The eight students gathered at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School last week fidgeted as they sang, but this wasn't just typical teen antsiness.
Conducting from the front of the classroom, jazz singer and retired middle school music teacher Wendy Simon had asked the young singers to visualize a bead of sweat slowly dripping down their backs as they repeated the words, "So hot / Please, please help."
The squirming aptly communicates the feeling of discomfort that Simon hopes will help spur audience members to action after the premiere this weekend of "Vision Song: Our Hearts, Our Voices, Our Future" at the Kimmel Center. The piece, composed by saxophonist/bandleader Bobby Zankel, is the brainchild of Suzanne Cloud, Simon's longtime friend, fellow singer, and cofounder of Jazz Bridge, the local nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting jazz and blues musicians during times of crisis.
Cloud and Simon founded Jazz Bridge in 2004 after the death of Cloud's mentor, pianist Eddie Green, who was overwhelmed by a lack of resources after his terminal cancer diagnosis. The organization provides assistance for medical care, housing, legal aid, utilities, and other issues musicians in need face.
To help promote the local music community, Jazz Bridge presents six monthly neighborhood concerts throughout the area. Simon will perform next Wednesday at the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion on Chestnut Street; other performers this month are the Fresh Cut Orchestra, keyboardist Dennis Fortune, drummer Vincent Ector, and singer Najwa Parkins.
Simon said "Vision Song" was "an extension of bringing jazz to the community. This is a whole other community, the community of kids and their families who might not otherwise experience or hear jazz."
Stuck in Center City traffic during a downpour a couple of years ago, Cloud asked her 13-year-old grandson, Vincent, what he thought his future might look like. "He started telling me that he thought the world would look brown and burned and horrible," she said.
"It got us both thinking that there's probably an awful lot of kids in his age range that are taking in all this doom and gloom. I know they're all hearing in one ear the news that their parents are watching, and they know they're going to be living in that future."
That conversation spurred a two-year process in which Cloud and Simon met regularly with a small group of students and discussed their fears for the future, covering topics like global warming, pollution, consumerism, and recycling.
Jazz Bridge partnered with Need in Deed, an organization that supports teachers in designing community-oriented learning projects that involve research and direct action.
The students' ideas, in the form of comments, drawings, and even a rap song, were given to Zankel, who translated them into a four-part suite for his Warriors of the Wonderful Sound big band that will premiere as part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.
"It was kind of a paradox, because they're kids, so by nature they're energetic, positive, and creative, but they had such a grim view of the future," Zankel said. "My viewpoint as a Buddhist has always been that humanity can create any kind of problem and solve any kind of problem, but the inherent goodness is greater than the negative tendencies. I had to find a way to balance the idea of music and art creating hope with what the kids were actually saying."
Special projects such as "Vision Song," Cloud says, help to "get people who are outside the jazz community interested in what we do. It gives us a higher profile in the arts community."
The project could be seen as simply an extension of Jazz Bridge's core mission, albeit on a grander scale. After all, how better to help musicians than by ensuring they still have a planet on which to perform? Which brings us back to the importance of those singing, squirming middle-schoolers, hoping to make the Kimmel Center feel the heat of a warming Earth.
"We're really focused on what the audience can do," Cloud said. "Fear paralyzes people, and we really want these new makers coming up to have a confident, optimistic spirit that they can help do something - and maybe prod their parents do something."