Chaney, a 12-year-old SPARC student, was uneasy about performing with her uncle before she stepped on stage at the school’s LIVE ART show last year. It wasn’t because her uncle is family. It was because he is multi-Grammy award-winning Jason Mraz and she knew everyone would be paying very special attention to the performance. “It was nerve-wracking. I wanted to be at my best and not mess up, but at the same time I was comfortable with it,” she says, noting Mraz’s easygoing nature is contagious.
Her friends are in awe of her uncle, she adds. “Everyone freaks out when I talk about him. I don’t see him as Jason Mraz.
I just see him as my goofy uncle.” Chaney, who has been involved with SPARC for seven years, says she was nervous about performing when she was younger. Mraz helped her work through her stage fright. “He has inspired me a lot,” she says. “He has shown me how to be myself on stage and also with my friends. He has Changed me…made me a better person. He has taught me not to be selfish and to see other people as they are.”
A former SPARC kid himself, Mraz is now an international star as well as an avid photographer, enthusiastic surfer, and passionate social activist and philanthropist. He has won two Grammy awards and sold over 7 million albums. He has more than 2 billion views on YouTube, more than 13 million Facebook fans, and more than 5 million fans following him on Twitter.
His shows have sold out prestigious venues such as the Hollywood Bowl and Madison Square Garden and he has performed at the White House and also at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert. His mega hit “I’m Yours” stayed on Billboard’s Hot 100 longer than any other song in history.
Even though he tours most of the year, Mraz continues to be aligned with SPARC. “It feels like it was just yesterday,” says the Mechanicsville native, of his time at the performing arts school. “SPARC gave me the tools to get to the next level.”
Mraz, who attended both Rural Point and Mechanicsville Elementary schools, started performing at the age of six. “From the time he was two, he was on the hearth entertaining the family,” says his mom, June Tomes. “When he went to preschool, that is when we saw the showmanship come out. He never turned down an opportunity to perform. He didn’t ask permission or ask for ideas. He had his own ideas and he would surprise us. He liked that element of surprise.”
In 2010, Mraz decided to surprise the students at Mechanicsville Elementary. The students had written him letters asking him to come to school for a visit. They assembled the letters in a book and carried it to the singer’s mother. “Jason was so overwhelmed by the letters,” she says, that her famous son decided he needed to visit the school. “The only person that knew was the principal. None of the teachers knew. The kids were shocked when they saw him. He met with every class and did a performance on the playground.”
Mraz has always been the kind of person who’s fun to be around, his mom adds. “All of his teachers said how enjoyable he was. I still get notes from teachers.”
Tomes always thought Mraz would be involved in music but she envisioned him either teaching or performing in the theater. When he did “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at SPARC, she recalls the school’s founder Jeri Cutler-Voltz sharing that her son was a triple threat on stage. “That is when we thought that was the direction he would go,” she says.
Mraz did attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, but decided he wanted to sing his own songs instead of performing in the theater. So in 1999, he headed to California and began his solo journey. Now a resident of San Diego, Mraz has accomplished more than he ever imagined. “I never thought I would have a career,” he says. “I surpassed my own expectations.”
Mraz not only found fame, but also a genuine need to give back. “I wondered what I could do with all the attention,” he says. “I rode to success rather quickly and easily. One feels a little like I beat the system. One way for me to offset that was to share that joy, to establish a foundation and share the wealth with organizations. It’s a way for me to feel better about what I am up to.”
Compassion is a natural gift for Mraz, his mom says. “He was a really socially-conscious kid. When I was a single parent [his parents divorced when he was young], he was very conscious of the fact that we didn’t have a lot of money. It was a day-to-day struggle for me.”
Mraz continuously looked for ways to help his mom. “It really impacted me to think he was so concerned and so willing to give up his own needs for me and our family,” she says. “As a child, he never asked for things. It was never about him. He was always grateful for the things he got.”
The philanthropic endeavors he pursues through the Jason Mraz Foundation are wide ranging. He is an advocate not only for the environment but also human equality and social justice. He is a vocal supporter of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community as well as marriage equality. “The first time I was ever outspoken about it was when one of my best friends came out in high school,” Mraz says. “That showed tremendous strength for someone to show who they are and let others know.”
Many of the people Mraz has worked with in his career are involved in the LGBT community. “It seemed that they should have an ally in the straight community,” he says. “I understand how important it is for today’s youth to have support. I see more and more stories of young people coming out and the hardships they face.”
After learning that a large number of youth find themselves homeless after coming out, Mraz began working with the True Colors Fund. Grammy, Emmy and Tony award-winning artist Cyndi Lauper co-founded the Fund to raise awareness about and bring an end to LGBT youth homelessness through the Fund’s Forty to None Project. The organization also hopes to inspire and engage everyone, especially straight people, to become active participants in the advancement of equality for all.
“In high school a friend of mine had the experience of being kicked out of the house,” Mraz says. “My parents took him in and he lived with us.”
Mraz is looking forward to the day that people in the LGBT community are completely embraced by society to the point “that it becomes normal and we don’t think about it anymore,” he says. “I think we have a long way to go.”
Another one of Mraz’s goals is to boost the quality of life for kids around the world. To that end, he was invited to participate in a rescue mission in Ghana with Free the Slaves, which is dedicated to ending slavery around the world. “I saw how many kids were forced to work in awful situations on water for thirteen to fifteen hours a day,” he says. “They were diving under boats to free nets, some were dying.”
Jesse Billauer, who heads up the nonprofit organization Life Rolls On, is also on the receiving end of Mraz’s generosity. The organization’s adaptive surfing program, They Will Surf Again, helps people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to surf on their own enjoy the sport.
“Jason is the most amazing person in the world,” Billauer says. “He gives so much of his time and money.”
Mraz is hands-on when he works with the surfing program. “He goes in the water and helps people with disabilities catch waves,” Billauer says. “When he’s at these events he is like a kid in the candy store. He has a big smile on his face. He gets as much out of it as anybody. He really cares.”
There is never any pretense when you are dealing with this recording star, observes Ryan Ripperton, executive director of SPARC. “Sometimes celebrities are on a pedestal and feel they are not like regular people,” he says. “Jason is as much a regular person as I have ever met. It’s like talking to an old friend. He’s very laid back and down to earth. It’s easy to forget how successful he has been.”
Last year he wore flip-flops to the LIVE ART performance and talked to the kids about how his footwear compared to theirs. “He chit-chats and makes them feel totally at ease,” Ripperton says. “Having Jason involved is a tremendous honor.”
During the show last year, one of SPARC’s student musicians wrote an arrangement of Mraz’s “The Sunshine Song.” He performed the song with Mraz on stage. “After the show, Jason invited him to come on two live shows with him on tour,” Ripperton says.
Mraz is currently putting the finishing touches on his fifth album, which will be released in the first half of 2014. “It’s not a huge departure from the songs I write but it is a very different energy,” he says, noting that he’s working with the all-female band, Raining Jane, on the album.
Chaney is looking forward to performing with her uncle at this year’s Live Art performance. She remembers what it was like working with him last year when she and other students used their feet to paint a mural while Mraz performed “Details in the Fabric.” “Some parts when we were dancing he would look over at me, wink and smile,” she says. “It made me feel more comfortable.”
Where Can You See Jason Mraz, k.d. lang, and Hundreds of RVA Kids in Action?
This year’s LIVE ART: Tree of Life celebration is on December 22 at six o’clock at Landmark Theater. The show features Jason Mraz as well as Canadian singer-songwriter and multi-Grammy Award winner k.d. lang, along with other prominent recording artists and featured musicians who will collaboratively perform visual and performance art with children of all abilities.
LIVE ART is more than just a concert event. Ahead of the show, 120 students with a range of developmental disabilities (like autism, Williams syndrome, Down syndrome) and hearing and vision impairment have participated in performing arts classes alongside the regular line-up of SPARC students.
Each class is set to collectively perform its visual and performance art with the featured musicians in the December concert. “This is a show not to be missed,” Jason Mraz says. “It’s an all-inclusive program that features children who may not have a chance to have their talent featured in an original production on a large stage. It levels the playing field for all.”
LIVE ART was created in 2011 by Erin Thomas-Foley, SPARC’s director of education, who wanted to “create a new model of classes and performance that allow students of all abilities to experience the positive life-changing power of the arts,” she says. “I hope that through this new teaching model, we can inspire the next generation of young people to have more empathy and compassion for each other despite our differences.”
She’s looking for the performance to inspire the entire community and “really shake things up,” she says. “I want to surprise people and hopefully make them leave the theatre feeling different than when they walked in.”
The performance uses parables enacted by puppets and a set list of music performed by stellar musicians to “take the audience on a journey of significant moments in life when our hearts are active…and to remind us that we all walk together in good company,” Thomas-Foley says, adding that all students are participating tuition-free, thanks to major project funding by the Stanley and Kim Markel Memorial Fund of the Community Foundation.