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Around the Jewish World Montreal Band is Dream Come True for Kids and Their Music Teachers

December 13, 2006
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Two veteran Montreal musicians and music teachers had a dream — to start their own youth band. Jana Jast, in her early 40s, and Kansas-born trumpet player Roger Walls, 57, had been working together at schools since 1988. Along with musician and teacher Eloi Bertholet, whom they met several years later, they had wearied of Montreal schools that restricted music programs to classical music or repeatedly took funds from music to spend on other areas.

“We were tired of being moved around all the time because schools would rather use their budgets for computer programs,” Walls said.

So they decided to start their own band, blending youths aged 15 to 23 with veterans willing to turn them into a cohesive unit.

“I fought like crazy, and worked with no support and against all odds, it seemed, for a year,” Jast said. “I invested a lot of time and my own funds to get the band off the ground.”

It also took a push from a religious figure: Chabad Rabbi Chaim Tanny, who was raised in a musically inclined Montreal household, had lost his brother, Robert Neil Tanny, two years earlier.

“I was giving Chaim trumpet lessons and he told me he wanted to do something in his brother’s memory, something musical,” said Walls, who is not Jewish. “I contacted Jana and the rest is history.”

Tanny was willing to contribute to startup costs, “but it took time for him to become accustomed to us before he was ready to become involved,” Jast said.

“I saw that there was solid leadership there,” Tanny said, adding that when he looked into the backgrounds of the principals, he was impressed. “When you have proper leadership, the rest follows.”

Tanny was also impressed that several other veteran musicians were willing to sign on as consultants before the band had played a note.

Last spring Jast, a Jew born in Bratislava, Slovakia, started looking for young people to audition for the Montreal Jewish Youth Band, as it’s known for the time being. It would be comprised of two factions: There would be a 20-piece big band that would play some of Walls’ customized arrangements of traditional Jewish music, along with jazz, swing and standards, and pop and hip-hop of a more recent vintage.

In addition, an all-boy’s band — a nod to Tanny’s religious convictions — would stick to traditional Jewish music, the fulfillment of Tanny’s dream.

Auditions went well; band members were chosen and gelled quickly. Most of the kids are Jewish, but not all.

Jast, Walls, Bertholet and trombonist Dave Jesperson, a Quebec City native who also taught at local schools, play during sessions and are ready to step in to fill vacant positions.

The repertoire includes standards such as “I Feel Good,” “Tequila,” “Sing Sing Sing” and “In the Mood,” and the Yiddish classic “Bei Mir Bistu Shein.”

Vancouver-born blues drummer Jeff Tobin, 40, volunteered as a percussion consultant after he saw the first rehearsal.

“They’re gelling because they’re interested and highly motivated,” Tobin said.

Walls is excited about the Jewish component inherent in much of the band’s music.

“Chasidic music has so much energy that secular youth also love it once they experience it,” he said. “It complements the rock they enjoy. We’re taking Chasidic and traditional music, and modernizing it with big band and rock arrangements.”

The band’s sole public performance was in September at a culturally diverse music festival in a Montreal suburb. It is seeking new performance opportunities, as well as additional investors. The band has been rehearsing at Jast’s house, where she set up a studio.

“I’ve spent thousands on instruments, equipment, office supplies and modest salaries for instructors,” she said. “We need the additional funds in order to give Montreal the youthful, professional Jewish performance band it has never had. We’d like to tour and perform in cities across Canada and the continental U.S., and want to eventually put out a CD.”

So far, two-thirds of the band’s permanent positions have been filled, including two female vocalists. A more recent development is the formation of a mixed-gender junior band, featuring members aged 5 to 12, which the organizers would like to see perform as a separate entity and become a talent pool for the older band.

The young musicians are having a blast. Stefani Kugler, of Ecole Maimonide, was a student of Jast’s at Herzliah High.

“I love singing,” said the 15-year-old vocalist, who has been involved with music since she was 6. “To be able to do it here, with a band, is great.”

Some of the members have never played instruments, but playing in an environment with peers and veteran instructors has ignited a new passion.

Fledgling trumpeter Seth Rosen, 17, admitted he took up the instrument for the band simply because he was the only one who could blow it properly.

“It’s a chance to play music, to do something new, and my first chance to play with a band, so why not?” the Hebrew Academy graduate said.

Officials from the Canadian Jewish Congress’ Quebec Region have asked the youth band to perform at Quebec’s 400th anniversary celebration in 2008. The band also was invited to participate in an intercultural music festival in February, and there is talk of having it perform as the opening act for an upcoming musical at Montreal’s Saidye Bronfman Center, which puts on plays, musicals and houses one of Canada’s best-known Yiddish theaters.

The youth band’s sound has so excited veteran musician Michael Rubin that he’s collaborating on a DVD he hopes to market worldwide.

“These kids will take music to new heights in the Jewish world,” he predicted.

“There are many klezmer bands around, so we wanted to do something different,” Walls said. “I’m fairly certain we’ve succeeded.”

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