South Florida jazz singer Nicole Henry has sung around the world and recently earned a 2013 Centric Soul Train Award nomination in the traditional jazz performance field.
Big honors, especially for a young woman from Bucks County, Pa., who, like most, grew up on the Soul Train hit parade. But Henry also remembers that special feeling when she moved from singing before family and her community at church and stepped onto stages in front of strangers on Miami Beach in the mid-1990s. There, she sang contemporary music to tracks with a DJ while she was a student at the University of Miami. This exposure led to her first real show in Orlando as ‘Nicole Henry,’ singing the jazz and R&B music she loves.
Thrilling. Empowering. Daunting.
“For that show and probably the next 50 shows by myself as the lead singer I would always make myself wear black clothes. I was so nervous inside I would sweat so much,” Henry recalls. “I’d try to look calm but internally I was on fire. Not so much from the singing, but really the entertaining, the talking to people between the songs … there’s no lyrics to this part of this.”
Henry hopes that feeling, and the ultimate triumph of finding your voice before an audience and developing a career in the arts, transfers to a dozen or so middle school students from Liberty City who will join her as a choir to sing two songs at her holiday concert, “A Joyful Sound!” at the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach Saturday.
The concert is a benefit for Miami Children’s Initiative, a nonprofit organization focused on transforming the Liberty City neighborhood. Henry is on the board. The pairing of singer and students is patterned after the Harlem Children’s Zone project in New York in which local leaders take a block-by-block approach to engage and mentor youngsters into college and use the arts to tap their potential and help break the cycle of poverty.
“I can’t wait,” Henry says. “The Miami Children’s Initiative is focusing on children to add to their perspective and possibilities with their lives and it’s definitely going to be fun to work with them and inspire them and have them be on stage in front of an audience that’s not just their parents. For me, that’s when I realized I could be a singer, this could be my job, when I stopped singing at church or school where people say ‘You’re good.’”
The students have been rehearsing for the past three weeks at their school, Charles R. Drew K-8 Center, with their choir director, Celeste Johnson. Last Friday and show day will be the final run-throughs and the kids’ first rehearsals with Henry before the concert opens at the Colony.
“At rehearsal it’s not only about the song and about the lyrics and singing the right note, but reminding them what their job is when on the stage: You’re entertaining and also bringing the spirit of the holidays,” Henry says. “It’s not about being perfect but giving your best.”
The attention the concert will bring to Miami Children’s Initiative, which is operating partly off a $75,000 grant they have to match from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is another fringe benefit the vocalist says.
“Liberty City, like a lot of cities in the the country, are in need of social services, better social services, better attention, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to bring more attention to the organization and the work they do. We all have to help one another.”
The energy at rehearsals is kinetic, says Cecilia Gutierrez-Abety, managing director and CEO of Miami Children’s Initiative.
“A community gets transformed by the arts. The arts must be an integral part of it as it offers a real hopefulness to everything we are doing,” Gutierrez-Abety says. “Our greatest work is bringing hope to many children and families who are forgotten, whose future, we know, because they are in poverty and poor-performing schools, is not as promising as in other areas. The arts becomes one of the main reasons they want to come to school every day.”
Finding resources and overcoming cynicism — the viewpoint that it’s not possible for communities to transform — are the two main challenges the Initiative faces, Gutierrez-Abety says.
“This holiday concert is one way of inviting people to be a part of this effort long term.”
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.