New York is the heart of the American music industry, a thriving centre of jazz, rock, soul, R&B, funk and disco as well as classical and art music. It is the home of Broadway, hip hop, boogaloo, doo wop, bebop and Salsa. It is also the birthplace of my childhood musical role-model: George Gershwin.
I began my career playing the music of Gershwin to Stroke victims. I studied his music for my master’s degree in musical analysis, exploring how his songs were just as complex as any classical masterpiece, albeit composed in a different style, place and time. I never dreamt that one day I would be a few blocks away from where my hero plugged songs in Tin Pan Alley and composed Rhapsody in Blue.
My Fellowship research began this week with a visit to “Our Broadway”, a programme started 3 years ago by musicians Ian Miller and Dale Wansley at the Redfield Centre. The centre is run by the AHRC, a similar organisation to MENCAP in the UK. Both have outdated full names, but their memorable abbreviations remain.
I was greeted by 15 adults, mostly men. Two were poised at their keyboards and the others were sat around the edge of the room. They were all blind or partially sighted with various other additional needs. They were keen to show their visitor what they could do so, with a few suggestions from tutor Dale, the keyboard players began their rhythmic introduction. They all settled respectfully and sang…
I was treated to an incredible performance of Broadway songs and new music written by the students themselves. They improvised the most incredible harmonies with syncopated interjections, vocal riffs and scat singing. Their pride, joy and most of all innate musicality filled the room. In all my years working with people with learning disabilities, I had only ever witnessed such vocal freedom and agility from Jenny Harvey (Music Man Project Essex). Now I was experiencing a room full of Jenny Harveys and two of them were playing Jazz piano as well! I tried to keep up whilst pondering the question… how?
It was no coincidence that these musicians were all blind. Clearly their sense of pitch and musical ear had been heightened as a result. Most of them had come from the same school and they had been singing together for many years. “I just watch the talent come in!”, says Dale. “They even recruit more singers for the group from their old school”.
This was student-led music-making at its finest, due mainly to the keyboard player who can pick up a tune after just one or two hearings. Gently tickling the ivories, he asked the date of my birthday. I told him. He paused for 5 seconds and smiled, “That was a Monday”. Then a singer, who regularly records his own podcast (he asked me to be his next guest!) followed up with “Barry Manilow was number 1”! They were all naturally gifted, bordering savant in some cases.
Most of all I witnessed a group of musicians completely in touch with their own musical heritage. It was so ‘New York’ - Jazz, improvisation, Broadway and showbiz! They sing, act and dance in musicals and revues, all with live accompaniment (not a karaoke machine in sight). They regularly perform with local Broadway stars and receive funding from Broadway charities.
Their last song was I Got Rhythm. I had a lump in my throat. Here I was in New York, listening to Gershwin’s most famous song being performed by people with disabilities…
Who could ask for anything more?
Read the final Churchill Fellowship report here.