By Marilyn Delk
Although I was pretty sure that I would enjoy Shaun Johnson’s Big Band Experience when the group performed for junior high students as part of Darke County Center for the Arts’ Arts In Education program, I was at the same time a little uneasy about how that big band sound would be received by a younger demographic that listens to music totally different from the brassy swinging vibe developed decades ago. Well, I discovered almost immediately after the concert at Henry St. Clair Memorial Hall was introduced by DCCA Artistic Director David Warner that my concern was totally unwarranted.
Accompanied by versatile pianist Theo Brown and accomplished drummer David Stanach, the youthful blonde crooner opened his concert with a delightful interpretation of a surprising selection — the theme from Spiderman. And the kids loved it! Then, seated on a tall stool, Shaun masterfully presented a sweet love song that was also met by thunderous applause. And that positive reception continued as, to my delight, the young audience sat enthralled throughout the entire highly entertaining performance.
Actually, Shaun himself seemed to anticipate that his audience might be reluctant to instantly accept the sound he embodies, saying that the big band genre existed “before any of us were born,” then explaining that “the songs are full of emotion, performed by singers who make you feel.” Next, the singer announced that he and his pianist, half of the Grammy-Award winning a cappella group Tonic Sol Fa, would perform one of that quartet’s numbers, then uttered the self-deprecating admonition, “If you don’t like it, it’s okay. But clap anyway!” The following a cappella offering in which Theo performed rhythmic mouth percussion and realistically mimicked the sound of horns to accompany Sean’s vocal performance earned another exuberant extended ovation from the seventh and eighth graders!
Shaun’s accessible, relatable manner enhanced his appeal to the youngsters, as he chatted about his lack of popularity with the girls when he was in school. “I was not cool!” he said as he discussed the underlying motivation for his next number. As drums pounded out the rhythm and the thumping piano fervently underscored the raw emotion of the song, Shaun evoked all the pain of remembered teen-age angst at unjust rejection with his dramatic rendition of “Cry Me a River.” Once again, the crowd went wild.
Shaun, Theo, and Dave offered bits of autobiographical information while urging their audience to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams. “We may not be super famous, but we do have an Emmy and once made the Billboard Top Five,” Sean said, as he pointed out that he has found fulfillment while following his passion. Theo’s mother is a pianist, his father a percussionist, so his choice of career was never questioned by his parents, but the musician who played a lot of sports in school as well as a lot of instruments finds it “awesome to do what I love — for a living!” Drummer Dave urged his young audience to “try a lot of things, find out what you are good at, then set a goal to pursue and achieve.” He said that he became a drummer because he was a bad guitar player, but that he found his true calling behind a drum set. “Be true to yourself, and you’ll win every time,” he concluded.
Following a swinging rendition of “Senorita Kiss Me Good Night,” Shaun extolled the power of joining with like-minded others, each individual uniquely contributing to create a meaningful outcome for all; he then praised his audience for their buoying enthusiasm, creating an experience that the artists would always happily remember. The final number then filled the auditorium with innovative yet somehow now familiar music, the audience enthusiastically clapping along in rhythm. A little later as the students exited the auditorium, I overheard one boy exclaim, “That was amazing!” Yes, indeed, it was. Good music of all genres speaks to everyone, regardless of age, gender, or race, creating magical joyous moments that will live in memory for a very long time.
Marilyn Delk is the former executive director of the Darke County Center for the Arts and can be reached at [email protected] Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.