An Uncertain Overture

Xavier Spencer is one of Miamiís best young musicians, but you might never hear him play

At Kearse's urging, Spencer slinked to the piano and played Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." His head down, he played gently, flawlessly. Then he hit a sour note and stopped abruptly. He didn't know the piece by heart, he apologized.

In Spencer's low-ceiling bedroom, among the plastic Parkay margarine bucket filled with Oreo cookies, the map puzzles, and the giant stuffed Scooby-Doo, is a typed birthday note taped to the mirror. It's signed "Your #1 fan and mother." On the voicemail greeting at their home number, Kearse speaks as Spencer plays a Chopin etude in the background: "Greetings. Xavier and Renee are not available at this time."

Kearse, age 47, had Spencer when she was 29. "My friends were having grandkids," she said, laughing. She raised him by herself, the boy's father little more than an apparition since his birth. In part because Spencer was an only child, Kearse had tried to make theirs an inviting home, she said, a hangout of sorts for neighborhood kids. "I just brought them home from church, love on 'em, you know." Two members of this extended family live with Kearse and Spencer: Luis, age 20, a stock boy at BJ's Wholesale Club; and Tavor, age 21, a construction laborer. Luis is Kearse's godson, and Tavor is a friend from church. They had stayed behind when their parents followed jobs out of the city.

Jacqueline Carini
Jacqueline Carini

Beyond the regular stream of visitors, distractions have been easy to come by for Spencer. There was the family of six, friends of Kearse's, who came last year when they had nowhere else to go. They stayed for five months. Spencer couldn't practice when the baby was sleeping. There was Spencer's health scare: He went on a doctor-prescribed exercise and medication regimen to lower his cholesterol. And there was the lingering uncertainty. Spencer, a self-described "daydreamer," had little guidance at school and little faith in piano as a realistic path out of Opa-locka. "Once the music is over, I know I go back home and everything is the same," he said recently.

Jubilate (pronounced yoo-bee-LAH-tay) — a predominantly inner-city collection of professional and educational music groupings including a chorus, an orchestra (one of only three in the States managed and staffed by African-Americans), and a jazz band — has trained more than 550 predominantly minority students in its ten years of existence. The group has staged performances with musicians such as Josh Groban, Bobby McFerrin, Nestor Torres, and Sandi Patty around the state and, recently, in Europe.

All of Jubilate's students have graduated from high school, according to director Ira Everett, a burly former WMBM-AM (1490) talk-show host and outspoken black activist fond of riding his bicycle through the Everglades on moonlit nights. More than 90 percent of Jubilate alumni have gone on to earn college scholarships, and the ranks of the group's successful musicians have swelled.

While groups such as the Miami Children's Chorus and the South Florida Youth Symphony aim to nurture young musicians, Jubilate is rare in its inner-city focus. Sunday Afternoons of Music for Children, a Miami mainstay for 21 years, doesn't teach music but music appreciation, occasionally busing kids from neighborhoods such as Liberty City to the symphony.

Jubilate took Angel Refuse from a childhood in Little Haiti to the Boston Conservatory, where he is studying to become an opera singer. Raised by his grandparents in a "struggling" household, Refuse, now nineteen years old, had few outlets for his singing. In school he was teased, he said. "It took awhile for people to accept the idea, a black male singing classical music."

Kevin Marcus, a product of Fort Lauderdale, met fellow violinist Wil-B through Jubilate, experimented with various sounds, and went on to found an unorthodox hip-hop-meets-strings duo called Black Violin. The two 21-year-olds have performed with Aerosmith, Alicia Keys, the Eagles, Stevie Nicks, Linkin Park, 50 Cent, and Nas.

Even if they don't pursue music later in life, Jubilate's students, many of them from unsteady backgrounds, find "respite" and encouragement in the group, said Julie Silvera-Jensen, head of Jubilate's summer academy. "The reality of it," Silvera-Jensen said, "is if there were not music, for some of these kids there would be nothing."

This past summer, Jubilate gave Spencer a glimpse of another world.

He traveled to Spain, his first foray out of the country, except for a visit with relatives in the Bahamas. At a one-week piano workshop in Segovia, Spencer met young musicians from around the world. Kearse had raised part of the $800 airfare through a letter to friends and relatives in which she recounted her son's rapid growth as a pianist. "All that I ask," Kearse wrote, "is that you take some time out from your busy schedule to consider a way that you may be of assistance to a passionate young artist.... He has a hunger to create great melodies and the most creative measures of music since Rachmaninov."

Although Spencer had struggled with language barriers and the instructors' unfamiliar methods, he returned from the trip inspired by the talent that had surrounded him.

A few months later, Jubilate took Spencer to Argentina. A grainy home video recorded Spencer's performance of Tchaikovsky's "Dumka" — a piece Spencer had learned during the previous month — at the opening ceremonies for a university's cultural festival. Despite his ill-fitting donated tuxedo and stiff stage manners (his bow little more than a nod), Spencer played with a kind of ethereal grace. His fingers — short by pianists' standards — seemed to trace some mental outline each time they raised off the keys, hitting their notes with a clarity and sharpness when they fell. Rocking gently on the bench, Spencer looked at once delicate in front of the Steinway grand yet completely in control of the elegant instrument.

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