California choir brings holiday jazz to Washington

WASHINGTON — Naturally, Mikayla Murry got the tingles before a White House performance Tuesday morning.

But soon enough, the 17-year-old Tuolumne County high school student rose above them. It was show time, in a place that just happened to be the president's home.

"I remembered what our choir director told us," Mikayla said. "I kept a smile on my face, relaxed and sang my heart out."

It surely helped that she was among friends.

A veteran of the Sierra Repertory Theater, Mikayla was one of 18 students from Summerville High School and the Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy, based on the Summerville campus, to vocally swing in the White House on Tuesday.

Collectively known as Jazz@8, the students performed from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. while tourists passed by. They sang holiday standards, like "Joy to the World," as well as some less conventional pieces, like "Calypso Carol," and every one seemed to hit home.

"It was amazing," reported Diana Harford, principal of the Connections academy. "I think they were nervous when they first arrived, but then they were just on. It was a great performance."

The extended White House performance arranged with the help of Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, also was a warm-up, of sorts, for the main attraction later in the rainy, overcast day.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Jazz@8 choir was tapped to help kick off the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony early Tuesday evening. Following an Army band performance and assorted speechifying, the choir was allocated five minutes to perform a medley before 7-year-old Sonora, Calif., resident Johnny Crawford helped House Speaker John Boehner turn on the tree lights.

Johnny won the tree-lighting honor by having his name selected from a total of 717 California schoolchildren.

Following their brief Capitol performance, the Jazz@8 students were to decamp along with vocal director Madeline Young for a longer set in the spectacularly marbled Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.

All of which came together in only about one month, as the Summerville and Connection academy students moved quickly to raise some $22,000 to pay for their airfare, hotel lodging and holiday performance accoutrements.

"It was just an amazing outpouring from the community," Harford said.

The opportunity arose for the students, and others in Tuolumne County, because this year's Capitol Christmas tree was cut from the Stanislaus National Forest. While the 63-foot Sierra white fir was erected on the West Lawn of the Capitol grounds, and adorned with some 10,000 LED lights, Californians were celebrating all over town.

Tuesday afternoon, for instance, chef Gene Womble and two of his Columbia College hospitality management students served up California-tinged cuisine to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service and others attending a reception in the Agriculture Department.

The dishes included beet sliders, apple tarts, sushi, persimmons and quail-stuffed mushrooms.

"It's an amazing menu," said Maria Benech, the Pinecrest, Calif.,-based coordinator of this year's Capitol Christmas Tree program. "I just knew it was going to be fabulous."

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