JazzArtSigns Concert at Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston


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Wheelock Family Theatre
Boston, MA
March 9, 2006

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 performance—not 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.

On Double Rainbow by Jobim, Thorson sang first in Portuguese and then in English. The caption screens displayed the lyrics in the pertinent language, while the signer interpreted the lyrics (English version only) and also seemed to describe and comment on the music (as surmised by a non-ASL speaker). The caption screens also displayed some descriptive comments, such as which instrument was soloing; during Thorson's scat solos, the screens displayed "(Scatting)". The Wayne Shorter tune Speak No Evil (with lyrics by Vanessa Rubin) was a good vehicle for both voice and sax. Coming in at the end of Miller's solo, Thorson's sang in unison with the sax in a similar timbre and perfect intonation, to uncanny effect.

While the musicians played, Nancy Ostrovsky painted with dancelike gestures. As she applied dabs and splats of thick, intensely colored paint, a portrait of the musicians took shape. She wielded a variety of painting implements, including long-handled brushes of various widths, spatulas, sponges, and something that looked like a big yellow plastic daisy. Ostrovsky stayed in the groove while she selected colors and implements, and her paint-strokes kept the music's syncopated phrasing. On the bop standard Anthropology (Parker and Gillespie), Ostrovsky traded eights and fours with Thorson, Miller, and Clark. When the painter took her turn, she improvised both visually and aurally, as her painting produced percussive sound, especially striking when she used a wide spatula to strike the board with a thunk.

Thorson's original songs included the pensive, peace-themed Wondering Why. On another number, Thorson improvised lyrics on "wishes" submitted ahead by audience members. The wishes including freedom from pain and disease, flat terrain, a dog-friendly society, accessible restrooms everywhere, and a peaceful world. Thorson humorously wrapped up the themes of peace and accessibility, both popular with this audience, by describing an earthy image of world leaders forced to sit together in a room with no restroom access â??¢ until they came up with a working plan to end all war.

Along with their service to hearing-impaired attendees, signers Steiner and Derissaint contributed artistically, as they synchronized their intrinsically expressive gestures with the music and, when they both signed, with each other. In a song about the beauty of nature, Derissaint's particularly graceful use of her arms and fingers were a moving complement to Thorson's ever-vibrant delivery. Derissaint also signed an ASL poem, for which (as is reportedly traditional) no spoken or printed translation was given. Schuller played quietly during the poem, providing some aural interpretation of her gestures.

The concert closed with My Favorite Things by Rodgers and Hammerstein, with some of additional lyrics about Thorson's favorite things. Over a vamp, Lombardi described Ostrovsky's completed painting, which depicted the musicians and a signer plus an imaginary woman crouched in front of them, intently taking in the performance.

JazzArtSigns Strengths and Challenges

Jazz, as an improvisational performing art with a tradition of musical and cultural synthesis, is a natural for a multi-sensory approach. As it successfully incorporates on-the-spot visual artistry into a jazz performance, JazzArtSigns ingeniously uses aspects of the multi-sensory creation in its array of accessibility aids. The JazzArtSigns performers and production people demonstrated flexibility, intercommunication, and cooperation in putting on a compelling show.

The abundance of channels for experiencing the performance can be a little disconcerting, leaving an audience member (at least, one fortunate to possess full hearing and sight) wondering what to pay attention to at any particular moment. Captioning, for example, can help a listener catch fast-paced lyrics. It can also divert attention from the artistic import of the show toward, say, guessing how the captioner was utilizing speech-recognition software.

It's clear that JazzArtSigns was conceived with the expectation that many audience members will experience the performance in unfamiliar and perhaps challenging ways. In an article published by VSA Arts in 2002, Thorson is quoted as saying that there's an "element of uncertainty" in JazzArtSigns that may require an audience member to choose among different means of experiencing the show at a given moment. She explained that requiring those moment-to-moment choices helps make the improvisation on stage accessible to the audience by involving them in it.

While newer and remodeled halls and clubs make live jazz accessible to disabled performers and audience members, many jazz venues remain poorly accessible, and the use of signing and captioning for jazz shows is too rare. Appreciating the expense and other challenges of creation and production, one hopes for many more presentations of JazzArtSigns and other jazz performances that integrate artistry and accessibility.

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