In the early days of the pandemic back in March 2020, saxophonist Roy Nathanson decided to play "Amazing Grace" on the porch of his Ditmas Park home, every day at 5PM.
“I was supposed to go on tour in France and I didn’t, obviously,” Nathanson told Gothamist in a recent interview. “I’d seen pictures of people in Italy singing on their balconies. So I thought I’d go out there and play 'Amazing Grace.'”
As spring moved toward summer, the performance became more of a jam session: musicians joined in from their own porches, or played on the sidewalk. Neighbors came to listen and dance, scattered a few feet apart. The so-called 5PM porch concerts made the news. For months, they offered a consistent bit of joy during a deeply unsettling and difficult time.
But Nathanson — who played with the Lounge Lizards, co-founded The Jazz Passengers and is also a composer and teacher — wanted to do more. So he reached out to nonprofits and schools in the community to give kids in elementary, middle and high school a chance to participate.
“I thought we could make it happen on porches when kids didn’t have any music,” he said. “We could teach kids.”
Over the past two years, a new program has crystallized. Neighbors donated porches. Musician friends and former students pitched in as teachers, paid through a nonprofit Nathanson helped found called Jazz Passengers Music Projects. Pianist Aidan Scrimgeour, who had joined the nightly jam sessions back in 2020, has now become a leader of the nascent porch school.
This spring the group has offered individual lessons on a network of porches throughout the neighborhood. The so-called 5PM Porch Concert Band includes drummers, percussionists, keyboardists, bass, guitar, saxophone, trumpet players and singers. The students range in age from eight to 18. Some also write the songs.
Dozens of students meet once a week with their teachers for individual lessons. Their chords and scales float across lawns and echo between stately Victorian homes. Then, on a second night every week, they come together in the backyard of a restaurant called Jalsa on Coney Island Avenue to practice as a band.
Djahlisa Fenelon, 13 and in the 8th grade at Mark Twain middle school, was looking for a way to take singing lessons, but didn’t want to do them on Zoom. The porch lessons gave her the chance to practice both her singing, and her songwriting skills, in person.
“I want to be a famous singer when I grow up,” she said. “I haven’t been doing a lot of song writing before I was in this band. It helped me with the song writing side of me and also the performing side of me too.”
Rosetta Serrano is 17 and goes to the Institute for Collaborative Education in Manhattan, where Nathanson used to teach. She plays the bass, and she’s been working with younger students. The porch concerts and lessons have been among “the only things about the pandemic that didn’t make me sad,” she said.
“Obviously it wasn’t easy to be a teenager in a pandemic, it wasn’t easy to be anyone in a pandemic,” Serrano said. “So to see people playing together was really amazing.”
FatimatouHaiz Diallo, a singer who also goes to the Institute for Collaborative Education, said she appreciated connecting with kids of all different ages. “The fact that I’m 16 and playing with kids that go to middle school and even younger is incredible to me, because we can all bond over music,” she said. “To be doing something so communal is very important in these times.”
Beyond picking up tips on how to improve their technique, Nathanson said the porch sessions have helped the young musicians process their feelings in song. For example, one student wrote a meditation on sitting alone during the pandemic amid heaps of laundry. Others wrote about the avenues – Coney Island, Flatbush and Utica – that connect their communities.
“I’m also a poet and I really believe in the idea of extended language that combines text and music,” Nathanson said. “No matter how hard these couple of years have been, just to articulate these stories is a magical thing.”
Nathanson said he hopes to build the program into a brick and mortar music school or even a settlement house. But for now he’s focused on getting the group ready for their next big concert, near the subway at Newkirk Plaza this Tuesday June 21st, at 5PM.