our concert calendar. 

Every outing has been full of remarkable advancements as these young musicians rise to the challenge and share their love for music with audiences of every imaginable size and composition. But I see now that musical growth is just one benefit. These performance opportunities are showcasing a myriad of other positive traits as well, qualities like cooperation, self-expression, confidence, discipline, and creativity.

As a teacher I marvel at the growth of the diverse young musicians in the Bridge band—from timid and hesitant to jubilant and assertive. It is, frankly, amazing to watch from the front lines. The joy students in the Bridge have found in performing marks the beginning of a lifetime of music-making and I’m thrilled to be a part of that process.

Look for us at a concert venue near you! 

CanU? Yes You Can!

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For the past three years, the jazz pedagogy class at the University of Manitoba has been offering a jazz academy through the CanU Canada learning program, and each year it just gets better and better.

One reason is that everyone has some idea of what to expect. Both the university students and the middle school kids come better prepared every year.

The goal of the CanU Jazz Academy is to empower kids to do things that they thought were not possible. Along the way, they get inside access to things that previously had a lot of mystery attached to them—like understanding how popular music is put together.

They also learn to work together to create a diversified unit that can perform in concert with a common goal of excellence.

This class is taught by jazz pedagogy students—I’m basically in the background as a supporter, coach, and occasional diversion expert. These university students spend a few short weeks anticipating the scenarios that will play out when the middle school kids arrive in October, and designing strategies to move them from a mob of kids to a group of focused performers.

On the ground, the challenges vary as much as the ethnicities and personalities of the individual students. There is a fair amount of pure crowd control that happens each week, but the reward is when all those little budding jazz students one by one surprise themselves with bright moments of discovery. (The other reward for me is watching the jazz buddy mentors find skills and care they didn’t know they even possessed!)

Our December class ended with an in-house concert of popular music, accompanied by food and holiday season candy. We are all anticipating the new year because we will be focused on preparing for a big closing concert in March, where we’ll perform for the parents and families of kids in all the CanU learning streams. At that point, a select handful of the finest junior CanU Jazz musicians will be invited to participate in the Jazz on Wheels Academy, a more intensive training setting, then perform over the summer with the Jazz on Wheels band.

So when the snow is gone, watch for the next incarnation of the Jazz on Wheels band, featuring bright future stars from the CanU Jazz program. We’ll be performing in a neighborhood near you!

The Bridge: Time Flies

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Year six (wow!) of the Bridge program began on October 14 with our annual grade seven introduction class. All of the newly-arrived students—60–70 in total—packed into Hugh John Macdonald’s theatre to witness first-hand what The Bridge is all about.

Emphasis in this class (and the foundation of everything we do at The Bridge) is the importance of rhythm and playing in time with one another. All year we’ll be using our ears and listening to band-mates as rhythmic layers are stacked upon one another. The end result is always extraordinary and, even here at the humble beginning of our journey, I’m impressed with students’ innate sense of rhythm.

We start by clapping a drum beat, the rhythmic bedrock of the song. Once that’s solid, the class is divided: one third remain “drummers,” while the others are split evenly into “bass” and “piano” parts. Each part is different yet, when played together on the same rhythmic plane, it sounds fantastic. From there, volunteers (there are always many!) come up and play those rhythms on their instrument. One class—and we’re making music!

There is a buzz in the school as The Bridge program starts up again. Past success has earned us a reputation amongst the student body and our introductory class only enhances the excitement students already feel. Couple that with enthusiasm from last year’s returning students—who treated the new group to an impromptu performance—and most of these grade seven students will sign up for our voluntary program.

It’s my job, alongside my partner Todd Martin and a collection of U of M students and faculty who drop by to sit in on occasion, to keep them enthusiastic about learning music. With a November 19 performance looming, it’s good to hit the ground running. There is plenty to keep us busy!

Jazz on Wheels: Music from the Heart

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Over the past couple of months, Steve Kirby’s Jazz on Wheels band entertained throngs of summer learning kids at the Sinclair Park Community Centre, and families soaking up the sun at a block party at Jacob Penner Park.

For almost a decade now, Jazz on Wheels has been providing the sound track for summer in Winnipeg neighbourhoods where live music doesn’t always happen. Gradually the dream of integrating kids from those neighbourhoods into the band is coming true. People at this summer’s performances have seen talented young musicians sitting confidently amidst their mentors, delivering enthusiastic renderings of pop favourites like “Happy” and “Uptown Funk.” In mid-July, these eight kids—Wesley, Malaihka, Ethan, Yanmife, Cooper, Makeer, and Kiana (plus Steve’s son Solomon)—were invited to the Jazz on Wheels Academy to help prepare them for their stage appearances. Several of them have gone on to attend Jazz Camp.

Though the repertoire is popular top 40 tunes, the Academy itself draws on the principles of jazz instruction: one-on-one mentorship, ear-based learning, and a focus on rhythm and the right feel over the right notes. The young musicians develop quickly because they’re fully supported and because the tunes are already in their ears. When they hit the stage, they know they’ve got pros to lean on if they have a little attack of nerves—which, interestingly enough, they don’t. These kids are having the time of their lives!

Jazz on Wheels has two more shows to wrap up the season: they’re at the Across Cultures Fall Carnival at Rossbrook House on September 4 and the Sherbrook Street Festival on September 12. Everybody is welcome, and I can pretty much guarantee you’ll leave happier than you came. Then as we move into the fall, CanU Jazz at the University of Manitoba and the Bridge Program at Hugh John Macdonald School gear up, and a new batch of musical kids gets a chance to discover their voices. These are the feeder programs for the Jazz on Wheels Academy, but more importantly they’re supporting emerging musicians who are revealing the sound of our own city. Exciting times in the Jazz Capital!

Jazz on Wheels: The Academy Is Back!

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As summertime heats up, the Jazz on Wheels band is getting ready for another season. Since 2006, this playful group of high-level musicians has been rolling into schoolyards and street fairs, bringing live music to neighbourhoods that rarely have that pleasure.

Since the start, Steve Kirby’s dream for Jazz on Wheels is that it be made up of musicians from these neighbourhoods, and every year he inches closer to that goal. For the past four years, audiences have seen talented young musicians from the Bridge program at Hugh John Macdonald tucked in amongst the pros. Last year, the circle was widened to include a handful of middle school kids from Sister MacNamara and Ryerson, members of the first ever CanU Jazz experience at the U of M.

The Jazz on Wheels band is truly beginning to reflect the diverse neighbourhoods it visits. Audiences are thrilled—these kids, some as young as 11 and most within a year of picking up an instrument, are owning the stage, playing and singing to huge crowds, proudly sharing their skills and their joy in making music.

It takes courage and determination for anybody to stand in front of a crowd and perform. All of these kids have to master their nerves and focus on the task, and that requires careful preparation. Last year, Steve initiated the Jazz on Wheels Academy, an intensive musical experience that helped eight young musicians get ready to perform with the Jazz on Wheels band. They worked up close with mentors to master their parts—and they in turn helped their mentors perfect a few tunes from their own playlists.

We’re happy to report that the Jazz on Wheels Academy is back for a second year. In late July, ten energetic young musicians, grade five through nine, will spend several hours with gifted mentors, working on repertoire and improving their technical skills. Then they’ll be invited onto the big flatbed truck as part of this year’s Jazz on Wheels band, to play their hearts out and inspire their listeners to dream of making music too.

The band’s first stop? The field day for the CSI summer learning institute, where hundreds (and hundreds) of sun-soaked pre-teens will pause for half an hour to clap and dance and be amazed that their peers can make such great music. Watch for the announcement, then drop by and be amazed too!

Ears to Hear

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Only a few short years ago, Steve Kirby was dreaming (correction, predicting) in these pages that he would find a way to gather instruments and create a viable option to deliver jazz-oriented music instruction to kids from underserved neighbourhoods. Jazz on Wheels, his mobile jazz-history party band, had already been rolling into street fairs and community centres in those neighbourhoods—the first tenuous bridges were taking shape.

Fast forward to today, and the face of our jazz community is changing. This winter, another twenty middle school kids soaked up the jazz approach in the second round of the CanU Jazz Academy, delivered at the U of M by Steve and his pedagogy students—aka the Jazz Buddies. Those kids performed their hearts out for hundreds of people at the CanU wrap-up party in March, and the ones who are moving on to junior high are figuring out how to stay connected with music.

Over at Hugh John Macdonald School, the Bridge program is going strong. Neil Watson and Simon Christie are watching an extraordinarily diverse group of junior high kids buckle down and master their instruments. With almost twenty languages in the band room at any given moment, the instructors have to keep their wits about them—and maintain a sense of humour—but they’re both struck by how an ear-based approach to music overcomes not only the challenges of adolescence, but also the dislocations that figure so powerfully in these young musicians’ lives. Music is a universal language, and these kids are connecting with one another, then sharing their music with their peers and with their community.

Plans are taking shape for another Jazz on Wheels Academy to offer extra mentoring to a handful of the keenest of the young musicians from both programs, then they’ll be folded into the Jazz on Wheels band as it ventures into our city’s underserved neighbourhoods.

Because that’s the ultimate goal: to populate the Jazz on Wheels band with kids coming out of those neighbourhoods, so that we all have a chance to hear the unique sound of Winnipeg’s diverse musical character.

CanU Jazz Academy: Playing with Fire

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Once a week, a group of around fifteen ten- and eleven-year-old kids from Sister McNamara and Ryerson schools troop into the Music Annex down at the University of Manitoba for the CanU Jazz Academy. Students from the Jazz Pedagogy course are their Jazz Buddies, and under Steve Kirby’s watchful eye, we get a hands-on opportunity to share the teaching practices we’ve learned over the past four years.

Every three-hour CanU session is nothing short of amazing. We usually begin with a few minutes of free play where the kids can choose to play drums, bass, guitar, piano or sing without any structure. These few moments sometimes may seem like pure uncontrollable chaos, but it gives the kids an opportunity to explore musically and try new instruments.

After free play, we have class activities that change from week to week. These activities give us a chance to talk as a group about song structure, lyrics, rhythm, melodies, and experiment with on-the-spot composition. After group activities we have a quick meal, and then move into small group lessons where the Jazz Buddies coach the students on various instruments. We end each session by having a group playing experience where the Jazz Buddies and the CanU kids come back together and perform the songs we have been working on together.

One of the greatest experiences as a teacher is being able to witness the beginnings of passion and love for music in the children that we teach. They come to class each week full of great questions, and receive insight from the university Jazz Buddies who are driven and passionate about what they are doing. The small group, the individual coaching, and the chance for beginning musicians to play with those of us who are beginning our professional careers, is the perfect formula for anyone who is starting out in music. These kids learn so fast, and you can see in each one of them the creative sparks powered by music.

It’s hard to believe, but we have been able to take this group of CanU kids, most of whom are playing instruments for the first time, and in just a few short weeks, teach them to play guitar, bass, drums, piano, and sing popular songs they chose themselves. At the very beginning of December, a group of them performed in front of a packed theatre with about 700 people. This experience was incredible. Not only were we able to see them get past their pre-concert jitters and warm up to the audience, but after the concert was over, their confidence grew tremendously.

At the beginning of March, the CanU Jazz Academy, both kids and Jazz Buddies, will perform for the wrap-up of the entire CanU program. When you gather kids from all the other CanU streams, plus parents and siblings, the crowd will be huge and deafening. I can’t wait to see our young jazz musicians rise to the challenge and thrill everybody with their music!

The Bridge Program: Celebrate Good Times!

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Full disclosure: it is no longer possible for me to report objectively on The Bridge program at Hugh John Macdonald School, and the music curriculum Simon Christie and I have developed. I am completely biased. Like a proud father, I think all my students are musically gifted and I desperately want to see them succeed, to experience the joy of music-making.

You see, as a musician, I know that this is one of the most powerful, life-changing (for player and audience), affirming, important activities one can pursue. Music is the oldest, most instinctual form of communication and I’ve seen first-hand its power to unite and build community. As a teacher, more than anything else, I want my students—all of them—to experience that thrill.

Which begs the question: how do I help my students hurdle the initial, rather steep learning curve? (It’s especially tough on wind instruments–big, heavy, awkward hunks of brass that require massive physical exertion just to produce a sound!) I firmly believe that putting young musicians in a position to experience early success is key to building long-term enthusiasm on their instrument. When “Strangers in New Homelands” invited The Bridge to perform at their conference in October, I jumped at the opportunity, knowing that this was a chance for my students to catch the performance bug early in the year.

“Strangers in New Homelands” shines a light on world migration and the confusion, fear, hopes, and aspirations that come with an immigrant’s arrival in a new country. The annual conference, held at the University of Manitoba, brings together researchers, academics, students, non-governmental organizations, front-line immigrant and refugee settlement workers, and government representatives from across the globe.

Our performance was scheduled for 8:45am (about twelve hours too early if you’re on “musician time”), as part of the conference opening ceremonies. In what was no doubt a daunting moment for the group, The Bridge band began the first of three songs, “I Want You Back,” by the Jackson 5. I’m pleased to report that the experience was everything I hoped it would be and more. I could feel the band relax, settle into the groove and play with more confidence as we moved into “Happy” by Pharrell Williams. By the time we got to our finale, the entire room was singing Kool and the Gang’s “CELLL-E-BRATE GOOD TIMES, C’MON!” while enthusiastically clapping along to the beat. A standing ovation from the crowd sealed the deal: this was the early success I was looking for.

That performance led to an invitation to play for a “Dinner with Chief Clunis” (an evening that brings together recent immigrants, RCMP, city councillors and the Winnipeg Police), a video shoot for the University of Manitoba, and a December performance at Hugh John MacDonald School for parents, friends and family. Enthusiasm is at an all-time high at The Bridge and the table is set for a successful second term.

The Bridge: Making Musicians

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The Bridge: Music for Life outreach program at Hugh John Macdonald School is back in full swing. With Neil Watson and Simon Christie back at the helm, these junior high kids are gathering three times each week to pick up their instruments and make music together. Neil and Simon are adopting an ear-centred approach: theory and basic reading skills are anchored by rousing sessions where all the kids work to master lively arrangements of popular songs—songs they often suggest themselves.

The Bridge has grown and matured since the pilot program in the winter of 2011. The band has branched out from rhythm section instruments to include saxes, trombones, and trumpets alongside piano, guitar, bass, and drums. The band performs periodically throughout the school year, for school and community events. This year they’re playing early in the season, for a conference at the University of Manitoba called “Strangers in New Homelands.”

I caught up with Wesley Hansen, a young piano player who joined the Bridge program last December, and rocketed forward so quickly that he was ready to attend the U of M Jazz Camp in August. Even though he’d only been at a keyboard for a few months, several of the Jazz Camp mentors commented on his musicality and everyone appreciated his droll sense of humour. I asked him to tell me about his experience as a developing musician:

My family is big with music, so I’ve always felt that I needed to play as well. I started the Bridge program in December 2013, when I was still in grade 8. I actually began playing the trombone, but I felt that wasn’t what I was looking for. I tried the drums for a bit, then eventually I ended up at the piano. With the first song I learned—“I Want You Back”—I stuck with it and stayed.

I went to the U of M Jazz Camp in August and really enjoyed it! I really loved how the camp was set up—and how much freedom I had, and not only in making music. In my ensemble, I got to work with Neil Watson, my instructor at the Bridge program. At first I thought it would be rough, but it was actually fun and I learned a lot. We learned some new tunes, and I began to improvise, even though it was really scary. I had a great time with my friends, and I met some new friends as well! I’d love to go back to Jazz Camp again—hopefully for the next few years!

The Bridge program has started up again at Hugh John Macdonald and I’m really excited. It seems some of the old cast aren’t able to join this year, so we’ll have to make some performances with a smaller group.

I love making music with other people—it’s really just a great time! It may be a lot of work, but it’s worth it in the end to hear the music…

The Jazz on Wheels Academy: Making the Grade

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It’s been a great summer for the Jazz on Wheels band, and their cohort of fiery young musicians from the Jazz on Wheels Academy!

In July, six promising students—a drummer, a guitar player, a pianist, a bass player, and two singers—met with Steve Kirby and a band of talented teachers. The kids were hand-picked from the CanU Jazz Academy, a program that offers enrichment learning for grade 5 and 6 students from Sister MacNamara and Ryerson schools, and from the Bridge, a junior high music program entering its fourth year at Hugh John Macdonald School.

These six young players connected, one-on-one with their mentors, to learn more about the technical demands of their instruments and to work up some lively repertoire to share with audiences. By the end of the month, these six sharp kids took their places with confidence and pride, performing with the Jazz on Wheels band and winning audiences with their skill and energy.

Jazz on Wheels has been taking great music into Winnipeg’s neighbourhoods for almost a decade now, and this year’s band soaked up the spirit of community at the CSI Games Day (imagine roughly a thousand kids at the Waverley Soccer Complex on one of the hottest days of summer!), at the Summer Fest neighbourhood party at the Oriole Community Centre on Burnell, and at the Austin Street Festival just off Main.

For audiences and band alike, having the Jazz Academy kids on stage was a bonus. They performed their tunes with gusto, supported by the full band, but then they stayed shoulder to shoulder with their mentors and clapped or even learned to play some new tunes on the fly.

This is the first flight for the Jazz on Wheels Performance Academy, and the kids, the mentors, and Steve are thrilled with the experience. For Steve, the band is inching closer to its ultimate incarnation: he is developing musicians in those neighborhoods who will perform for their peers and families.

For the mentors—Brooke Van Ryssel, Alec Meen, Gabriela Cardenas, and a student teacher, Gusune Amki—the sessions and the performances that followed were intense, playful, and inspiring. Gusune, an alumna of the Bridge program, underscored her sense of the privilege: “It’s so satisfying to help someone else learn!”

The kids? It won’t be long til you’ll be seeing these names in the big lights: Cooper, Ayo, Salina, Janssen, Hope, and Wesley. What a wild and wonderful group!

Jazz on Wheels

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Jazz on Wheels is about to kick off another season of great music in Winnipeg’s inner city neighbourhoods. This will be our ninth year of bringing the bridge-building power of music and fun to kids and adults who don’t always get to experience live music!

If you haven’t been in the crowd at a Jazz on Wheels performance, it’s a little hard to describe. We roll up with a flatbed as our stage (thank you Maxim!) right in the midst of the action. What happens next is part performance, part story-telling, part history lesson—and all party. A typical show will take you on a journey that includes an introduction to different instruments and styles of music, stories about the origins of jazz and the characters who’ve created it, lots of improvisation, some crowd participation, and dancing in the streets and school yards.

The Jazz on Wheels band is a machine again this year. I’m on the bass and microphone—two of my favourite things! Curtis Nowosad is back in town for the summer, and I’m so happy to have him sitting at the drums. Derrick Gardner and Neil Watson are my front line on trumpet and saxophone. Carter Graham is on keyboards and Gabriela Cardenas Thomas on guitar. Anna-Lisa Kirby and Brooke Van Ryssel are out front with vocals. I’ve got my eye on a couple of high school musicians who are ready for the challenge, and I’m really excited to be folding in young musicians from the new Jazz on Wheels Academy.

We’ve hand-picked seven or eight kids who have been thriving with Neil Watson in the Bridge program at Hugh John Macdonald or really impressed me and my pedagogy students in the new jazz option in the CanU program at the U of M. Thanks to the new Jazz on Wheels Academy, they’ll have some one-on-one instruction to work up some repertoire to bring to the Jazz on Wheels band. These kids are just learning to play, but they’re inspiring! In many ways they’re actually the core of the band because they embody the Jazz on Wheels dream: they come from these underserved neighbourhoods and are now stepping in to make music come alive for their peers and families.

We’re still confirming our performance options. We’ll be connecting with the wonderful kids in the CSI program, and we’ll be doing a neighbourhood festival or two. In the fall, we’ll hit a couple of schools to stir up even more interest among potential young musicians who can start dreaming of playing or singing with others, making music that lets them share their voices with the rest of the city.

Jazz Winnipeg will keep you posted about our shows. Everybody is welcome—we’re all one big community!

Crossing the Bridge for Another Year

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As dig! magazine goes to press, the twenty-five core members of this year’s Bridge music program at Hugh John Macdonald School are in the final stages of rehearsal for an Inner-city Celebration of the Arts. The concert, April 24 at Calvary Temple, will feature performances ranging from choral groups to dance troupes to aboriginal drumming from nineteen inner-city schools. It will also feature our band.

The Bridge Orchestra is primarily grade 7 and 8 students, most of whom hadn’t played before this year’s program started in October, and for many English is not their first language. The band features electric guitar, bass, drum set, congas, keyboard, saxophone, trumpet, and vocals. (Yes, this is a big group!)

Our mission each year is to instill a life-long love of music in students, the benefits of which are many. (I could talk your ear off about the positive, and sometimes surprising, side-effects of this program.) By adopting a rhythm-first approach, students can make music almost right away, quickly learning the technique of their instrument while listening to each other to find the groove. That early success breeds enthusiasm. And there is no shortage of enthusiasm with this group!

On April 24, our hard work culminates with a performance of “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5. These kids are gonna shine!

The CanU Jazz Academy: Playing Hard

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Right from day one back in October, I knew that the CanU Jazz Academy was going to be more than just part of my Jazz Pedagogy class. Now that the session has ended, I know I was right—it’s been one of the most amazing, challenging, and completely inspiring experiences of my life.

CanU is an outreach program that brings bright 10- to 12-year-olds from underserved neighborhoods down to the University of Manitoba to experience enriched learning opportunities in various fields. This year was the first time out for the CanU Jazz Academy, an initiative that offers intensive music instruction using jazz methodologies. Steve Kirby was our fearless leader, and all of us students in his Jazz Pedagogy course became hands-on Jazz Buddies, mentoring a group of around twenty kids from Sister MacIntyre and Ryerson schools.

The idea of the program was to allow the kids to play different instruments, many of which they would never have seen before, with the end goal of being able to pluck, tap, hit, or strum their way through some of their favourite pop songs. Along the way, we offered a number of band builder workshops on some of the fundamentals of music. We even managed a little composition. Of course, the main goal of the CanU Jazz Academy was for the kids to have fun, so all of the learning happened in ways that were engaging and exciting for them.

A typical session at the CanU Jazz Academy would begin with a band builder exercise, then we’d move on to some singing! We’d project the lyrics to the day’s song up on a screen and sing along with the recording. This got them excited and ready to learn. Then we would split into instrument groups coached by the Jazz Buddies, and work on learning the parts. Later we would gather into bands of kids and Buddies to play through the song of the day. It wasn’t always pretty, but it always spirited!

I often think about that first CanU gathering in October. All of us Jazz Buddies were a bit nervous when we got up to play the first pop song the kids were going to learn. It was “Rolling in the Deep” by pop singer Adele, and I was on vocals. The moment I uttered the first three words, all twenty kids’ faces lit up. Some began to smile, others giggled with excitement, almost all began to sing along. To make that kind of connection was a powerful moment for me!

Thirteen meetings later, the kids have learned half a dozen songs. They have amazing facility on their instruments and they’re eager to perform for one another and various people who wander in to listen. They’ll have a chance to play for their parents and all the other CanU participants at their wrap-up early in March. It’s amazing!

There have been many memorable moments at the CanU Jazz Academy—far too many to count. But it’s the kids’ own observations that stick with me the most. “I wish CanU was every day,” one said. “It’s the best part of my week!” Another said his favourite part about CanU was “being a part of a community.” How do you not get emotional hearing that?

The Bridge: Beyond Square One

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Now in my third year teaching The Bridge at Hugh John Macdonald School, I’m seeing students who were in the band room for countless rehearsals and on stage for various performances move on to high school. Such is the life of a middle school music instructor: in many ways, on many instruments, it’s simply back to square one.

The last period of the day on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday serves as our band class. There are approximately sixty kids signed up for the program this year so a third of the students come in each of those days, creating in essence three separate wind ensembles. What’s important to us at The Bridge is making music—having some instant success—so we focus on the basics: proper technique and good tone on a handful of notes. Then we play “Hot Cross Buns” or “Jingle Bells” by ear. When the instruments aren’t in hand, we learn the importance of rhythm and playing in time together. We talk about basic music theory, laying groundwork for the note-reading we’ll begin in the New Year.

After school, the philosophy is the same although progress is much quicker. For one thing, all students are encouraged to attend all three days, which means that the core group of keeners gets considerably more time on their instruments. Again, we look for instant success. We’re working on “What’d I Say.” Bass players learn the repetitive (but oh-so-funky) bass line, pianists learn a simplified version of what Ray Charles plays on the record, drummers learn a pattern that catches the bass rhythm, and horn players concern themselves with three notes played in syncopation.

We play by ear and our rhythm exercises pay off! Students are listening to each other, fitting their part into the pulse of the song. Quickly, “What’d I Say” starts to sound pretty good.

These kids have talent and enthusiasm, and the 2013-14 edition of the Hugh John Macdonald band is shaping up to be special. And here’s something really cool: band alumni are joining us after school when their schedules permit to help out and pass along the joy of creating music together.

I guess it’s not square one after all.

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