Departing today with a special invitation to perform at this weekend's New York City Jazz Festival, it's another feather in the cap for the Lakewood High School Vocal Jazz Ensemble and choral director Herbert Johnson.
Under Johnson's leadership, …
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Under Johnson's leadership, the jazz group and acapella choir - known as Lakewood Voices - has achieved numerous accolades, including being recognized in 2015 as a Grammy award-winning music program in the education category.
At the jazz festival being held at the world-famous Apollo Theater, the 20-member ensemble will perform such classic hits as "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Walking on Sunshine" and will be one of just two high school vocal jazz groups performing at the showcase for the best of jazz from high school, college and professional groups from across the U.S. and even some international groups.
But what will be seen and heard on stage in front of the live audience at the historic venue only shows part of the story of the high school group's success, according to Johnson and his students.
In addition to its Grammy a few years ago, the choir has more than its share of highest ratings at prestigious national events, Johnson said. In the previous three years, the choir has performed on spring trips to Carnegie Hall, also in New York City; Chicago; and Williamsburg, Virginia.
However, Johnson doesn't measure "success" by ratings - instead, "success" to him is child-centered.
"Ratings - those things are conditional," Johnson said. "Success for me lies within consistency and growth in the students. Taking your students where they are - regardless of background - and to get them to be able to pull off a trip like this is incredible."
Many students look up to Johnson as a father figure.
"He's a real strong leader here at Lakewood," said senior Benjamin Way, who has taken chorus all four years. "Everybody respects his decisions. I have known him throughout high school, and I feel I can talk to him just about anything."
Way said he plans to major in music education at either Claflin University in Orangeburg or Lander University in Greenwood.
In his fifth year at the school, Johnson said he knows he plays the role of father figure for many of his students at Lakewood, especially young men.
"I've seen kids come in my program in bad shape, whether it's behavior or something else, who may have never thought about doing music," Johnson said. "And then be turned on to music and end up going to college through this choir and having a future and even some getting full scholarships."
Johnson said he's had five students in the last two years get full music scholarships to college, and he expects at least a few more this year.
Senior Xavier Williams hopes to be one of those.
Two years ago, Williams said music never even crossed his mind. Describing himself then as simply "headed in the wrong direction," Williams said he was singing and rapping one day near the choral room at Lakewood. Johnson approached him, said he had a musical gift and told him to sign up for his class the next year as a junior.
Williams did, and now in the spring semester of his senior year, he's auditioning for a college scholarship.
"Johnson, he's a life changer," Williams said. "He changed my life, and he gave me a chance to experience stuff that I never did before because I wasn't really a singer and didn't think it was cool. It didn't cross my mind ever. But Johnson pulled me in and let me know that a little change is not that bad.
"He gave me an opportunity."
Williams said he's never been to the Apollo Theater before.
"I am looking forward to having a great time," Williams said. "This is a great experience, especially to perform at the Apollo Theater, where so many great musicians have walked across that stage. To know that my school and people that I practice and sing with every day will be with me, it's a blessing."
On Saturday, the group will have the opportunity to have a private clinic and rub shoulders with a guest professional clinician. The jazz festival will be Sunday with Lakewood performing in the concert.
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