Freelance writer and composer
A JazzArtSigns performance encompasses music, visual art, and words, and it's designed to be artistically as well as physically accessible to everyone in the audience. An exhilarating JazzArtSigns concert drew a sell-out crowd to the Wheelock Family Theatre in Boston on March 9, 2006. The event commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversaries of both of its presenting organizations, the Wheelock Family Theatre and VSA Arts of Massachusetts. The performance was also supported by individual and organizational sponsors including the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
Making the music was a jazz quintet led by singer and JazzArtSigns originator Lisa Thorson. Joining the musicians was painter Nancy Orlovsky, and working closely with them were two ASL (American Sign Language) interpreters.
Lisa Thorson is based in the Boston area and has in the past few years been gaining wider recognition. Before becoming a professor at Berklee College of Music about ten years ago, Thorson, a wheelchair user, worked for years as a consultant on arts accessibility with various organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts.
Tenor saxophonist Cercie Miller is a well-respected performer in New England and is on the faculty of Wellesley College. Bassist David Clark plays in New England and nationally and is a professor at Berklee. Pianist Doug Johnson plays in the Boston area and is on the faculty at Berklee and Wellesley. Drummer George Schuller is an active player in the Boston area and nationally.
Painter Nancy Ostrovsky has taken part in jazz performances with a number of musicians over the years. Ostrovsky, who has lived in Asia and North Africa, is also a studio painter who exhibits in the U.S. and abroad. Signing for the performance was Jody Steiner, a theatre artist, Access Coordinator at WFT, and artistic advisor for JazzArtSigns; also signing was Misha Derissaint, an actress and university student. Prominent among the production staff were captioner Don DePew of the Caption Coalition and audio describer Vince Lombardi.
In conjunction with the concert, Thorson, Orlovsky, and others involved in JazzArtSigns offered workshops on creating art and music that's accessible to a broader audience, on painting to music, and on presenting a performance of JazzArtSigns.
About a decade ago, Lisa Thorson started working on the idea that became JazzArtSigns, in conjunction with Jody Steiner and members of the Massachusetts chapter of VSA Arts, a national organization that fosters participation of disabled people in the arts. A particularly challenging goal for JazzArtSigns was to convey to deaf audience members the artistic meaning of a jazz performancenot only the song lyrics. The first JazzArtSigns concert took place in 1999 in Cambridge, MA, and the second in 2003 in Portsmouth, NH (the second performance is shown in the photos here).
For this performance, the Wheelock Family Theatre was an ideal venue, exceptionally well designed to accommodate audiences, performers, and students of all ages with various disabilities. On the campus of Wheelock College, which offers degree programs in education and social work, the comfortable and acoustically pleasing theatre's features include spacious aisles and a stage that allows well-placed signing and captioning.
The JazzArtSigns Performance
The evening's music was dominated by upbeat selections, well-suited to cohesion of the musicians, painter, and signers, to conveying the music to the hearing-impaired, and not least, to promoting a celebratory spirit. (A minor omission: the titles and composers of several songs weren't announced.) The emphasis was naturally on the vocals, and the mix of standards and originals showed off Thorson's warm and lilting up-tempo style, while revealing less of her adept treatment of jazz ballads.
Following introductions, the rhythm section vamped while the audio describer gave a detailed description of the theatre's stage, seating area, front entrance and hallways, and the restroom locations. The musicians and sign-language interpreters were arrayed around Thorson, and on a platform on the right stood painter Ostrovsky in front of a large grey paint-board, paints and applicators at her feet. At each end of the stage was an electronic display for open (visible to everyone) captioning, which printed the words of the audio describer and of Thorson as she spoke and sang.
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