Band of developmentally challenged musicians hopes to show audiences that 'we are more alike than we are different'

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - United By Music North America artists Aaron Hobson (from right), Bethany Ide, Jordan Ackerson and James Ford rehearse a tune during a recent practice at O'Connors Grill and Pub. On stage, singer Wyatt Isaacs says, United by Music North America seeks to “open people up to new ideas” about blues, swing and jazz. But there is a more important mission behind the group’s celebratory performances.

“What I think is important about this group,” says Lisa Lieberman, whose son, Jordan Ackerson, is also a United by Music performer, “is that these are people who have musical talent who happen to also have different kinds of diagnostic issues.”

Ackerson, a Lake Oswego resident who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, is one of 14 artists who participate in UBMNA, a Portland-based band that helps developmentally challenged musicians excel. The group’s goal, its organizers say, is to “challenge public attitudes about people with an intellectual disability, showing that we are more alike than we are different through the exceptional talents of our members.”

Lieberman, a clinical social worker who specializes in helping families who are living with a disability, puts it more simply. “I like the idea,” she says, “that UBMNA promotes and focuses on strengths.”

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Lake Oswego resident Jordan Ackerson is one of 14 members of United By Music North America. The group will perform at the Rose Festival on Saturday in Portland. “This is not about ‘disabled’ people trying to fit in, but rather about how unimportant and irrelevant the differences between people are in the world of music — or in the world, for that matter,” Lieberman says. “These artists transform before your eyes to become capable, talented human beings, and that inadvertently informs the audience to open their minds and hearts to the rich diversity of humanity.”

On Saturday, UBMNA will continue to challenge assumptions with a performance at the Rose Festival on the waterfront in downtown Portland. Its set is scheduled for 5 p.m. on the Rose City Stage.

“Louisiana blues,” says producing director Amanda Gresham. “There’s nothing else like it. It’s truly unique.”

So is UBMNA, a nonprofit organization that launched in the U.S. in April 2012 after an arduous 18-month process.

Barbara Hammerman, UBMNA’s director and board president, says she spent that time searching for an organization that supported developmentally challenged musicians. Her model was United by Music, a European program created in the Netherlands in 2006 by health care executive Joris Van Wijngaarden.

“I couldn’t find anything,” Hammerman says, “that met this criteria of taking somebody who is musically talented and giving them a way — through working with professional musicians and performance training — to soar in their ability.”

After months of meetings with more than 60 nonprofit organizations, “I was just exhausted,” she says. “People liked the idea, but I finally realized that I wasn’t going to find another program like United by Music.”

And so she worked with UBM to create a North American pilot program. Now based in Portland, the group has traveled across the country and recently returned from a trip to the Netherlands, where the two branches of United by Music convened for a celebration of the blues.

Hammerman was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Gresham — who is Hammerman’s daughter — grew up in New Orleans. And Wijngaarden, it turns out, “happens to also be one of the biggest blues lovers I’ve ever known,” Hammerman says.

“They were quite impressive,” says Lieberman, who traveled to Europe to watch her son and his bandmates perform in the week-long Anniversary Jubilee.

REVIEW PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - UBMNA mentor Dave Fleschner, a world-renowned keyboardist, discusses an arrangement with the band. None of UBMNA’s musicians are charged a fee to participate, but through Hammerman’s and Gresham’s leadership and support — both financially and organizationally — the nonprofit continues to soar.

“As founders, we understood that it’s going to be a certain amount we’ll have to invest both in our time and financial resources,” Hammerman says. “So that’s what we’ve been doing.”

The nonprofit also accepts tax-deductible contributions.

Gresham is the visionary, she says, with “an overall direction for the program and the performances.” To bring that vision to life, UBMNA works with professional musicians who serve as mentors to the artists, led by internationally renowned keyboardist Dave Fleschner.

“Dave has been an ideal partner in that he respects everything I share and he shares in that same vision,” Gresham says. “He sees the vision and wants to actualize it.”

So does Joanne Broh, another of UBMNA’s mentors.

“It’s like when you’re talking to anybody, there’s a give and take,” Broh says, “and respecting humans as human beings. It’s that same thing... It’s incredible to see what music can do.”

Ackerson says the process has certainly worked for him. The mentors “are all so different, and very respectful,” he says. “They’re very good about working with each artist.”

Isaacs agrees.

“(They) really opened my mind and ways to look at singing,” he says, “that I never thought I would have looked before. They’ve all been really inspiring.”

In the future, Hammerman and Gresham say, their goal is not only to make great music, but also to make UBMNA a household name like the Special Olympics. The nonprofit recently expanded to Tacoma and is currently looking to create an album. In Portland, the group hopes to secure a facility where members can meet consistently and house their bigger instruments.

UBMNA currently holds regular practices in Multnomah Village, where members are rehearsing for Saturday’s Rose Festival show and for July performances at the Waterfront Blues Festival and the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival.

“The incredible strength of this program is how much everyone it touches is affected.” Hammerman says. “I watch everyone at our performances — every audience member, every sound guy, every person who is talking to our artists afterwards.

“They are having their assumptions challenged about what is and what is not ‘disabled,’” she says. “They’re having their sights raised.”

UBMNA has a theme song: “Music brings us together,” it says. “Anybody can sing along.” The message is simple, but the execution is powerful and always unique.

“It’s very special,” Isaacs says. “It helps people have a voice and also it helps different people shine. And the talent is incredible.

“We are all united by music,” he says.

For more information about the organization, including upcoming performances, auditions, open-mic nights and more, visit

Contact Andrew Bantly at 503-636-1281 ext. 117 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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