By Adedayo Perkovich, 08/04/2023
The students gathered in a circle in front of Dr. E. After leading them in taking a deep breath, a loud stomp starts the rehearsal. Immediately, the stomp-clap takes me back to my days in Jazz Drama. As a rising college junior double majoring in Music and Africana Studies, my memories as a middle schooler in Jazz Drama are some of my core music making memories. I remember the smile that setting my foot powerfully on the floor at Pearl Studios–making music with my body–brought to my face. Dr. E moves into the call-and response, starting with some riffs that teach the young singers about the jazz scale. I remember learning those blue notes, and my shyness at leading a call-and-response in a circle of peers. I saw myself in these young faces, and memories of my friends. I recognized a range of confidence, personalities, and backgrounds in this next generation of young people who were breathing new life into what is now called the Jazz Power Initiative, and I was excited to see how they had developed from the early days where I was first learning about the shout, the shuffle, the stomp, and the blues.
As the young musicians began singing around the piano, I was blown away by how far the development of this musical had come since I first sang some short excerpts of these songs back in 2014. The focus and joy of these kids was evident, and the work they had put in to get this original jazz musical on its feet was paying off. They were happy to tell me how far they’d come since day one. “First rehearsal we were basically just exercising, warming up”, said Arturo, age 11. Twelve-year-old Leilani recalls “playing games to prepare us for theater work.” “The first rehearsal…we were a lot less focused so we slowly became more focused and better in general over time” adds Aiden (13).
Arturo is proud of the group’s development: “We started learning our lines, running through the show, doing the blocking and the staging, until now where we’ve learned all the musical numbers and we know all the songs so we’re now ready.” Leilani agrees; “We’ve all definitely improved.” For Hector (age 12) the best part of their development was the people he learned with. “My favorite part of the process was practicing with my friends.”
I remember in my first days at Jazz Drama, I was uncomfortable even singing in the stomp-clap circle. But in less time than I anticipated, the instructors had helped me open up to new styles of singing, and explore more of my voice. And the quickest thing to gel for me was my connections with the other students in the group. In my conversations with this group in Jazz Power, I was happy to see that had not changed. Arturo appreciates how making art with others creates a special environment for making connections. “[In JPI] There’s a lot of people who share a lot of things in common and also I get to push the boundaries a lot.” Dylan (11) shared her appreciation for the unique experience JPI gave her. “[because I am in JPI] I can learn new songs and find different voices…and I can meet new people and new teachers as well. Making friends normally is kind of an issue for me…but here I see [my friends] all the time; it’s easier with the program, and I’ve met more people in this program than in other places which is very surprising.”
Leilani also came out of her shell as she spent time in the program, so much so that she played the lead in the musical! “I usually make friends by not really going up to them first, but here I like to come up to other people first and be around other people so I can get to know them more.”
The musical that made these friendships possible is called Nora’s Ark, which premiered in the year 2000 in Queens. Since then, it has been performed in 12 United States and the UK and translated for performances in Poland and Montenegro. Twenty-three years since the premiere, back in Queens this group of young artists are the first to perform all five original songs with dialogue since the Washington Heights premiere in 2004. Complete with costumes, staging, and a live jazz band, in this production songs come to life in this production in a new way as I sit in the audience remembering my first time hearing these melodies. And the new group enjoys singing the music as much as I did. “My favorite song is “I See Blue” because everyone is doing that together and it’s a very happy song because the storm is finally ending”, said Leilani. “I See Blue” was a popular choice among the cast: “It’s one of my favorite songs because it really just lets my voice feel free to do its own thing,” said Dylan. For Arturo, this song and the musical overall, helped him learn about various singing styles and techniques. “I learned how to use my different voices, the head and the chest voice to interpret different voices and ways of singing.”
For his character, ‘Mr. Tiger’, Hector had to learn “to find my own space” in the melody and own his individuality in his vocal solo. As he worked on it, “There’s Blue All Around Me” became his favorite song. But it wasn’t just singing they were getting training in. This was a full production, and as Aya, age 11 remarks, “I’ve learned a lot about singing and acting”. Stepping into these characters allowed the students to learn more about themselves. “My favorite thing about the predator I play is [that he’s] basically my own personality”, said Hector. Aiden also found he related to ‘Mr. Elephant’: “I like the fact that my character has a ‘lawyer feel’ to them. I enjoy explaining things to others. I sometimes play that role in my life.”
Dylan took a life lesson from her work playing ‘Ms. Gazelle’. “In the song “I See Blue” she says…that old zoo is just a memory, like ‘I can just let things go very easily’. It’s difficult for me as a person to let things go and to know that my character can let things go is…inspiring. I should really take that in as a person.”
Nora’s Ark also provides a valuable lesson about the world and our future for these young people, and anyone who gets to hear their voices. As wildfires in Canada caused smog to fill the skies outside the rehearsal space, the students reflected on the urgency of their art. “[I’ve learned] that drastic changes from global warming and other natural causes can maybe cause the flood that happened in Nora’s Ark [to occur] in real life”, stated Arturo. Leilani was proud that she got to play the scientist who made the discovery that raised the alarm, and wants to take Nora’s sense of action and leadership into the real world. “[We need] to make sure we respect the earth and be aware of climate change.”
As they worked together to share this message and put on a great show, the performers also learned the importance of and possibilities from collaboration. “I’ve learned that no matter what you are or who you are you can get along as people…even if you’re different,” said Dylan. And Aiden felt the same: “I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what species or race you are. Helping people and teamwork always prevails.”