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Legacy of peace

Celebrating a decade of singing songs about peace, social justice and the environment, the Rogue Valley Peace Choir is welcoming a new director, Rob Lowry, who comes with a long background in jazz, piano and vocal music in the region.

The Peace Choir has members age 17 to 90 and welcomes anyone to join, with no audition or musical experience required. One of Lowry's first tasks when rehearsals start up in early September is to build up the membership.

"We want to expand our mission," he says. "We're kind of preaching to the choir here in Ashland, which has so many like-minded people about peace. We want to start singing in other places because we're singing a message that needs to spread. People are demanding peace and are banding together to get it."

And what, exactly, does he mean by peace?

"It's not having to send my kid to war. It's education and feeding the hungry instead of feeding the war machine," he says.

The Peace Choir, created 10 years ago by the late Dave Marston, sang in Hiroshima, Japan, in August 2006, during the 61st anniversary of the U.S. nuclear attack there. Some members want to go back.

Such trips are expensive for a nonprofit and are funded through members' dues and contributions, says Lowry, noting that the choir performs for free but accepts honoraria. For the first time, the choir will seek a grant.

Lowry fans through a pile of sheet music, reading off titles such as "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge, "My Sweet Oregon Home," a song that warns not to pollute or log off the hills, "The Great Peace March," by Holly Near, celebrating a cross-country anti-nuke trek in 1986, and Michael Jackson's "The Man in the Mirror," which asks people to start with themselves in changing the world.

"Everyone shares that vision about peace, social justice and the environment," says choir member Ginger Rilling of Talent. "Rob brings a lot of enthusiasm and spirit to get us off to a good start on our 10th anniversary year and increase membership. It's great this is a non-audition choir because if it weren't, well, I came with no qualifications except I love peace and social justice and I love to sing these songs."

Lowry sang in the Peace Choir last year and was director of its Peace Ensemble, which sings standards from throughout the choir's history. The full choir sings a new song list every year.

Lowry attended the prestigious Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle on a jazz recorder scholarship, and studied jazz bass under Gary Peacock and jazz trombone under Julian Priester. At College of the Siskiyous, he was in the jazz vocal choir of Kerby Shaw and did jazz arrangements in the late '70s, going on to perform in several groups locally.

He is retired from his 46-year career as an auto mechanic, noting, "I was an honest car repairman, and that made it hard to make money."

A longtime friend of Marston's, Lowry says Marston recalled his founding of the Peace Choir during his final days before dying of a rare brain disease.

"Dave said it was the best thing he ever did and he only regrets not doing it sooner," Lowry says.

Members have gone on to create peace choirs in Portland and Eugene.

Lowry succeeds Heather Hutton, who directed the choir for three years.

"I've grown a lot from it, both personally and professionally," Hutton says, "and with Rob's passion for music and people, the Peace Choir will be in good hands."

As a "choir with a mission," the Peace Choir, notes Lowry, is "the most meaningful thing I've ever gotten to do in my life."

"Music reaches people through a channel that no other thing does," he says. "It moves people to tears who would otherwise never cry."

Those wishing to join the choir may come to the first rehearsal at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6, at the First United Methodist Church on North Main and Laurel streets, Ashland.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.