Born and raised in Toronto, Irene Harrett has come a long way since beginning the Humber College Community Music School’s Performing Orff program at age three. Now, at the age of 24, Irene is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Jazz Performance program, and an accomplished bass player with new and exciting projects on the horizon.
Music was an important part of Irene’s childhood, but became an even stronger presence starting in Grade 6, when their class was given the opportunity to take strings or band. “My dad, who played saxophone in his high school concert band, always joked that I should never play the bass because it is too big,” Irene told us. “Well, we were given the option to pick our top three instruments and my first one was saxophone, second was trumpet, and third was the bass. When I had an interview with the band and strings teacher, they learned I could already read music and I was tall enough, so I got put on bass. I came home, reluctant to tell my dad the mess I had made, but he was thrilled.”
Irene played bass throughout middle school, and went on to attend Etobicoke School of the Arts and participate in the Jazz.FM91 Youth Big Band, eventually landing at the University of Toronto, learning from some of the best teacher-musicians every step of the way. “I had access to some of the greatest professional musicians since the age of three, including Don Palmer, Kirk MacDonald, and Lorne Lofsky, at the Humber College Community Music Program,” they said. “At Etobicoke School of the Arts, I had access to two music classes every year, and additional ensembles that gave me a breadth of knowledge. I was the principal bassist in the school’s symphony, led a country band for a school play, participated in a string trio playing music from Masada, and participated in an all double bass concert. I really was fortunate to be surrounded by so much music during my development.”
Music has played a profound role in Irene’s life both in and out of school. “Music has always been there for me,” they said. “I had a difficult time throughout middle school and high school and music, particularly jazz, was where I found comfort. It has and continues to help me make friends when I felt truly isolated. It has given me opportunities to play music and meet people across Canada and internationally.”
It has also given them comfort in times of grief and sorrow. Irene recently shared with us the experience of visiting their uncle, who suffered from dementia, in the hospital, expecting that he would be unable to communicate with the family. Irene decided to play some music on their phone – some Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, polka, and even some of Irene’s own recordings – and to their surprise and delight, their uncle responded by dancing and talking. “Here, the music was not just providing him comfort and joy,” Irene said. “It was healing my family and channeling our sadness into something positive. From then on, my focus has been to give others a chance to have that healing, meditiative, and cathartic moment I had with my uncle.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Irene feels strongly that all children and youth should have access to quality music education. They describe music programs as being “vital to education beyond learning music,” providing youth with outlets to express their emotions and build self-confidence while learning valuable skills like discipline, collaboration, and patience. “My wish is that every student has the same access to music that I had during my development.”
As an advocate for music education, it’s fitting that Irene was selected as one of three youth artists to record the Music Monday Anthem video, a resource used in music classrooms across the country. Irene was introduced to this project by Céline Peterson, with whom they’d become acquainted through the Kensington Market Jazz Festival, giving them the unique opportunity to work with their former teacher, Dave Young, in a brand new context.
“It felt like a reunion,” they said. “I had never seen Dave work in a recording studio, so watching his process to record was tremendously important to me. How he generated new ideas, how well he worked together with Jim [Doxas] and Robi [Botos], and how every take felt fresh and exciting.” Irene’s passion for music and commitment to learning continue to be central to their growth and development, and we expect to see more from this talented young musician in the future.
Irene is currently working on a solo bass project that incorporates double bass and electronics, and recently began a monthly residency at The Tranzac in Toronto, alongside Naomi McCarroll-Butler (alto saxophone), Madeleine Ertel (trumpet), and Joe Sorbara (drums). For information on upcoming performances visit www.ireneharrettmusic.com.