The American Songbook Association – Johnny Appleseed

For almost a quarter century, Daryl Henline, Keith Meritz, and Peter Leavy have selflessly made Cabaret Scenes Magazine (and online) a lighthouse in the firmament. Instead of curling up and going the way of newspapers and magazines no longer covering the genre, those currently at its helm decided to be proactive. Three years ago, Three years ago, the American Songbook Association was established as an arts and educational 501(c) (3) nonprofit headed by Executive Director Marilyn Lester.

“We strive to inspire, transform, empower and create torchbearers for future generations so they may understand, appreciate and embrace the historical and cultural importance of America’s rich musical heritage.”

As audience ages, it seems young people have little concept of the longevity and universality of what we call American Standards, how they reflect history and who wrote them. Despite recordings by such as Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, and Lady Gaga as well as revivals of classic musicals often including these songs, few are familiar with even the most iconic composers and lyricists.

Carolyn Montgomery, the ASA’s Director of Education and Outreach, herself a performer, is determined to change this. Though not a teacher, almost all her family is involved with education. When she became a single mother, awareness of the content and quality of education increased. Here was a way to combine two avid interests.

Securing relationships with programs is apparently an uphill battle. “These people are very, very careful. They anticipate hidden cost (events are entirely free) and are accustomed to broken promises…I’ve discovered you have to get into the hearts and minds of people in charge. They don’t answer initial phone calls. I finally went to Harlem Children’s Zone and made them speak to me.” A third of the kids in this particular program are in shelters.

Eve Eaton. Rachel Hanser. Wendy Russell. Those Girls

“I have to show directors we’re coming back, not just using them for metric curve funding.” Every program has Title 1, 2, and 3 schools. At Title 1 schools, the city feeds kids, clothes are often donated. “I’m particularly interested in Title 2, the working core or poor. If only 46% qualify below the poverty line, they get nothing.”

Montgomery hosts each session from a loose outline tailored to age level which will eventually range from Pre-K through high school, the latter beginning this spring. “Before I explain to you about ASA, what kind of music do you like? How many like to sing? How many write songs?” she begins.

Thus far, groups have been very young because those teachers were more interested. There are teachers in the room. If one doesn’t deal with a rowdy child, Montgomery might. “I try to keep them wrangled and focused. If you’re not condescending and you show you like them…I never let a kid see me sweat…who knows what will happen with high school kids?”

She tells me that before musicians depart, kids can distinguish between musical theater, jazz, and American Songbook – the latter most difficult to pin down. Each event features explanation and examples of all three with an additional segment on song arrangement.

Musicals incorporate speaking, singing and dancing. Operetta and vaudeville preceded musical comedies…Has anyone been to musical theater?…

Meg Flather

Meg Flather performed before 30 pre-K and kindergarten kids at PS48 The William C. Wilcox School in Staten Island. “They’re uninhibited response was pretty magical. The kids would clap, get up and move, and ask specific questions.” Flather sang “Open a New Window” from Mame sharing that her own love of musical theater began at their age. “I told them a little bit about how Auntie Mame was teaching her nephew to Live, live, live!, in other words to go for their dreams.”

Talent is chosen for warmth and ability to communicate. Once or twice a month, Montgomery picks up vocalists and an accompanist in an Uber, which sometimes additionally transports a keyboard. Everyone involved gets paid. “When sufficient money comes, we’ll do it four times a week.”

A sketched history of jazz starts in the late 1800s with influences including blues and ragtime-a merger of European, African, and South American music…The Jazz Age, BeBop…

Jazz vocalist Aisha de Haas’ presentation to sixth and eighth graders included a demonstration of scatting. “There was an African American student that looked like she was going to jump out of her seat,” Montgomery recalls. “Aisha invited her to try scatting. It was miraculous. This little girl knew what she was singing and had a great voice. Now she has a role model and positive reinforcement. It’s setting someone up to succeed.”

Left: Carolyn Montgomery; Right: Jon Weber and Karen Oberlin

At PS 62, The Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability on Staten Island, Karen Oberlin sang a jazz rendition of “I’ve Got the World On a String.” She had no idea what to expect. “Kids listened closely, participated and were a joy to sing to. It’s a program that pulls them into the songbook we so cherish, making it both fun and informative.”

Speech Pathologist Robin Westle, also a singer, visited PS76 in Harlem. She and Montgomery sang Pete Seeger’s “This Land Is Your Land” and talked about song lyrics. “Carolyn had them write a song with her. The kids took turns sitting with me and strumming my guitar. The most illuminating part for me was their level of attention and interest. They were completely present.”

Robin Westle

“We realized that teaching young children (whose language skills are still developing) lyrics, explaining their meaning, and finally demonstrating the song, inadvertently modeled enunciation in a way the kids seemed to adapt with ease. Singing could provide the children with a means to express themselves with more confidence, music relaxing their minds, so they acclimated to new words.” (Carolyn Montgomery)

A regular contributor to the series, pianist Jon Weber, who once paid for a school piano to be tuned out of his own pocket, enthuses, “Performing live music for students in the New York City Public School system is enormously gratifying. They regard the creation of spontaneously orchestrated music as a magic trick – and they’re in on the secret…Attention spans are remarkable, and gratefully, they never want the sessions to end.”  Kids are always given time to approach/talk to performers. If someone’s shy, Montgomery approaches him/her with, “You seem really interested…”

Jon Weber and Stacy Sullivan

Very popular songs were written between the 1920s and 1950s just before rock and roll. The American Songbook is not a real book and it’s still being written…

Stacy Sullivan traveled with Weber to PS/IS 289 Hudson River Middle School. There, some students turned out to be budding writers. “A couple of the kids performed for us. They had a lot of questions Jon and I were happy to answer, including how to write a show! I went to school because of music and it breaks my heart too think that today’s budgets are cut for special arts programs.”

An arrangement of any song is simply the musical decisions that musicians make about how they want to play it in terms of tempo and style

Montgomery has sung “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” as a waltz, in Spanish as salsa, and as rock and roll. “The kids laugh, but they understand what an arrangement is after that.”

The host ends by telling children about Lin Manual Miranda (author of In the Heights and Hamilton), a kid just like them in a Washington Heights public school. “At eight years old, he was discovered by a woman who got him into Hunter where he was able to develop his talent,” she informs me. “If we can help create one Miranda or fund one little Johnny who eventually gets into LaGuardia…It’s also important to foster appreciation of the music, to encourage listening.”

Joshua Lance Dixon and Tracy Stark; Tracy Stark

Raising money is a constant effort. Thus far, there’s been only one major fundraiser, but several performers have stepped up offering proceeds of their shows. “Right now it feels like a bunch of moving parts I’m lassoing. I’m trying to get it out in social media, but there’s so much white noise, so many places to put your money,” the determined director says.

To date, the Foundation is in partnership with: Harlem Children’s Zone in Manhattan, New York Center for Interpersonal Development in Staten Island, The Edith and Carl Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, and Millennium Development in Brooklyn. All are after school events. In May, they travel out to the Far Rockaways to do the first 9th-12th grade program. Let’s hope a new audience of appreciators can be seeded.

Montgomery hopes one day to facilitate music lessons to aspiring performers, but knows the organization needs solid metrics to make that kind of ask. Seniors are also listed on the Mission Statement. The Foundation is looking for an Artistic Director to handle that area of outreach.

By the end of 2019, the ASA will have presented multiple programs in all five boroughs reaching over 1000 students. Whether entertaining exposure kids never would’ve received or illumination that furthers interest, the Foundation is intent on spreading the word, seeding young minds with music that may one day blossom.

Donors to The American Songbook Association of $65.00 or more ($75.00 or foreign) receive six issues of Cabaret Scenes. There are many generous, additional levels of membership.

Opening Photo Aisha de Haas

All photos courtesy of The American Songbook Association

About Alix Cohen (1627 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.