The TD Niagara Jazz Festival wraps up its 2020 season next week with its first virtual sing-along fundraiser.
Filmed partially in the beautiful Ridley College chapel in St. Catharines, Home for the Holidays promises surprise celebrity cameos, performances from Ridley College students, Blundell’s School in the U.K., and Evan Lewis Dolinski, one of the festival’s JAZZ 4 the AGES youth competition winners.
Festival co-creators Juliet Dunn and Peter Shea will host the event, which is a fundraiser for the festival itself and the United Way’s Anita Project. Ridley grads Andrew McPherson and Jane Lewis will act as co-hosts as well.
Speaking from his home in Guelph, McPherson, originally from St. Catharines, says he was thrilled to visit his alma mater with Lewis, his next door neighbour and frequent collaborator, and with whom he shares a unique connection.
“Jane lives right beside me,” McPherson says. “And believe it or not, when I was at Ridley, her mom was the housemaster of the girls’ house there. When I was in Grade 13, a bunch of us gathered and led a march through the girls’ house at about 7 a.m., yelling and singing in our housecoats. She gave me a pretty stern look that day.”
You might not recognize McPherson, but chances are you have heard him countless times. An in-demand voice actor for more than 35 years, he is currently the network announcer for HGTV and Discovery Channel. In addition, his smooth baritone has been heard on commercials for Lipton’s, BMO, TD Canada Trust, Toyota, Labatt’s and Kraft Foods, among many others.
He’s also an accomplished producer and musician with two Juno Award nominations under his belt through his world music project, Eccodek. He has released albums under his own name, and has collaborated with the likes of Kevin Breit, Jane Siberry, Kiran Ahluwalia, Philosopher Kings, and Stephen Fearing. Recently, his instrumental side project, Peppermoth, has been consuming much of his time.
Lewis, meanwhile, is also a busy musician. As one half of folk duo Gathering Sparks, she was nominated for Vocal Group of the Year at the 2014 Canadian Folk Music Awards. When not performing, she can be found leading vocal workshops, singing backup vocals for other artists, or running women’s music weekend retreats. She and McPherson are part of a bustling Guelph arts community that has been hit hard by COVID-19.
Besides helping to host the sing-along, McPherson and Lewis will also be performing. They got together at his backyard Monastereo studio, where they recorded Bringing in the Light, an original Lewis composition. Even though, as next door neighbours they are in the same bubble, they made every effort to do things the right way. “We did it distanced, with baffles between us,” he explains. “We walked the walk. This could be seriously contentious if we were just singing into microphones across the room.”
McPherson will also be reading Twas the Night Before Christmas, bits of which will be interspersed throughout the program.
The idea for the sing-along, says Dunn, came about as a way to honour Joe and Anita Robertson. The late Niagara-on-the-Lake residents and philanthropists, along with their 24-year-old daughter Laura, were tragically killed in a plane crash in July, 2018.
The connection between Shea and Robertson goes back many years, to when Shea was just a toddler and the two families had cottages near each other. More recently, Joe had become a piano and vocal student, taking lessons from Shea once a week, beginning in 2010.
Joe was the original chair of the TD Niagara Jazz Festival, and he and Anita were huge supporters. In fact, it was through Joe’s connections that the TD sponsorship came about. Dunn says Joe offered to take on the role of chair when the festival was just getting off the ground in 2013, and he encouraged her to become the executive director.
“They are beautifully woven into the threads of the Jazz Festival,” says Dunn. “Sing-alongs were a long-loved tradition in the Robertson household.”
The last time Dunn saw the Robertsons was at a VIP event held at White Oaks in early 2018. “Their celebration of life later that year was a very, very hard day for us,” she says. “We performed there. They actually had a sing-along at that. They found in his papers some lyrics that he had written, probably for his planned 60th birthday. They all got up and sang them.”
Home for the Holidays is free to watch, via the TD Niagara Jazz Festival’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, though donations are being accepted through the festival’s website. Funds raised will benefit both the jazz festival and the United Way’s Anita Project, which packs and distributes hygiene kits to several agencies in the Niagara region, including Gillian’s Place, the YMCA, and Community Care. It was a project near and dear to Anita’s heart.
Home for the Holidays begins at 4 p.m. on Dec. 6.