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Gleeful Connecticut Chorus Headed To London Olympics

Singing the Praises of Hartford's "Real Ambassadors"


July 07, 2012

Champions in their own right, a Hartford high school jazz choir will perform in London at the Summer Olympics in a few weeks.

Chosen from a competitive pool of thousands of aspiring Olympic entertainers, The Real Ambassadors chorus will perform their distinctive brand of bebop-rooted Jon Hendricks-inspired jazz in the heart of the Olympic Village on July 31.

"My friends want me to put them in my suitcase. And my Mom is just telling everybody and anybody about the trip. Like when we go out to eat, she says, 'Oh, my daughter is going to London!' And I say, 'Mom, I don't think that they really want to hear that.' But she is really, really excited," said Luz Holmes, of Hartford, a 17-year-old soloist with the Real Ambassadors.

"I've never traveled out of the country. I've never taken a plane before, and never had a passport. So there are a lot of things that are new for me. I never thought I would be able to say, 'I'm going to the Olympics,' " said Holmes, whose church, Pentecostal Deliverance Ministry, is holding a fund-raiser to benefit the choir's trip.

This sweet taste of international recognition is happening not just thousands of miles away from Hartford, but also light years away from anything that Dianne Mower and her young protégés could have imagined before this school year began at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, a Capitol Region Educational Council (CREC) magnet school.

Mower, a jazz singer and founder/director of the chorus, last April submitted a sample recording of The Real Ambassadors' work but didn't hear word until May of this year from the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.

While jubilant at the news, the Academy and the chorus face the reality of having to raise $70,000 quickly to cover the expenses of the London trip, including big-ticket items such as airline tickets, lodging and meals. The London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games, after all, had sent a gracious invitation, not a blank check to cover travel and living expenses.

So, each member of the Real Ambassadors – 11 singers, a drummer, bass player and a pianist, all between the ages of 14 and 18 – has been out seeking donations.

"All the kids are pounding the pavement and coming up with their ideas, going out and doing anything they can think of from having their local pizza parlor have a benefit night, where the proceeds or some percentage of the proceeds come to us. They've organized car washes. They've gone to their churches for support. It's the kids and the parents out there, with all those little checks coming in from all over the place. CREC has dedicated a person to help us fund-raise, and she's contacting as many organizations as she can to see if they'll contribute something. So we're very much in the thick of fund-raising until that bill is covered," said Kim Stroud, director of the arts at the Academy.

Malcolm Mitchell, of Hartford, an 18-year-old singer in the choir's bass section, is among those raising money.

"It's going kind of slow, but I'm still trying. I think the trip can open a lot of opportunities," said Mitchell, who is still waiting for his passport. While he's looking forward to the pair of 40-minute sets that the group will perform before an already sold-out-audience, he's also looking forward to seeing the sights including Big Ben and the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

"I just hope to learn as much as I can about London culture. I've never been out of the country, and that whole experience will be great for me," said Mitchell.

Stroud said the invitation from Olympic organizers is further validation of the program and the chorus as well as a lifetime memory for the students.

"These kids have such virtual access to the world through the Internet and online, but for many of them this will be the first time they've had a chance to actually step foot into another country, an opportunity to talk to people in a foreign land and see how other people live and think, even the different kind of food they eat. So it's going to be quite a cultural experience for them," Stroud said.

"We know the kids are talented. We know they're trained because we've trained them. However, when all of that gets validated with an opportunity like this, we, the Academy and CREC, are just really so proud. And for the students, the experience validates for them that hard work really does pay off," Stroud said.

Given the short turn-around time to raise money between the May invitation and the July performance, CREC rode to the rescue, offering to pay up front whatever expenses that couldn't be raised immediately by Mower, the Academy, the students, their allies, friends, families and fans. However, the upfront money must be paid back to CREC through fund-raising efforts that are already underway, and had by last week, according to Stroud, raised nearly half that $70,000 figure.

Future performances are planned after the chorus returns Aug. 3. For example, the jazz troubadours will perform at a fundraiser and welcome home festivities Aug. 5 at the Academy at 15 Vernon St. The organizers hopes that there will be so many small donors that the homecoming/fundraiser will have to be held outdoors in Hartford's Bushnell Park.

"No, it hasn't been in great individual amounts. It's just that so many people have given us a few dollars here and a few dollars there, and just been so generous and wonderful," Stroud says.

Since being formed by Mower 18 years ago, the jazz choir has won so often and conclusively in big-league choral competitions that it's considered one of the more well established high school jazz choirs.

It has strutted its syncopated stuff at prestigious venues ranging from the White House in 1997 to a triumphant appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2003, even once rocking the stately Library of Congress in 2008.

Its apt name comes from the musical, "The Real Ambassadors," a portrait of the U.S. State Department's use of jazz greats as unofficial ambassadors of good will, a work composed by the jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck and his wife, the lyricist and writer, Iola Brubeck.

The Brubecks, longtime Wilton residents, have for years been in the choir's corner, with a friendship evolving between Mower and the jazz couple. Brubeck has appeared with the choir in performances. Mower, in turn, has become a crusading booster of the Brubecks' musical, "The Real Ambassadors," waging her own personal campaign to get it the sort of recognition that she says the worthy musical richly deserves.

When The Real Ambassadors performed at the White House, for example, they sang, for the first time ever in public, the title tune from the musical, "The Real Ambassadors." Not surprisingly, they'll sing "The Real Ambassadors" theme song again at their London gig, along with Brubeck's "Unsquare Dance"; a Gershwin medley, which won them first-place at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival Competition this year; plus a piece called "Peace Waltz," which Mower co-wrote with the noted pianist Bill Mays.

Trained by Mower on such daunting material as the repertoire of the swaggering choral music of the vocal group, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the choir is accustomed to winning. They have placed first or second 12 times in the last 18 years at the Berklee competition, finishing with the top prize their first year of competition.

But all these and many other triumphs are dwarfed by the news of the London trip, which Mower never doubted would be theirs.

"You know the old joke about the optimist and the pessimist," Mower asks.

"They take two little boys, one is an optimist, one is a pessimist and lock them in separate rooms. They put the optimist in a room full of horse manure, and give him a shovel and close the door, and leave him in there for an hour. They put the pessimist in a room full of brand new toys, close the door and leave him there for an hour.

The pessimist takes the toys apart, can't put them back together and dissolves into tears. The optimist is found shoveling manure with a smile on his face.

"And they say, 'What are you so happy about, son?' 'Well,' the optimist says, 'with all this horse manure in here, there's got be a pony in here somewhere. So I'm just digging for the pony.'

"So," Mower says, "that's my motto: 'Always dig for the pony.'"

In addition to Holmes and Mitchell, the The Real Ambassadors includes:

Vocalists: Chrystal Clements, Davia Davis, Luz Holmes, Gordon Jones and Malcolm Mitchell, all of Hartford; Jesse Crofton and Domenic Pellegrini, both of Southington; Hannah Benson of Canton, Jack Ploszaj of West Simsbury; Samantha Gilbert of Granby and Ashley Jones of Rockville.

Instrumentalists: Andre Bernier of Farmington, Nicholas Charlton of Southington and Justin Dubree of Berlin.

Contributions to help cover the trip expenses can be made to CREC, which has directions on its foundation website at http://www.crec.org/grants/foundation/about.php. At the end of the process it will ask if there is a special assignment for the money. That is where you can enter The Real Ambassadors or Arts Academy Jazz Choir trip to London. Or donations can be made by a check made out to Arts Academy with The Real Ambassadors or Arts Academy Jazz Choir trip to London in the memo section.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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