The Pacific Boychoir, Oakland’s only professional all-male youth choir, will perform with the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra in an unusual program of material this weekend. The performance takes place at 7 p.m., Friday, April 24, at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, and at 7 p.m., Saturday, April 25, at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church
The 55-voice choir will join the Shelby orchestra and vocalist Faye Carol in a program consisting of Shelby’s Harriet Tubman oratorio, spirituals, and—in honor of his 100th birthday on April 29—compositions by jazz great Duke Ellington.
“It’s something new; I haven’t heard of a collaboration like this before,” remarked Kevin Fox, founding artistic director of the Pacific Boychoir. “It’s partly because of my interest in American spirituals; our choir performs them on almost every tour here and in Europe, and we’ve recorded them, to show our American heritage. We do Bach, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Haydn ... we try to think of something American, too—and what’s more American than jazz? I did a little playing in a jazz band as a kid, here in the Bay Area.”
Fox was put in touch with Marcus Shelby. “I said, ‘Here’s a vague idea,’ having to do with Ellington. His orchestra can do all that stuff. The boys in the choir have a lot of energy in their sound; there’s a lot of energy in a big band—and that’s what his orchestra is. It should be exciting to work together.”
It took about two years “to figure out exactly what to do, to put it together. There’re the pieces from Marcus’ Harriet Tubman oratorio. We took a couple of songs and changed the vocal part around for the choir. Christopher Kula, our associate director, arranged Duke’s ‘Come Sunday’ for eight-part choir and rhythm section, and ‘On a Turquoise Cloud’ ... there’s a Dixieland piece in our repertoire Marcus made band parts for. And the Strayhorn arrangement of ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing’ is definitely different! There’s no choir in the original. We pulled out the sax part and put the vocal section in the choir part, added an improv section, with the choir trading 4’s with the band ... The curiosity factor alone makes it worth coming to!”
Fox commented on working with Shelby and his orchestra: “Thinking of Ellington’s  Sacred Concerts at Grace Cathedral, we wanted the choir with jazz instruments. Both are really known for having a particular sound. And Marcus is great, not just as an advocate of performing jazz but in educating the kids. For a lot of our guys, it was the first time they heard music like this. Their experience of American music is mostly pop, the spirituals and maybe some Samuel Barber we’ve sung. Marcus arranged ‘Go Down Moses’—older than Ellington, yet newer, in this form; it shows how well jazz reflects American music. I really enjoyed helping the boys make sense of this. We’ve transcribed blues scales in theory class, but they haven’t seen these chord symbols much—and to see the added notes, the funky rhythms, some figured bass—fun for me to watch them learn the language of jazz.”
Fox has been involved with boy choirs since age 8 and was proctor of the American Boychoir School in Princeton. Friends of Negro Spirituals made him a Heritage Keeper two years ago. He founded the Pacific Boychoir in 1998 with six boys; there are now more than 140 involved in six different sections, including several performing choirs, a beginners’ group, and an ensemble for boys whose voices are changing. In 2004, an Academy day middle school was founded, the only full-time boys’ chorus school on the West Coast, now located on Alcatraz Avenue in North Oakland. The after-school program is for boys 8 to 18 from around the Bay Area.
The Pacific Boychoir has performed with the Berkeley Symphony, the UC Davis Orchestra and the San Francisco Symphony, including on their Grammy-winning recording of Mahler’s Third. Besides performing on tour nationally and internationally, and with other boys’ choruses from around the world, such as the Vienna Boys’ Choir, the Pacific Boychoir has performed at home games of the Giants, A’s, Raiders and Warriors. “We’re one of the few groups around that can do the Canadian National Anthem,” remarked Fox after an Expo’s game.
The Pacific Boychoir Academy Dean Pamela Weimer has announced that the organization is holding a talent search to find up to two boys who will be entering the fourth grade next year (September 2009). Winners of the May 2 audition will be offered full scholarships to attend the Pacific Boychoir Academy’s Day School (grades 4–8) for five years. More information can be obtained at www.pacificboychoir.org or by calling Weimer’s office at 652-4722.
The Pacific Boychoir with the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, featuring Faye Carol. 7 p.m., Friday, April 24, at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St., San Francisco; 7 p.m. Saturday, April 25, at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, 345 Channing Way. $20. 652-4722. www.pacificboychoir.org