Sheffield Children’s Festival: Jazz singer Watkiss brings harmony to school

Springfield School in rehearsal for their Jazz Opera with Cleveland Watkiss for the childrens festival
Springfield School in rehearsal for their Jazz Opera with Cleveland Watkiss for the childrens festival

THE imposing figure of Cleveland Watkiss stands amid a group of excitable schoolchildren wielding a baseball bat.

But all is harmony as he and the youngsters of Springfield Primary School are engaged in rehearsals for a jazz opera on the theme of baseball.

Springfield School in rehearsal for their Jazz Opera.

Springfield School in rehearsal for their Jazz Opera.

The man voted leading UK jazz singer for several years will take to the stage of the Crucible Theatre next Thursday (July 12, 2012) with 95 youngsters, aged between nine and 11 from Springfield and neighbouring primary school Netherthorpe to perform Shadowball.

The schools have been taking part in a groundbreaking education project by the Hackney Music Development Trust in which they have also been learning about the historical context and themes of the story through specially designed lesson plans and activities, including six weeks of baseball training from BaseballSoftballUK. 

Written by jazz artist Julian Joseph and Mike Phillips, Shadowball tells the inspirational story of pioneering black baseball players.

Shadow Ball refers to a common pre-game feature in pre-war American baseball in which Negro League players warmed up by staging mock games with an imaginary ball. It was an apt metaphor for the exclusion of blacks from Major League play in America for over 60 years.

Using the stories of black baseball players in the 1930s-40s, and their jazz compatriots who often suffered similar racial prejudice, Shadowball is designed to inspire young people to achieve whatever the odds.

Watkiss has performed the central role of legendary pitcher Satchel Paige in Shadowball right from its first performances in Hackney

“Prior to this I didn’t know anything about baseball and its history,” says the co-founder of Jazz Warriors. “The main thing I am involved in is impro and jazz and a lot of the great exponents of that had their own baseball teams like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.”

He was happy to give his time to the project. “I thought it was a fabulous vehicle to teach history to kids and introduce them to a new sport,” he says.

Watkiss says that at one point he enjoyed long distance running but it was music that claimed him.

Jazz might not seem the most natural jazz for a Hackney lad, though he disputes this. “My father played a lot of jazz in the house so I heard it as a child and classical music as well. I didn’t really start playing jazz until my late teens but I think it had something to do with the fact that it was in the air when I was a child.”

He is a bit disdainful when asked at what age he decided music was what he wanted to do.

“I believe kids are born knowing who they are and what they want to do. Our duty as adults is to help them along the way and if necessary find a way of bringing out what they already know.”

That was one of the reasons he was keen to be involved with Shadowball. “It’s very important for me as a person to impart stuff I have learned and help kids to flourish and learn about the world.

“I get as much out of it as they do. It’s reciprocal. I revert to being a child. A lot of adults lose their childlike ways and it’s important to hang on to them and still have that sense of discovery and wonder about the world.”

How does he feel about being the only adult on stage? “It’s fantastic,” he exclaims, “just watching the kids flourishing. You see the transformation and metamorphosis before your eyes. Sometimes when a troubled kid has a lot of attention it can make all the difference.”

Director Freya Wynn-Jones, who has been working with the children over the past two weeks prior to Watkiss’s arrival on Monday, agrees that there is great satisfaction from helping children maximise their potential.

Next Monday both schools will get together ahead of their two performances at the Crucible Theatre on Thursday when they will be joined for the first time by the Julian Joseph Quintet.

”That’s when the children get a real sense of how special it is. The trust behind the project make it as much like a professional production with rehearsal time and proper costumes and set. If it looks good that makes a huge difference. It allows the kids to reach their potential at the right time and enjoy the moment.”