Patience and perseverance. Sometimes they pay off. Today I fulfilled a long-time dream of performing a Family Jazz Concert in the prestigious Stanford Jazz Festival with my group The Pentatonics. (Thanks to Jim Nadel!) With a bigger audience than I’m used to, I should have been a little nervous. But I wasn’t. For one simple reason. Much of the audience was kids between 1 and 8 years old and I speak Childrenese.
Can’t take much credit for it. After teaching kids between 3 and 14 for 38 years, I better be fluent! But it was thrilling to use my skills to help kids cross the bridge into jazz in a way they can relate to and understand. Family Jazz is hot right now and I love it that great jazz musicians are taking time with the kids. But they’re used to speaking Adultenese and sometimes shoot over the heads of the kids with the facts and figures of jazz a bit hard for the three-year old to relate to. Of course, the music is great and goes right to the muscles and bone, but still it helps to have a child-sized door to go through.
Today’s strategies began with participation through singing, through gesture, through movement (all in their seats). After a welcome song, there was the story of the family, each a different size and shape with a different voice and a different personality—“Just like your family!” There was Mr. Bass going for a walk and then Ms. Drum, a bit more hyper, picking up a stone there and picking a flower there, accompanied him. Then came Mr. Sax, who loved to tell the story of his day and then Ms. Piano, interjecting “Ah hah’s” and “Really?” and “What happened next?” and then telling a little story herself. Then they all sang a song together and in came Ms. Singer, telling them how much she “Loved Being Here with You.” It helped give the kids some images as to how to listen to the different relationships. And the adults too.
Other strategies included Mozart hiding a song inside notes (his variations on Twinkle Little Star melody) and then having a weird dream (now a jazz version of the song the kids know so well). There was the song about working on the farm, with its invitation to practice pronouns while pointing to different people around in the audience. The old Boom Chick a Boom, with kids trying out different voices that their parents had to copy and then some coming up on stage to play xylophones and drums with all parts coming from the text. There was my Juba mosquito-slapping routine (always a hit!) and then select kids going through a silent movie about waking up and going through the day while I played ragtime piano. A song about being happy and optimistic (The Sunnyside of the Street), another about the season we’re in (Summertime) and finally the rollicking Latin jazz tune “Soul Sauce.”
Almost 90 minutes with kids with it almost every step of the way. At the end, they swarmed the stage to try out some of the instruments. Like 100 of them. Proof that the show affirmed their own musical desires and enticed them to participate further. That they knew that the band spoke Childrenese and we understood how kids think and feel. Music is its own direct language, but it sure helps to have some help entering its conversation. And that takes as much thought and intelligence as composing, playing and improvising the music itself.
Thanks to fellow members Joshi Marshall, Sam Heminger, Micah McClain, Connie Doolan (music teachers of kids all) and Josh Reinier (14 years old) for the great music and great spirit. The smile of the little girl who ran up and shouted, “That was so much fun!” was the best review we could have gotten. A memorable morning!