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Pittsfield’s Colonial kicks off season with concert to benefit children with autism

By Kelly Bevan, special to The Advocate, May 25, 2010

The Colonial in Pittsfield has, at its core, a mission that focuses on service to the community.

“World-class artistic presentations are intentionally scheduled side by side with community presentations to enrich our audiences and to enhance the opportunities for local artists,” said David Fleming, The Colonial’s executive director.  So when Fleming was approached by local cabaret singer and elementary school teacher Sherri James Buxton about including a concert in the season schedule with proceeds from the evening benefiting children and families in Berkshire County affected by autism, saying “yes” was the only option.

In fact, Fleming and his staff scheduled the benefit concert, the proceeds of which will benefit Community Resources for People with Autism in Pittsfield, for Thursday, June 3: the theater’s 2010-11 season opening.

“When an organization exists to serve its community, an offer to start the season with a program that combines top-notch community-based artists with nationally recognized artists to assist a cause that touches people everywhere is an easy decision to make,” Fleming said. “Sherri explained her goals to us for the event and, knowing how entertaining she is as a singer, we readily agreed to partner with her on it. We believe it to be the perfect start for an exciting season.”

The June 3 concert combines the talent of Buxton, accompanied by Bob Shepherd on the piano, Steve Murray on bass and Dick DiNicola on drums, with performances by Buxton’s children’s chorus at Craneville Elementary School in Dalton and her former adult cabaret students at the Berkshire Music School Lisa Kantor, Pam Rich, Laurie Schiff and Debbie Zecher.

“I know our portion is going to be fun-filled, and I think The Colonial is a fun place to do this (type of show) because it’s intimate enough to be able to have a relationship with the audience,” Buxton said.

Because the event is a benefit for people living with autism, Buxton thought it was important to showcase children on the autism spectrum at the concert. She has done that by inviting one of her very talented autistic students and chorus members at the elementary school, Christian Zdon, to perform, as well internationally renowned jazz composer/pianist and winner of the ASCAP Young Composers Award every year since 2005, 18-year-old Matt Savage, who was diagnosed on the autism spectrum when he was 3.

“With Matt Savage and Christian, I really wanted to show the public the face of autism, the beautiful face of autism,” Buxton said. “I wanted people to see what all of the people on the spectrum can achieve with good education and early intervention.”

Both Buxton and Megan Sherman, the family support manager for Community Resources for People with Autism, believe that this concert is less about the money raised and more about creating awareness.

“For people who don’t know what autism is or they don’t know somebody affected with autism, which is becoming very rare these days because the incidences of autism is so high … there are a lot myths and preconceived notions,” Sherman said.

Some of those myths, Sherman said, include thinking that individuals with autism don’t want to socialize, that they’re in their own world, that they can’t be taught, and that they are intellectually disabled. “I think an event like this is going to show that this is not the case,” she said.

For Savage, that is definitely not the case. Fresh off his freshman year at Berklee School of Music in Boston, Savage said his music and performances have nothing to do with his autism and everything to do with connecting with people.

“The thing is I just love playing for people. It doesn’t matter whether the audience is five or 5,000. I still love to play clubs. I love to play private concerts. I just like venues of all sizes,” he said in a phone interview from his family’s organic farm in New Hampshire. “I like to connect with people and I just love when an audience in a certain town just appreciates my music.”

But at the beginning of his musical career at the tender age of 6, Savage admits that his autism did play a role in how people viewed him. At times, he said, people tended to define him more as “a kid with autism rather than a jazz pianist.”

“I think it was probably more in the earlier stages of my life, because back then I was really young and I was autistic and I could play the piano and that was my big thing,” Savage said. “But now I just want to be known as jazz musician, as an individual. I just want to be a regular guy.”

Savage’s compilation of eight CDs and his gigs around the country, as well as performing on shows like “The Today Show” and the former “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” may make it difficult to achieve that “regular-guy” status, but those, in conjunction with his numerous accolades, have definitely cemented his status as a top-notch jazz composer and pianist. And Savage seems to be OK with that.

“I just want to be known as someone who interacts with audience musically and to just play fun tunes and to communicate,” he said.

“Sherri James Buxton and Friends: Songs from the Heart” will open the 2010-11 Colonial season on Thursday, June 3, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the performance are $25 and $35, or $75 for a VIP ticket, which includes preferred seating and a pre-performance reception with catering from Shiros and pre-show cocktails at 6 p.m. All proceeds from the evening with benefit Community Resources for People with Autism in Pittsfield. Tickets can be purchased by calling The Colonial ticket office at 413-997-4444 or online at

TIME OUT with Berkshire cabaret diva Sherri James Buxton

by Clarence Fanto, special to the Berkshire Eagle, Feb. 20, 2010 —

Even music-lovers find themselves stumped when asked to define and describe cabaret. Is it jazz? pop? show tunes? The Great American Songbook? All of the above?

The unofficial cabaret diva in the Berkshires is Sherri James Buxton, a classically trained soprano who has been singing jazz and pop standards for more than 30 years.

Before moving here, she performed as Sherri James (her stage name) off- Broadway in “The Fantasticks” (her professional debut at the age of 17), covered the Chiffons’ hit “Sweet ‘Talkin’ Guy” for RCA Records, and was cast in classic musicals at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera and the Kansas City Starlight Theatre, as well as appearing in Manhattan night clubs.

Buxton’s “Cabaret to Go” series here is a spin-off from her adult-education program at the Berkshire Music School, where she is a longtime member of the voice faculty She’s also music specialist for the Central Berkshire Regional School District.

A native of Evanston, IL, she lives in Lee with her husband David Buxton.

During a chat at a local coffee shop, the Eagle asked her to define the mystique of cabaret.

Q. What makes it different from performances spaces that feature jazz, pop and Broadway?
A.The standard definitions are all some variation of “a nightclub” with entertainment. Jazz is sung in clubs, as is cabaret. It’s kind of a gray area. I know that I’m a jazz singer when I sing at jazz clubs, but when I do shows or concerts, I’m considered a cabaret singer. I’m still the same person, but I choose my songs differently. Cabaret opens the door to a wider variety of songs and styles, and gives me even more of an opportunity to express myself with lyrics that I really relate to.

Q. Why is cabaret such a fragile art form?
A. I think a lot of people don’t understand what cabaret is. People come to my classes and say, ‘I can’t really do that song, because it’s not really cabaret’. But it’s the intimate venue and the type of singing, not the particular type of song. You can do any kind of song in a cabaret setting, an intimate kind of situation where people are being themselves, instead of a character or instead of singing the way they think a singer should sing. It’s baring their soul, a relationship between the performer and audience.

Q. What has been the impact of cabaret here in recent years?
A. When I started teaching this workshop at the music school, people did not have a good impression of cabaret; there was almost a stigma attached to it. Since we’ve been doing this, there’s been a huge interest in cabaret that wasn’t here 10 years ago.

Q. How did cabaret become an adult education offering at the Berkshire Music School?
A. In 2002, Sheila McKenna [then the director) asked if I’d like to teach an adult cabaret class. I was kind of shocked, but I said, sure!
At the beginning, we had eight people; I never dreamed people would keep coming back. Some of the people from that first class, after taking five to seven workshops with me, are out performing on their own. We’re now in our eighth year, and we’ve done 35 classes.

Q. How does a participant reveal a gift for cabaret?
A. Music is a process and they all start in a different place, so my goal is that they pass their own personal best. People come in who’ve sung a lot, or haven’t sung for years or never alone, or only in a chorus but not solo.
There are all different levels, in the same class, listening to each other and learning from each other. I can always see their potential, most of the time before they can. It’s all ages, from early 20s to my oldest student, Anthony Pastore, who’s 85 and is really fantastic, He was at New England Conservatory many moons ago.

Q. How did“Cabaret to Go” start?
A. After it became apparent that this workshop was going to run for a while, I felt that people should have more of a chance to perform, beyond the cabaret that the music school sets up at the end of each 10-week class.
[Pittsfield attorney C. Jeffrey] Cook, who was in the first class and has taken it seven times, came up with the name. We have a professional singer [me], a professional accompanist [Bob Shepherd], a sound system, a few singers and off we go. We’ve sung in the Colonial Theatre, the Norman Rockwell Museum, Berkshire Museum, and Arrowhead.

Q. In a master class, how do you give candid feedback to the students?
A. It’s a very delicate balance. I am a very positive person and teacher. I like to think of myself as more of a facilitator. What’s really nice is that the students put their trust in me, so I’m aware of what they’re feeling, and when I suggest things to them, they’re willing to take a risk and it’s amazing, the things they’ll try for me. I can’t say we haven’t had meltdowns, it’s a very vulnerable position to be in because we’re not used to showing everybody who we are. It’s like peeling layers off an onion.

Q. What are the qualifies of a standout performer?
A. I’d say honesty, someone who is so into the lyrics that they make us feel something. We’ve all heard people with great technique who don’t know what they’re singing about, and people with no technique who move you. I encourage the students to think outside the box. try a new style or key, just to get to who they are, to do a lot of improvising.

Q. How has teaching the classes affected your performing career?
A. It’s great because a good teacher learns from the students and I know I’m singing better than ever because of them.

Q. Finally, what have singing and teaching meant in your life?
A. Singing is who I am, and I have such a passion for this cabaret teaching, because I love watching people find their inner voice; so many people come to me and say they’ve always wanted to do this. I love helping them ‘let it out,’ because we all have creativity inside us. That’s the passion that drives me, watching people come out of their shell, gain confidence, whatever level they’re at, that they beat their own personal best. It’s like magic!

Look what’s local

by Kelly Bevan, special to The Advocate Publication, InBerkshires, April 22, 2010 —

Matt Savage, 17-year-old jazz phenomenon

Big-name performers and award-winning actors do attract theater-goers to the Berkshires. But Seth Keyes, general manager and – programmer at The Colonial in Pittsfield, is counting on a variety of local celebrities to help fill the 810-seat venue this season.

“It’s a pleasure to be able to work with homegrown artists and create something unique here in the Berkshires,” Keyes said at the theater’s season announcement held earlier this month.

One of those artists, local cabaret singer Sherri James Buxton, will help kick off the 2010-11 season on June 3 in a performance titled “Sherri James Buxton & Friends: Songs From the Heart” with special guest Matt Savage, an 17-year-old autistic jazz pianist, composer and winner of the ASCAP Young Composers Award for the past five years.

‘We’re rather pleased this year to be launching (the season) in a very special way,” said David Fleming, the theater’s executive director.

The event will benefit Community Resources for People with Autism and will feature Buxton, Savage and some young local performers yet to be announced.

Knesset Israel: Adult Bat Mitzvahs Benefit Autism

From the Berkshire Jewish Voice May 3 – June 6, 2010 —

“Songs From The Heart,” June 3

As part of their Adult B’not Mitzvah experience at Pittsfield’s Congregation Knesset Israel, eight women — taught by Rabbi David Weiner and Myrna Hammerling — have chosen an innovative and special tikkun olam (‘repairing the world”) undertaking.

Class member Darlene Weeks explained that the group was inspired by classmate Sherri James Buxton who expressed enthusiasm and a desire to develop a project that would help Berkshire County citizens afflicted with autism.

Thus, Weeks joined with other members of the “B’not Mitzvah Class, 5771”— Barbara Ende, Monica Lapin, Ruth Leddo, Carole Siegel, Kathi Todd, and Alexandra Warshaw — in support of the vision.

The result: “Sherri James Buxton and Friends: Songs of the Heart,” a cabaret to benefit “Community Resources for People with Autism,” will be presented at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield at 7:30p.m. on Thursday, June 3.

The production will feature singer Buxton and special guest Matt Savage, a seventeen-year- old world class jazz pianist who is on the autism spectrum.

Broadway veteran and RCA recording artist Buxton — an elegant interpreter of a wide range of genres from jazz standards to show tunes — delights audiences with her warmth, depth, versatility. and flawless technique.

Special guest. Savage, an award winning musician and composer who has been honored with an “ASCAP Young Composers Award” in each of the past five years, counts among his television credits “20/20,” “Letterman, and ‘The Today Show”.

Sponsored in part by the law firm of Cohen, Kinne, Vailcente, and Cook and the Greylock Federal Credit Union. Tickets are: S75 for “VIP” preferred seating with a 6p.m. pre-concert reception and art show; $35: and $25; and may be purchased at (413) 997-4444 or

Program guide available here.