GROTON -- "In case you didn't know, it's cool to sing," said George Russell Jr., inspirational jazz pianist and professor of harmony at the Berklee College of Music, to Groton-Dunstable Middle School students.
To celebrate Black History month, George Russell Jr. & Company were invited to perform an original program, "Clap Your Hands," that features the history of gospel music, highlighting spiritual, folk, blues and gospel and the influence of this music in American history.
Sitting at his electric keyboard on stage, Russell Jr. told the young audience that they don't have to look around to see if it's cool to sing, because it's just plain cool to sing. He invited students to "move a little bit and sing a little bit," calling that part of the show "mandatory fun."
"It's mandatory that you have fun," said Russell Jr.
The program opened with a song encouraging students to clap their hands, performed by Russell Jr. on keyboard and vocals, Anthony Steele on drums, Joe Sumrell on bass guitar, Jean Peterson, lead vocalist, and Emily Russell (George's wife), supporting vocalist.
The narrative concert told students to go back in time to 200 years ago. "Steal Away," softly sang Peterson, while Russell Jr. explained the song was a vehicle for communication between slaves in the Underground Railroad as a way to pass messages of freedom to one another.
After telling students how slaves escaped into the water so their scent couldn't be picked up, Russell Jr. taught them to snap their fingers on the "back beat," two and four, because "that's where the cool people snap" to the song "Wade in the Water."
The narration continued with the period after the Civil War, when African-Americans found jobs with blues cabaret, and Russell Jr. & Co. performed a lively blues rendition of a Ma Rainey song, one of the earliest known American professional blues singers.
Students listened to how Georgia Tom (Thomas Dorsey) went on to become known as the father of gospel and wrote the famous song "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," a favorite song of Martin Luther King Jr., performed by Peterson.
Russell Jr. described how music provided a common ground through the Civil Rights movement, bringing people of all colors together, as with the song "We Shall Overcome."
Continuing with the gospel song "This Little Light of Mine," he encouraged students to sing and enjoy the way music makes you feel.
According to Principal Steven Silverman, "Clap Your Hands" was chosen for it's appeal to young students, with a unique historical narration to music.
In 1991, Russell Jr., said he originally started a jazz history show for a young audience with his friend, Semenya McCord. In 2005 George took over the show after she moved, making a few changes. The group visits three to four schools a week during January through March, celebrating Black History month.
"We hope kids take away a sense of history about the music and about American history, too, and that they also take away a good feeling," said Russell Jr.
"Very often songs of our past help us to remember things, like when you hear a song, it takes you right back," Russell Jr., said.
The program closed with Russell Jr., asking students to perform a random act of kindness. "That means do something for someone for no reason at all and help them to have a happy day," and with that, the entire auditorium, students and teachers, were on their feet singing and rockin' to the beat of "Oh, Happy Day."