4 history

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At the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, Coffee House student performs poem written in response to student art (projected on screen). Responding collaboratively with music are the late Roy Campbell Jr. (seated right) and Michael Hill.

A teenager from Bangladesh, newly at home in the English language, rehearses his poem about urban America with a renowned, downtown New York jazz trumpeter. A native New York teen responds with interpretive dance to a fellow student’s poem. Dedicated teens, some about to experience a professional coffee house venue for the first time, haul instruments downtown in the rain for an event at the famed Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe. These are just a few snapshots from the eight-year history of Coffee House Arts Call and Response Project, known to participants simply as—“Coffee House.”

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Student reads poem he has just composed in the Coffee House.

The project is the outgrowth of a 2008-2012 poetry class taught at Humanities Prep by Laura Castro, who had spent twenty years in the performing arts before becoming a public school teacher. Based on her belief that students could sharpen their listening skills, learn to make metaphorical leaps, overcome performance fears and create new, exciting work by combining the spoken word responsively with the musical expression of jazz artists in an ensemble, Laura invited downtown jazz artists into the class. For three years running, students had the unique privilege of working with late jazz trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., eulogized by the New York Times as “a pillar of Avant-guard jazz” and by The New Yorker as a “great,” as well with jazz bassist Lisle Ellis, whose recording Kaleidoscopes received five stars in Downbeat Magazine.

By its very “call and response” nature the project has invited multiple layers of collaboration. Over life of the project students have had the good fortune to collaborate individually and in poetry-music-dance montages with rhythm and blues musician, composer and bandleader Michael Hill of the Michael Hill Blues Mob, which performs in New York and internationally. Successive Humanities Prep art teachers, have collaborated in the art-poetry exchanges, most recently Boris Torres, with photocopies of 178 student art pieces in the 2014-15 exchange. From fall 2012 onward teacher Dorian Heron became an invaluable collaborator and the artistic “call” of his one of his original songs was the basis for a student interpretive dance piece that principal Jeannie Ferrari called a “highlight” of the project’s 2015 Celebration of the Arts.

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Students put their heads together over a Coffee House project.

Laura left full time teaching in 2012, with an eye to further developing the project, gaining fiscal sponsorship from New York Foundation for the Arts in 2014, which makes possible tax deductible contributions. The James Baldwin School was brought into the “call and response” mix, with students from both schools attending a hub class. Dance received more focus, with the addition of guest teaching artist Chuk Obasi of Intersections Dance Collective. Jazz was reincorporated with jazz saxophonist and bandleader Patrick Brenan facilitating responsive musician-to-poet and musician-to-musician work, a return for him to Humanities Prep after collaborating in artist Bob Craddock’s class over a decade earlier.

Building community at Coffee House

The project continues to put out the artistic “call” across distances of genre, age and place. Each year project alumni have returned to participate in the year-end arts celebration at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café, an event warmly supported by successive Humanities Prep principals Julie Conason and Jeannie Ferrari. Alumna Dinae Anderson has twice returned to participate in the creation of dance pieces with current students, and as a teaching assistant for a dance workshop (along with alumna Tiana Bush). The 2015 Nuyorican event also saw new interschool bonds expressed as Humanities Prep students read poetry by James Baldwin students, and James Baldwin musicians responded to the spoken words of the Prep performers.