‘Jazz Is A Rainbow ’ Conveys Life Lessons Through Jazz History


Janell Brown performs in The Harlem Strut, a musical revue produced by the participants of Jazz Is A Rainbow in Lynn, Massachusetts.

(Photo: Janet McDonough)

The members of any performing ensemble need time to learn each other’s creative quirks and hammer out a level of interplay that, if successful, will appear to the audience as effortless and easy. The young performers of The Harlem Strut, a musical revue performed at LynnArts in Lynn, Massachusetts, on Aug. 27, had only nine days of rehearsal. And all but two performers were newcomers to the stage, according to the event’s organizers.

The result was a notably confident, polished performance by the cast of 10, who ranged in age from 11 to 19. With support from the offstage trio of Mark Fairweather (percussion) and program organizers Mike Palter (bass) and Lynne Jackson (keyboards), the youngsters presented a capsule history of jazz as emblemized by the Harlem Renaissance.

The Harlem Strut was part-spoken, part-sung, part-danced. The choreography included flowing transitions in which groups of children, generally grouped by age, shared the proverbial spotlight. There was a good deal of jazz hands and even a few sneaker-clad tap moves.

In introductory remarks, director Robb Dimmick said that half the cast members were first-generation immigrants from Nigeria. More than just an example of pluralism within jazz, the experience enabled these young performers “to be citizens of the world,” Dimmick said. Indeed, hearing an arrangement of “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” sung with a West African accent left a moving impression.

“Jazz is really the first place that blacks and whites in America convened in a safe space to celebrate something they loved,” Dimmick added. “So this is a shared story. [The actors are] learning not only jazz and history but they’re learning about who they are.”

The program, written by Palter, included selections by Fats Waller (“The Joint Is Jumpin’” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’”) and Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern (“Ol’ Man River”) alongside original tunes composed by by Jackson and Palter, such as the gospel-drenched finale, “We Dream A Brighter Day.”

The production incorporated poetry by Langston Hughes and shout-outs to numerous figures of African American history, from Harriet Tubman to Paul Robeson.

Although most of the performers were completely new to the program, they were joined by veteran Janell Brown, who at age 19 was the dean of the group and has been involved with Jazz Is A Rainbow, a vocal program for urban teens, for eight years. Brown was credited as a guest artist.

The Aug. 27 performance also served as the culmination of Jazz Is A Rainbow’s two-week summer program. In a black-box space in a building near Lynn’s once-thriving downtown, the show went on while folks were packed into a Spanish-language church service down the hallway. The lighting was basic, and three onstage microphones helped some little voices fill the intimate space. The boys wore white shirts and jeans with bow ties; the young women wore dresses. Some performers had vocal cheering sections composed of family and friends.

This summer’s incarnation was the first time Jazz Is A Rainbow had returned to Lynn, Palter’s hometown, in 11 years. Since then, the program has been held regularly in Providence, Rhode Island, and Palter and Jackson are angling to take it farther afield. Recently they had worked with the Lynn school system to schedule showings of the Civil Rights film Selma, and along the way attracted the support of school superintendent Dr. Catherine C. Latham.

“When you first come to a city, it’s very difficult to attract people because you’re seen as interlopers,” he said in an interview before the show, seated with Jackson. “Jazz has always been on the outside, anyhow. We’ve spent our lives as interlopers.”

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