Colleen Maher fell in love with music back in the eighth grade, about the time she started singing in the New Orleans Children’s Chorus, and long before she earned an undergraduate degree in vocal music education at Loyola University or a master’s degree in conducting at LSU.
“When people ask me what I’m up to, I tell them nothing has changed,” the lively New Orleanian says with a laugh. “I’ve been doing the same thing for 20 years.”
These days, her musical avocation puts her in front of 95 third-through-seventh graders at Holy Name of Jesus School, where she is in charge of liturgical music. That means she oversees all the church music in a school where church music is a big deal.
Especially at this time of year.
On Saturday, Maher will be conducting the Holy Name of Jesus Children’s Choir in a repertoire of sacred seasonal music at “Singin’ and Swingin’ on the Avenue,” a holiday jazz celebration sponsored by Nola Art House Music, an organization that promotes conversations about contemporary New Orleans music. The program will feature jazz musicians Edward Anderson, Evan Christopher, Khari Lee and Mike Pellara, and jazz vocalists Leah Chase and Philip Manuel.
“Jazz definitely has a place in sacred music, and has for some time,” says Father Donald Hawkins, pastor, Holy Name of Jesus. “African-American religious music is pervasive in our culture, and the religious influence has been strong on jazz.”
In a predominantly Catholic city that gave birth to jazz, the cross-pollination of sacred and jazz music, he says, is a particularly rich one. And it offers a rewarding learning experience for the school’s young choir.
“We don’t sing jazz at Mass. Nor do they get to hear instruments like the clarinet or trumpet.” Maher says. “I hope the children enjoy a different style of music. They will be learning by experiencing it.”
It’s certainly a group that loves to sing. The choir has gotten too big for the annual yearbook photo, says Maher, and takes up the entire breadth of the altar during Mass. “It’s one of the most popular activities at school.”
Certainly the recent comeback of choral music through such programs as “Glee” or “The Sing-Off” has boosted that popularity.
“A lot of kids want to imitate the voices they hear on TV,” Maher says. “I tell them not to push to sound like an older musician, but just to sing with the voices that God gave them.”
And they do. As many as 25 children handle solo duties at any given Mass, with these brief starring roles reserved as a privilege for middle schoolers, except for the occasional special fourth-grade cantor day. On Sundays at Holy Name, says their teacher, “it’s gratifying to look out and see all the kids from the school out there singing.”
Holy Name of Jesus Church has particularly good acoustics, Maher adds, making it a popular locale for an array of local groups.
But that’s a lesser reason why Saturday’s concert holds such promise. Far more stimulating is the fact that the evening will bring together various ages, religions, music and neighborhoods in one celebratory session.
And that’s what the season is all about.
Singin’ and Swingin’on the Avenue takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday at Holy Name of Jesus Church, 6367 St. Charles Ave. The program includes vocalists Leah Chase and Phillip Manuel, jazz musicians Edward Anderson, Evan Christopher, Khari Lee and Mike Pellera, and the Holy Name of Jesus Children’s Choir under the direction of Colleen Maher. Admission is by $10 donation. For information, email email@example.com or call 504.861.9709.
Renee Peck, a former feature editor and writer at The Times-Picayune, is editor of NolaVie.