February 20, 2002
McCord sings the blues at Pierce
With an air of grace, showmanship and stage presence one would expect at the Regattabar, vocalist Semenya McCord wowed audiences of fourth- through eighth-graders and their teachers at recent morning concerts at the Pierce School. Many eyes lit up in recognition as they saw tuxedo-attired Lenny Bradford, father of two Pierce students, playing bass in McCord’s talented trio, which included piano and percussion.
McCord, performing under the auspices of the Young Audiences of Massachusetts, set the stage by defining the blues as a " way to talk through your troubles. " After asking the fourth- and fifth-graders, who attended the first show, to give examples of their " troubles, " she improvised a highly appreciated version of " I’ve got the Pierce School homework blues " to the delight of giggling students.
Within minutes, McCord had won over the audience, who attentively and enthusiastically interacted with her during the first of two 40-minute performances. The connection was mutual. " In my years of presenting these Journey into Jazz concerts, this is one of the most receptive audiences I’ve performed for, " she said after the shows.
Between songs, with the trio quietly playing musical statements to reinforce her words, she traced the " variety of musical styles that evolved from the day-to-day experiences of African slaves and their descendants to present day jazz " in America. When McCord introduced the " Banana Song, " it took her only one try to get the whole audience to vigorously sing the refrain, " Day Oh, Daaaaay Oh. " Students learned that, since education for slaves was forbidden, slaves figured out ways to use " talking drums " and lyrics to work songs to send messages to one another. For example, the lyrics to " Follow the Drinking Gourd " (Big Dipper), not understood by the slaves’ owners, offered a road map of how to escape slavery by using the Underground Railroad.
As talented a teacher as singer, McCord noted that inventiveness in jazz involved language as well as instruments and introduced the style of " scat " singing. She surely must have realized, when about 150 10- and 11-year-olds energetically sang, on her cue, the " Doo waa " chorus to Duke Ellington’s " It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing, " that she had taught a memorable history lesson.
" Can we learn scat singing? " asked fourth-grader Keyana Michel as we hummed our way back to class.
And when McCord and her trio were asked for their autographs at the end of the set, it was clear to all that McCord has struck a chord for music as an educational tool.