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Julian Joseph: Joining Jazz and Baseball

By Published: September 7, 2010
Interestingly, Joseph doesn't simply see Shadowball as a way of involving children in music but as offering an attractive and exciting way to bring together some key educational content. "The ideas of history, literacy, numeracy, sport and music all get covered. You need numeracy in terms of scoring the games, literacy is aided by using words and music together. Also, the history of civil rights as well as baseball. They're all in there. And it's not only for the kids—adults can also learn from this."

Cleveland Watkiss stars in Shadowball

The Hackney Music Development Trust, based in London, had the original idea for Shadowball, through its Creative Director, Tertia Sefton-Green, and its Director, New York native Adam Eisenberg. Eisenberg mentioned the Negro Leagues to Joseph and gave him some background, before asking him to write an opera. Joseph approached Mike Phillips to write the libretto. "I love the way he writes and he's also a great historian. Also, he writes without a chip on his shoulder, so that this history is for everybody...And I find that Mike really communicates with his narratives."

The team was completed by designer Neil Irish and director Jonathan Moore, both picked by Joseph. Moore had never previously worked with children: "Of course, when he was with the children he was fantastic."

The adult star of the show is vocalist Cleveland Watkiss, who also starred in Bridgetower. Watkiss plays baseball legend Satchel Paige. Again, Joseph hand-picked the singer, who he clearly admires: "He has that incredible charisma, that wonderful voice. He has the jazz sound and the power of an opera singer. My brother James [Joseph's manager] was integral in making sure that all these aspects came together."

Was Shadowball always intended as a jazz opera, rather than a Broadway-style show? "Well, I think there's a very fine line between the sound of Broadway and jazz. They've influenced each other, so a lot of the songs you hear in Shadowball could be in a West End or Broadway kind of show. But what's really important is the sound of the band and also, when Cleveland feels comfortable with the material he can improvise. There's also some room for improvisation by the band although the piece is really quite set because this helps the children to have some boundaries. But the boundaries can be opened up by those with jazz skills. I'm conceiving it as jazz."

So primarily it's jazz first, then opera? "Yes, absolutely. When you think of any opera, the first thing that comes into your head is the music...For me, jazz opera has the sound of jazz—it has that feeling of jazz, of improvisation, and when something builds in emotional intensity it can be heightened or lowered by the skill of the jazz musician, in the way that a jazz performance can be done."

While Watkiss is central to Shadowball, the musicians are also crucial. However, it's not a large ensemble: "It's just a quintet: piano, bass, drums, a saxophonist who covers alto, flute , clarinet and soprano sax, and a trumpet player with lots of mutes." All of the other performers are school children—over 100 children in each performance. "There are 120 all together. I worked with two primary schools in Hackney (East London)—Kingsmead Primary and Jubilee Primary—and the students came from Years 5 and 6 in each school." This makes them about 10 or 11 years old. "Yes, and we worked for about 18 months with numeracy, literacy, jazz workshops, teaching them about the history of the Negro Leagues and about the history of the great jazz musicians."

Joseph also involved the children in the composition of the opera: "I organized workshops where I took some of the libretto and got the children to write pieces with me, some of which I took away and adapted for use in the opera, some of which I didn't...most of which I didn't" Joseph says, laughing. "Basically, it created a great sense of ownership, and linked all the aspects together. I found our lead characters from the children, coached them in the 6 weeks leading up to the performances. In some cases the kids played multiple roles—players, crowd members, owners."

Shadowball has now been performed three times: "Yes, three times for the public, plus a dress rehearsal. They went really well...the kids were absolutely amazing and Cleveland was just magnificent. It communicated the story and it enabled any audience, adult or children, to know what was going on. Being just over an hour it was short enough and compact enough for children to be able to absorb and learn it."

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