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boise philharmonic

The Boise Philharmonic: A Textbook Example of How to Organize

boise philharmonic

As the 78 members of the Boise Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) sat in their chairs and prepared to start their Hollywood Hits concert on March 30 (during which film clips would be projected above the stage while the orchestra played the accompanying soundtrack) attendees could not help but notice nearly all the musicians were wearing matching blue and white lapel pins. Before the concert started, BPO Principal Clarinetist Carmen Izzo came on stage, asked for the audience’s attention, and read a statement from an open binder in his hands.

“Before we move on to our feature presentation, I bring some news directly from the musicians of the Boise Philharmonic. This past week, our musicians voted overwhelmingly to come together in union and be represented by the American Federation of Musicians,” Izzo said to loud applause. “Our musicians see this as an important step toward a bright future in which we can be heard as professionals. We hope our management accepts these election results and continues to work with us to move our orchestra forward.”

boise philharmonic

After the performance, BPO musicians met with patrons in the lobby to answer questions about their announcement. Anyone who approached them saw that the matching pins the musicians all wore said, “Hear Us.”

This March 30 announcement was actually the culmination of about six months’ worth of education, training, organizing, and outright legwork on the part of the BPO Organizing Committee—assisted by organizers from the AFM—that brought the newest orchestra into the AFM fold.

“This is a textbook example of how to do everything right from an organizing standpoint,” says Rochelle Skolnick, AFM director of Symphonic Services, assistant to the president, and special counsel.

“It’s a great model to follow,” agrees Michael Manley, director of the AFM Organizing and Education Division, who assisted the Boise musicians. “They really created a movement in Boise.”


The BPO is the preeminent, and oldest, classical music organization of Idaho. The orchestra has worked for decades under a so-called “master agreement” with its board of directors, as negotiated by the musicians on the orchestra committee. For at least the past 10 years, however, there has been a growing unease among musicians regarding their treatment by orchestra management; and there have been numerous discussions of unionizing—although those discussions went nowhere.

But then last fall, BPO Orchestra Committee Co-Chair Allison Emerick, understanding some of the unhappy feelings and issues of her colleagues, met Stephen Chong, president of the AFM local nearest to Boise, Local 689 (Eugene, OR), when they both played a summer festival. She took the opportunity to ask him a few questions. “I said, ‘This is a thing that is gaining a kind of hushed momentum among musicians because we are getting more and more agitated with the state of things’ … so I said, ‘How do we go about [unionizing]? Who do I contact?’” Emerick says.

She traded emails with Chong and then emailed numerous officials of the AFM, and “immediately” received a response from Todd Jelen, a negotiator/organizer/educator in the Symphonic Services Division (SSD). “I told him the gist of our history as an orchestra, and what we were upset about,” she says. Some of these grievances included a musician who recently resigned under “not the best circumstances,” upsetting many members. There were also promises of wage increases and travel pay that were verbally agreed upon but then rescinded by management.

Among the various concerns expressed by BPO musicians, the central issue was the lack of a mechanism to enforce their current agreement, according to violinist and organizing committee member Kate Jarvis. “What we were finding was that our master agreement really wasn’t enforceable by the musicians, and that our concerns were not necessarily met all the time,” she says.

biose philharmonic
Members of AFL-CIO showing their support and welcoming the Musicians of the Boise Philharmonic to rehearsal.
Photo: Musicians of the Boise Philharmonic

Under that agreement, a five-member orchestra committee negotiated with the management on employment issues but, in contrast to the vast majority of AFM agreements, there was no dispute resolution procedure in the contract allowing for a decision by a neutral third party. Any disputes went before the BPO Board of Directors, which had a vested interest in siding with management.

“This was something I felt, honestly, was a long time coming,” says violinist, former orchestra committee member, and organizing committee member Geoff Hill. “I’ve heard a lot of people in the orchestra tell me stories about musicians not being listened to, musicians not being taken seriously. I’ve heard about these stories for years and years and years, and I was seeing these stories before my very eyes because I was on the orchestra committee and had been through negotiations myself. … So it seems like history was just repeating itself again and again.”

After having multiple phone calls with members of the organizing committee, Jelen and Manley flew out to Boise to help them organize.

Learning to Organize

“When you are organizing a group, it’s never about AFM membership. It’s about learning individuals’ issues; it’s about training the committee members on how to be receptive to their colleagues’ issues and needs,” Jelen says. “It’s not so much about telling them what to do, but about bringing them into the thought process and training each individual to make their own choice. Really, it’s about empowering the group to act for itself.”

Jelen and Manley would go out to Boise for three to four days at a time and do intensive training with the committee members—which was unusual. “In new organizing campaigns, it’s typical to have organizers on the ground for weeks on end,” Manley says. “The fact that these musicians did what they did with our focused but limited onsite organizer support, and an AFM local of jurisdiction that is hundreds of miles away, speaks to the passion and dedication they brought in joining together to get what they need.”

Jelen and Manley spent two months training the organizing committee—and also increasing the size of the committee from five to 11 members. One of the first things the committee did was to create a list of every BPO member and rank them by who would be the most to the least receptive to organizing. As they began talking to their orchestra colleagues, they worked their way down that list, starting with those they thought would be the most interested.

boise philharmonic
Orchestra Committee Co-Chairs Allison Emerick and Adam Snider on March 29 after they signed the Merger Agreement with Local 689 AFM.
Photo: Musicians of the Boise Philharmonic

“We did a lot of research and development and education and training before we actually talked to people,” Emerick says. “We had really thorough training: general education training, organizing conversation training, how to talk to members individually, what to say, the step-by-step process of asking questions to hear their experiences, that kind of thing.”

“I probably had 20-odd conversations with members of the orchestra and, in my experience, it was extremely positive,” Hill says. “For the overwhelming majority of people, it was empowering.”

Jarvis agrees. “I think most members were open to the idea at the beginning, but there’s definitely some education about it,” she says. “Just getting people to understand what it means and how it might affect them—I think they realized that, yeah, we have some issues, and right now we’re not in a position that we can really effectively do much about those issues and this could be a way for us to move forward with a more meaningful voice in an organization.”

“It was at that point when I realized how organized of an effort this was,” says organizing committee member and associate principal violist Lindsay Bohl. “This is the most organized thing I have ever been a part of; I was really impressed with that right away, just to see that process unfolding.” Those first few meetings—day-long, intensive sessions—included learning the history of labor unions and of the AFM, how to listen to their colleagues’ issues and concerns, how to talk to their colleagues about solving issues, and explaining how the AFM can help the orchestra.

Part of the organizing campaign was to have interested members sign a “showing of interest” card, which states they want to be represented by the AFM local. The committee needed 30% of their colleagues to sign the cards in order for the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a vote on whether to join the union. By the end, the BPO Organizing Committee had gotten 90% of members to sign the cards. “It was an insanely high number,” Jelen says.

“It was extremely validating, but honestly that’s not what it is about,” Hill says. “It’s about knowing that we have the energy and the mindset to do this. It just further drives home the fact that this was something that needed to happen, and that we could have such a high margin of people voting and turning in those cards just really showed, I think, how well it resonated with people around here.”

The vote to merge the BPO Orchestra Committee into Local 689 was even more resounding—with 96% of participating musicians in the BPO voting in favor of joining the AFM.

Moving Forward

The BPO Organizing Committee announced the positive union vote on March 28. The next day, the board and management issued a statement in which they said they were “saddened that the musicians feel alienated and are moving in a new direction without first informing them.” However, negotiations did start immediately—within the board and between the board and the organizing committee. For nearly two weeks, BPO management asked questions of and had discussions with the organizing committee members. On April 15, executives announced that they would recognize their musicians as part of the AFM.

Public reaction to the announcement was largely positive, and the BPO musicians received vast amounts of support during the negotiations, Emerick says. “I think our audience was generally very supportive, and we really heard that in the [March 30] speech, where Carmen announced it to the audience and there is that applause that we weren’t expecting,” she says. “Of course, there were people—and still are people—who are not viewing this very kindly, but we really wanted to deliver the message that everybody involved in this, especially musicians, want to see this orchestra succeed. We love this orchestra, which is our livelihood and as well as our passion, so we don’t want to undermine it. So every single messaging that we put out, we wanted to be clear that this came from a place of protecting the longevity of the orchestra, protecting us as musicians, and having our voices heard in this process.”

Orchestra management and orchestra committee members have been meeting to discuss the new collective bargaining agreement, Jarvis says, and the process
is ongoing.

As contract negotiations began, the Boise musicians also worked to create their own local. When they voted to join the AFM, they knew they would become a part of their nearest local geographically: Local 689 (Eugene, OR), 450 miles away. They had initially discussed forming a Boise local as they worked to organize entry into the AFM, but quickly realized it was too complicated to do both at the same time, Bohl says. The plan then became to create their own local in three to five years.

boise philharmonic
AFM President Ray Hair (left) and Secretary-Treasurer Jay Blumenthal welcome the BPO musicians to the Federation after their successful vote.

Fairly quickly, however, the Boise musicians realized they could form their own local immediately because there was so much support among the orchestra for the union. “Nobody was against joining the local in Eugene, but everyone asked if we could just do it here,” Bohl says. “We were all kind of tired [after the union vote succeeded] but we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was relatively easy to get the 50 petition signatures we needed.”

“Boise has a very local mentality, so everybody was very enthusiastic about it,” Emerick says. “Knowing that if you have a grievance you can just walk downtown and talk to our local, and not have to drive 450 miles to Eugene, was important.” The organizers also decided that, as the only unionized music organization in Boise, they wanted to reach out beyond the orchestra and invite local freelance musicians to join as well, which would only make their organization stronger.

On June 11, just before the 101st AFM Convention, the International Executive Board approved the charter of Local 423 (Boise, ID).

“For me, it feels exciting to have our own local here in Boise that we can take more ownership over. We can create our own bylaws and make our own decisions. I think it will be more empowering to do it that way,” Bohl says.

Lessons Learned

Organizing is, by definition, a grassroots process, says AFM SSD Director Skolnick. It will be doomed to fail if “the union” comes in from outside to impose a vision for the workplace that is inconsistent with what the musicians themselves want and need. “In Boise, as with every truly successful organizing drive, the vision originated with the musicians’ organizing committee,” she says. “The organizing committee then did the hard and time-consuming work of engaging each of their colleagues in discussion about their personal needs and hopes for the future of the Boise Philharmonic. What resulted, with the AFM’s facilitation, was a shared vision that the musicians overwhelmingly identified with and supported.”

So what should musicians looking to organize take away from this success story? “Don’t cut corners; it’s long and arduous work, but it’s worth it in the long run,” Jelen says. “Get more training than you think you need and do the work.”

And that is what the Boise musicians did. “It definitely wasn’t easy; a lot of hours were put into making this happen,” Jarvis says.

“It was a ton of work but it’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Bohl says. “It was really empowering, and to meet with all our colleagues one-on-one like that was really enlightening.”

Manley calls the Boise organization, “a textbook, traditionally run” organizing campaign, which means it was entirely worker-driven and worker-led. “The union really was the musicians from the start, and the powerful lesson to take away from the Boise campaign is that the union is workers; the union is not local or national AFM officials or staff, it’s all working musicians,” he says.

michael lisicky

Oboist Michael Lisicky Builds Bridges Between Baltimore and Its Orchestra

Oboist Michael Lisicky of Local 40-543 (Baltimore, MD) was schooled in collective action during his first full-time orchestra position with  the Savannah Symphony. “It was the most supportive and organized group of musicians,” he says. “To be part of a union body in a very nonunion town was a great bonding experience. That’s how I came to understand the power of a union and how to work collectively.”

michael lisicky

“We were making just below the poverty line but we had full concert halls and lots of support,” he recalls. “In 1990, we had to prepare for an inevitable work stoppage.”

That’s when Michael Lisicky came up with the idea of creating an orchestra cookbook to raise funds and community awareness. The committee collected recipes from orchestra members, tested them, and printed and marketed the cookbook in just four months. “We put $4,000 in our kitty,” he says.

“We were out for upwards of 13 weeks, and in the end, we were able to get a 30% wage increase, spread over the course of the next three years,” says Lisicky. “Though we were still at a very modest annual salary, it was a big deal. In a small, sleepy, Southern city, union activity was not part of everyday life. We were so organized with concerts and working collectively that, in the long run, we got a settlement that we could be proud of.”

“At Savannah, I learned to be a good colleague; what affected one person, affected everybody; I learned how to stick together,” he says. “I don’t know if I would have been a leader or activist for 30 years without that early, firsthand training.”

Though Savannah was the first time he was part of a union action, his mom had instilled in him a deep respect for labor. “In the Philadelphia area most grocery stores were unionized and my mother would never cross a picket line. That’s when I first learned about solidarity and loyalty,” he says.

Growing up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, Lisicky says he was lucky to have attended a public school with a strong music program. “It was the kind of program that insisted on excellence, whether you were thinking of going into music or not,” he says.

He graduated from the New England Conservatory before landing a job in Savannah, where he stayed just two years. In 1990, the strike forced him to look for other work. He won an audition for the Richmond Symphony.

While in Richmond, Lisicky attended his first Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) meeting and was immediately enthralled. “I loved hearing the different stories from all the orchestras; I found it fascinating, so I became a delegate, member at-large, conference host, and finally treasurer,” he explains. “For the next six years the ROPA organization became my family.”

Orchestra in Crisis

Then, when the president of Local 123 (Richmond, VA) had to step down, Lisicky stepped up. “It’s an important role in a ‘right to work’ state where it’s hard to convince people that they should belong to the local,” he says.

Michael  Lisicky recalls a particularly trying time at the local when an anonymous donor who wanted to “breathe new life into the orchestra” offered musicians with a certain number of years of seniority up to three years’ pay to retire. “You can’t retire on three-years’ salary at age 50, but when you are approached with this offer you wonder, ‘If I don’t do this, what is my future?’” explains Lisicky. “We saw this as age discrimination.”

“The buyout was probably my most difficult experience as a leader on an orchestra committee; it was debilitating,” he says. “One third of the orchestra took the buyout. It was a painful decision and there was a lack of transparency. We tried to get the best package we could working with the AFM.”

In 2004, Lisicky joined Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “I had a great experience learning the industry in Savannah and Richmond, but I love being in a non right to work state and I love being in a full 52-week orchestra playing big, full programs all year long,” he says.

“When I left Richmond it was a breath of fresh air and I felt that I had retired from union and orchestra committee activity. But people get tired, leave, and it’s time for new blood to step up,” he says. “I became an unemployment guru when we had to go through some furloughs, then I got involved in the players committee.”

michael lisicky

“There came a time, a few years ago, where we had to say what Baltimore Symphony’s role in the community was, but we had no clear role. We had done things individually, but collectively we didn’t have a face or a brand,” he says. “I didn’t want to be in the position where I had to defend an orchestra in our community.”

This all came up in April 2015, in the turbulent days following the death of Freddie Gray. “The city kind of shut down and we went through a hard night. Some people had been living with the issues that instigated the unrest, and many of us were just learning about what had been going on for decades,” he says.

“I came up with the idea of getting some colleagues together to sit outside the hall the next day and play some music. The committee supported me and the person in charge of marketing grabbed onto the idea. Lo and behold, I contacted every musician in the orchestra and we gave a nice chamber music performance,” he says. “We had every media outlet in the world coming to watch Baltimore collapse and we put on a performance.”

“It wasn’t a concert; it was about getting the community together and taking a break—a very moving experience. We had all the colors of the rainbow there—a thousand people or so outside the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall on a beautiful day at the end of April,” he says. “When it was over, we were still in crisis.”

Meyerhoff was one mile from the heart of the unrest, and some people felt that we should be at the epicenter. “So, the next week we sent a woodwind quintet out to the epicenter just to kind of show we were not afraid to go there,” he says. Noticing the library close by, Lisicky contacted them about doing a concert series the following spring. “Anyone can perform and leave; it doesn’t show any commitment. We want to make a real connection with the community.”

The Work of a Musician

The Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ community outreach, and Lisicky’s commitment to it, grew from there. “I think coming together is a good exercise in collective action. Our goal is to bring Baltimore Symphony Musicians into the best light possible—to have the community know who we are and realize we have a purpose.”

Michael Lisicky is also known for stepping into leadership roles in organizing and pressing others into service. “The standard response is ‘I wouldn’t be good at this,’” he says. “If you don’t want to get involved with the players committee, where the grunt work is, get involved with a subcommittee.”

“I would also encourage people to read their contract and know a little bit about the history,” he says. “There is a reason why we have work rules and certain conditions that are not necessarily applicable from orchestra to orchestra. There are reasons why certain things were put into a contract, not just to protect you, but also the organization. Longtime musicians should educate those who are coming on board.”

“I didn’t realize when I went to school to learn to play the oboe how much non-oboe work there was going to be,” he says. “You want to win that job, then you want to get tenure, then you want that job not just to survive, but to thrive. That takes extra work.”

History Buff

Aside from performing in the symphony and organizing community events, Lisicky is also a published author with a curious focus on  the history of department stores. “Through a crazy obsession I became something of an expert,” he says. “My mother loved these places and I was always intrigued by the history; they have been around for generations and defined communities. I never wanted to be an author, but I liked putting together these projects so we could remember the roles these stores played in these cities. It’s kind of how orchestras are part of their communities.”

He has also researched his orchestra and wrote the book, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: A Century of Sound (2015). “It’s hard writing about your job,” he says. “No one knew in 1916 what it was going to be like in 100 years; when I looked at 2016 I tried to remain optimistic in a challenging environment.”

“For its first 25 years, the Baltimore Symphony was the nation’s only fully-funded public symphony orchestra,” he says. “We were unable to grow because we had only so much funding. We had a revolving door of conductors who thought publicly funded orchestras were the way to go, then when they wanted to increase the quality and they didn’t have the money, they would leave.”

“Back in the 1930s, when they were challenging the line item, the mayor stood up and said that symphony orchestras are just as important to the quality of life as street lights and public toilets,” says Lisicky. “As a civically funded organization, we were cheaper to attend than the Philadelphia orchestra, so we were kind of a working class orchestra. By the 1940s, we became the face of Baltimore, traveling throughout the country and to Carnegie Hall.”

“It wasn’t until 1970, when we had a commitment to quality from Conductor Sergiu Comissiona and Joseph Meyerhoff, head of the board, who decided to invest in the orchestra and grow us from a sleepy little orchestra to one of the nation’s top orchestras,” he recounts. “The organization had two big work stoppages in the 1980s where they wouldn’t have received positive outcomes except for the collective work at the time.”

This summer, Lisicky looks forward to BSO’s August tour to Ireland and the United Kingdom, which includes a stop at the Proms festival. And Lisicky is always looking for the next outreach project. “Sometimes it’s a long-range thing—creatively coming up with an idea or it’s a ‘triage performance’ following an emergency.”

“As long as musicians, boards, management, and communities remain advocates for one another, we’ll have a chance,” he says. “Getting the next board together and looking ahead three, five, 10 years, that’s the challenge.”

In Baltimore, the focus on community engagement that began in 2015 has done much to raise the profile of the orchestra. Lisicky’s advice to other orchestras wanting to up their community outreach game: keep it simple.

“We have a tendency to overthink and that cripples you. Do it for the right reasons, not to just get it down on paper. Challenge yourself; when we take a step outside our comfort zone we can all accomplish things.” He adds, “Have a brand; make yourselves identifiable through social media. As you become identifiable, you develop more contacts in the media who will cover the orchestra in the future.”

Belinda Whitney

Belinda Whitney: Tapestry of Support Shapes Compelling Career

Belinda Whitney

photo credit: Matt Dine

Violinist Belinda Whitney of Local 802 (New York City) has forged an exciting and diverse career. She’s currently concertmaster and personnel manager for The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, concertmaster for the Broadway show My Fair Lady, performs with the Harlem Chamber Players, plus does a wide range of commercial gigs. She credits her success to all the people that believed in her and helped her along the way.

Whitney’s journey in music began at school. “No one is more a product of music in the public schools than I am,” she says, recalling the first time she heard a string quartet in second grade in Philadelphia. Later, she was one of two students from each classroom selected to take violin lessons.

Her remarkably dedicated violin teacher, John Hamilton, invested heavily in his students, traveling to their homes once a week for free, private lessons. “He would give me lessons until I couldn’t concentrate anymore and then he would stay for dinner,” she recalls. It was the only payment he would accept. “He also took us to free concerts, found performance opportunities for us, and he introduced us to a summer camp.” Still teaching and performing, Hamilton is now a member of Local 294 (Lancaster, PA).

Already gigging in college, Whitney joined Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) as a student. “It was very formal. I had an interview and I dressed up and brought my violin. The interviewer asked a lot of questions. I played some scales and a little solo,” she says. “It really drove home the fact that I was becoming part of something. We had pride in what we were doing and I valued that.” However, she had no idea how important her union would be later.

Whitney received a Bachelor of Music from Temple University and a Master of Music from The Juilliard School, where she was a scholarship student of Ivan Galamian. Though her studies were classical, the music she wished to play was more commercial. “I always loved old movies and the sound of old TV show orchestras,” she says. “When I started doing freelance gigs in college, my professor said, ‘Now, don’t you enjoy these gigs too much.’ But, I loved doing commercial work.”

Before graduation, she was already hired to play in Philadelphia that summer for The King and I with Yul Brynner. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not out of school and I already have a job,’” says Whitney who was 23 at the time. “I loved it. I got to work with a lot of seasoned pros; it was a great introduction.”

“At the time, big stars would go on the road,” she says. Following The King and I, she worked on several other shows—Sugar Babies with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney and Mame with Angela Lansbury—and other acts that came through Philadelphia and Atlantic City. “I recorded with Sigma Sounds and Philadelphia International Records and did symphonic work as well. I felt like I had it all.”

Belinda Whitney

Photo credit: Kevin Yatarola

Her first full-time symphony position was as associate concertmaster for Savannah Symphony. “They sort of took a chance on me because I had no experience [as concertmaster],” she says. When the former concertmaster left, Whitney became one of the first black concertmasters for a large symphony. “That was a big feather in my cap that led to a lot of other things.”

After a few years, she wanted a change of pace and moved back to Philadelphia. A short time later she had her first gig on Broadway. The concertmaster for City of Angels dropped out just weeks before the show’s opening and John Miller, a Local 802 contractor, hired her. “It was a little odd to start in New York as concertmaster for a Broadway show, but I’d already paid my dues elsewhere,” says Whitney who went on to have a long and rewarding association with Miller. “I feel really lucky for that,” she says.

According to Whitney, one of the most important duties of a Broadway concertmaster is to maintain high standards. Not everyone is cut out for Broadway, she says. “In a symphony, you prepare a different concert every week or so. With a Broadway show, you play the same thing over and over—for years, if you are lucky. Being a concertmaster for a Broadway show is a matter of maintenance: keeping standards up, while keeping the work atmosphere inclusive, light, and pleasant. New York is full of incredibly fantastic musicians and it’s important to foster an atmosphere of respect in the pit.”

“I don’t mind playing the same thing over and over,” she says. “I feel when you play Broadway you are either building up or tearing down. You are either playing your best and thinking ‘tonight I’m going to make my sound a little better’ or just phoning it in, which is tearing down. As a concertmaster, it is my challenge to keep the standards high in the face of repetition.”

Whitney has now served as concertmaster for many Broadway shows. When asked for her personal favorite, she replies, “I could tell you why they are all my favorites. I’ve always loved old musicals. At Lincoln Center, I was concertmaster, as well as in-house contractor, for South Pacific, The King and I (which I did for a second time), and currently My Fair Lady.”

Music Coordinator David Lai of Local 802 first asked her to contract for South Pacific. “I tend to take on challenges,” she says. “He led me through it. It was a big orchestra—30 people—and by the time everyone was allotted five subs, we were talking 180 people. That was a pretty big payroll and a lot of people to get to know.”

That’s when she first realized all the little things her union does behind the scenes to make sure musicians are compensated and treated fairly. “I really can’t imagine navigating the musical freelance business without the union,” she says, describing how she acts as a bridge to the union. “I enjoy people—facilitating work situations and making them run as smoothly and painlessly as possible.”

Today, Whitney is also contractor and personnel director for The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, which she’s been involved with from its inception. When she first met with founder and Local 802 member Gary Fagin about his ideas, Whitney discovered they had similar approaches to music. “We both value musicians who are experienced in a variety of styles,” she says. “He said he felt New York freelance musicians are among the most well-rounded musicians in the world today, and have extensive playing experience, at the highest level, in many different styles. This was exactly what he wanted for Knickerbocker.”

Belinda Whitney

photo credit: Cenovia Cummins

Whitney also told him she would not contract an orchestra that didn’t provide fair wages and benefits for its musicians. “We agreed on this from day one,” she says. “We’ve had some unusual requests and Gary always says, ‘We do it the right way or we don’t do it.’ It’s been wonderful to be the bridge between this orchestra, this man who has this fantastic vision, and the union whose priority is getting people the benefits to which they are entitled. These musicians are absolutely valued.”

The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra is Lower Manhattan’s orchestra, she says. “It started 10 years ago, not long after 9/11, at a time when so many orchestras were folding. It’s been wonderful to be a part of building it and I feel lucky to have done that.”

Whitney thrives in the diverse work of a freelance musician, which for her has also included film scores, records, and working with artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Barbra Streisand, and Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI). She can also be heard, along with violinist Cenovia Cummins of Local 802, in the recording of the tango introduction to the show Mystery Masterpiece Theatre.

As an old movie buff, Whitney felt particularly blessed when she met Donald O’Connor during an MGM special at Carnegie Hall. “I went to his dressing room and we had a great time talking. At the concert, he spoke about his experiences with MGM. As they dimmed the lights to play a video of his routine ‘Make ’Em Laugh.’ I saw him walking over to me. He says, ‘Now let’s watch,’ and puts his arm around me and we watched it together. I was on stage at Carnegie Hall, watching ‘Make ’Em Laugh’ with Donald O’Connor’s arm around me! That really tickled me.”

Among the necessities for a successful freelance career, according to Whitney, are union membership, networking, affability, and professionalism. Earning livable wages as a freelance musician would not be feasible without the union, she contends. “The union really pulls it all together. I think we take our union for granted, but the way the freelance world works is really a product of our union’s hard work.”

“Respect, pleasantness, networking, and being on time and ready to play are huge for musicians,” she continues. “In a big group of musicians, you may not stand out. But, if you are early, ready to play, dependable, and friendly, people will want you around. The music world today is very competitive and there are a lot of people who can do a job pretty well. Sometimes networking skills can give you a slight edge. People will forgive a lot of missteps if they realize you are eager to learn and pleasant to be around. We all remember when we were young.”

It’s also critical to be a well-rounded musician, she says. “My experiences in Broadway, the recording business, and the classical business keep looping around for me. One takes me to the other, then back to the first. It’s been a rich experience learning different styles.”

Looking back on her career Whitney is thankful to everyone who helped her succeed. “God has blessed me more than I ever thought and I feel humbled that so many people took a chance on me. When I take inventory of my journey I realize that my career is like a tapestry of all the people who invested in me—from my family who encouraged and believed in me, to my parents driving me all over the country to music camps, to that very first teacher,” she says. “I love that I’m involved with the Harlem Chamber Players and Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, which put on children’s concerts. Investing in others is really important because that’s what brought me here.”

Whitney feels that working with young children is key to bringing more racial diversity to symphony orchestras. “By the time musicians are out of college, I feel like it should be a level playing field,” she says. “I think the reason I did as well as I did was because people invested so heavily in me before I got to college.”

“When I talk to my colleagues, many of them had parents who played an instrument so they started at a very early age and music was a part of the home. But about 90% of the black professional musicians I know started music in the public schools. So that means they are starting later. I think we should invest in programs targeting younger people so when they get to college they are already competitive,” she says.

Carl Verheyen

The Incomparable Career of Carl Verheyen, from Sessions to Solo Acts

Carl Verheyen of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) is considered one of the most skilled guitarists on the scene—a guitar player’s guitar player—a combination of talent, intellect, and a lot of soul. As a first-call session player turned solo artist, he’s a musical chameleon who consistently demonstrates artistic innovation. “The only thing I turn down is flamenco,” Verheyen says.

With the success of his own band—and doing many concerts abroad—he does fewer sessions these days. Still when he’s home, in LA, he’s happy to do record projects, TV shows, movies, or jingles, recalling a time when he made a living exclusively from union dates. He became a member in 1975, at 21, when he had an opportunity to backup Frankie Avalon provided he had a wah-wah pedal and a union card.

From then on, union gigs provided steady work, about eight to 10 sessions a week, six days a week. He says, “The scales are set for you and the residuals pile up. We used to call it the Special Payments Fund. Now it’s the Film Musicians Secondary Market Fund. In your 20s and 30s, when you’re doing a ton of sessions, you’re not thinking about a pension, but every one of those jingle residuals, every record, every film, adds a few bucks to your pension.”

Verheyen cut his chops playing acoustic guitar in bars five nights a week in his teenage years. “In the beginning, I was just knocked out by The Beatles and The Byrds. Roger McGuinn was a huge influence. That segued into the more virtuoso guitar players like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Duane Allman,” he says.

Verheyen studied at Pasadena City College for two years and for one semester at Berklee College of Music. “I realized the experience I needed was on stage. I understood theory; it came easy. It felt like I could get out there and start playing.” But, he does not recommend that for everybody, admitting, “I was able to fall into some good musical situations, like playing two nights a week with a jazz band—where everybody was better than me. That forced me to learn songs every day and practice seven or eight hours a day and then go back to that gig and be that much better.”

Growing up in a “Sinatra home,” Verheyen says he absorbed the sounds of bossa nova and Carlos Jobim. He was 11 years old when he received his first guitar, a St. George nylon, and one guitar lesson for $2.50. He was hooked. He says his parents had to encourage him to go out and play some basketball. “I’d be out there with my radio in the window. When a song came on that I wanted to learn, I’d stop the game, race upstairs, grab my guitar, and try to figure out the chord changes.”

Getting Started

In his early 20s, he was breaking into TV and film sessions, bolstered by his instincts and flair for improvisation. To sharpen his sight-reading skills, he and another musician helped each other out, informally creating their own one-on-one course. Verheyen traded blues and rock ‘n’ roll lessons for classical guitar lessons. For two hours every day, five days a week, they read music.

It was a casual jam session with an older guitarist that proved to be a turning point for Verheyen, who says, “This guy showed me 25 different voicings for a Dm7b5 chord, something I never knew existed! That blew my mind.” Laughing, he adds, “I started down what I call the long, dark jazz highway. After five or six years, at 27, I came out of that period. I thought, I like Mike Bloomfield and I want to learn to bend notes like him and I love Albert Lee and I want to learn to play country like him. I like Segovia and I want to play classical guitar like him. Instead of going down one path, why not learn everything you enjoy? It’s just 12 little notes and the only thing that changes is the ornamentation of the style—the phrasing, tone, the choice of notes, and the way you execute them.”

In the jazz years, he played in the same Newport Beach club as a number of big names. Joe Pass happened to be playing one weekend, and Verheyen asked him if he could have a guitar lesson. It was mostly a disaster, Verheyen recalls, because Pass was not an instructor. But it was valuable because Pass said, “If you know a song in one key, you know it in all keys.” That, Verheyen says laughing, was worth the 50 bucks he paid for the lesson.

After much of the 1970s on the jazz scene, he moved to LA in 1980 and played everything from blues and rock to metal. He was a consummate student who transcribed John Coltrane solos, but was equally passionate about learning the groove on Booker T’s song, “Green Onion.”

All Blues

With his newly released album, Carl Verheyen Essential Blues, he decided to rein in one style. “I called my producer about recording two new blues songs. I was planning to make a compilation of all the blues pieces off my 13 albums. He said, ‘I’ve got a better idea. In a month, let’s record a live blues album in three days.’ So, I had a month to put together what I consider the essential blues: Delta blues, Piedmont blues, British blues, Chicago blues, Texas blues, and jazz blues. I tried to come up with what represents the things I enjoy about the blues and my take on it.”

The difference between bluegrass and blues and country rock and fusion? If you ask Verheyen, it’s about attitude and perseverance. He works hard to perfect a phrase. “I practice jazz all the time. Songs like ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Countdown’ by John Coltrane, ‘Very Early’ by Bill Evans and ‘Falling Grace’—these songs are like puzzles to unlock once or twice a week because they keep your brain sharp; you improvise over difficult chord changes.”

Verheyen owns 70 guitars and 50 guitar amps. “The rule of thumb is, if it sounds good, I don’t sell it,” he says. His collection also includes two banjos, two ukuleles, two mandolins, a mini guitar (tuned to a fifth higher), and two baritone guitars. He alternates vintage guitars, but his preferred all-around is the iconic Fender Stratocaster. 

“You need to know how Billy Gibbons gets his sound so you need to own that Les Paul and that Fender Tweed. And you need to understand the different shuffles—the Texans have a different shuffle than Chicago, different from B.B. King. ‘Ornamentation of a style,’ I call it. Eventually, you end up collecting the instruments that give you all those sounds. I’ve kept all that stuff because they’re all colors and textures I put on my own record,” he says.

“Acoustic guitar is another discipline entirely. You have to dig into it. Those are big strings to push around,” says Verheyen. Although he’s a fan of picking up a song and doing a new arrangement to a different tuning, key, or time signature, he says it’s got to be different enough, special, to record.

Verheyen has given lessons to John Fogerty and members of Maroon 5, and is ranked “One of the World’s Top 10 Guitarists” by Guitar magazine and “One of the Top 100 Guitarists of All Time” by Classic Rock magazine. He’s performed alongside Joe Bonamassa, Rick Vito, Stanley Clarke, Robben Ford, and Albert Lee. He can be heard on hundreds of albums—Victor Feldman, the Bee Gees, Dolly Parton of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), and Dave Grusin of Local 47—to name a few. For 32 years, he has been the guitarist for the progressive pop/rock group, Supertramp. 

“One thing I’ve learned from being in Supertramp and bandleader Rick Davies [Local 47] is that the set needs to have a certain pacing and it needs to grab people at the first song, get them in the palm of your hand, and then it needs a place to go. Don’t start off with bombastic, crazy stuff,” says Verheyen. For instance, he’ll kick off a set with “The Times They Are a Changin” in a jazzy 6/8 time, a bit like Jimmy Hendrix treated “All Along the Watch Tower.” It’s recognizable and he points out, the 1960s anthem is completely relevant in these uncertain times. He regularly draws on another idol, George Harrison, whose “Tax Man,” played in ska style, is a real crowd pleaser.

The Bandleader

Carl VerheyenWhen it comes to playing his own compositions, Verheyen gives his band a lot of latitude. He capitalizes on the talent of his high-caliber musicians by allowing them the freedom to take chances. Although not a jazz group, the music is played with improvisation and interpretation. He says, “To me, it’s better to tell a bass player, ‘Here’s what I’m doing, what do you hear against that?’ unless I’ve written a bass line that’s got to be there because I’m doubling it. The same for the drummer. I always think the drummer is going to come up with a much better part to fit the groove and the song than I can possibly program or write out.”

The Carl Verheyen Band, recording since 1988, has a 14-record discography. Verheyen has been featured in two documentaries: Grand Designs: The Music of Carl Verheyen and a film about the electric guitar, Turn It Up! A Celebration of the Electric Guitar. His instructional DVDs, Intervallic Rock Guitar and Forward Motion, are legendary. His books include Improvising Without Scales and the handbook, Studio City: Professional Session Recording for Guitarists. He has also contributed to Guitar Player, Vintage Guitar, and Guitar World magazines. He also lectures and gives master classes at the University of Southern California and at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. 

In addition to performing all over the US, Verheyen has found a market abroad in concert venues and outdoor festivals, noting that, historically, European audiences respond well to improvisation. “Blues and jazz are American art forms that they truly appreciate,” he says. “Sometimes, we’ll try new stuff on the audience and see how they like it. Then, over the months or weeks of being on the road, it begins to evolve into something better. That’s why you always want to play your own music with the people you have a deep musical relationship with and not with pick-up bands.”

For all his success, performing live and working with musicians all over the world, Verheyen says, “There is nothing like a good tracking date. Being in a room with a group of musicians and working up parts that serve the song is really exciting. That moment when the musicians come into the control room and hear the results of the last take on the big speakers is truly one of my favorite times in the studio. You get to hear your tones, from guitars and strings, pickups and pedals, and tubes and amplifiers.” 

“But equally satisfying is playing a song you wrote at the kitchen table 20 years ago and seeing the whole front row of a theater singing the words along with you. From studio to the stage, it’s all part of the joy of playing guitar for a living,” he says.

Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz: Young Talent Now Performs with Her Heroes

At age 26, Sarah Jarosz now regularly performs with her childhood influences. As a solo artist, the Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member took home two 2017 Grammy Awards from her fourth full-length album Undercurrent, released in 2016. It was also selected International Folk Music Album of the Year.

Growing up in the Austin suburb of Wimberly, Texas, Sarah Jarosz frequently attended live shows with her family. “I was definitely affected by the Austin music scene,” she says. “Basically, for as long as I can remember, my parents would take me into Austin to see live music pretty much every weekend.”

As a youngster Jarosz began playing piano, then added mandolin at age 10. Later she picked up guitar, clawhammer banjo, and octave mandolin. One big childhood influence was the band Nickel Creek—siblings Sean and Sara Watkins of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and Chris Thile of Local 257—who were just kids themselves when Jarosz began following them.

“Nickel Creek was huge for me. Right around the time I was getting into mandolin I saw their music videos on CMT and I remember thinking that there are cool young people doing this, too,” she says.

Jarosz says that one reason she is a proud union member is because of the sense of community the union provides. “Part of why I fell in love with music is because, when I was 10 years old, I found a weekly bluegrass jam and fell in love with the community of that. Any time you have a chance to continue this community experience with something like the union, it’s super positive for everyone involved.”

In addition, she says, “I feel like we have a support system, especially as hard as it is being a touring musician. I think that’s really important for people who do what we do.”

Doors Opening at Telluride

By age 12 Jarosz was performing regularly at local events. In 2007, she took on her biggest gig to date: the Telluride Music Festival in Colorado. That’s where, at age 16, she met producer Gary Paczosa, who regularly works with people like Local 257 members Chris Thile, Gillian Welch, Dolly Parton, and Alison Krauss. Impressed with Jarosz, he invited her to visit his Nashville studio.

“I was definitely super green in the studio,” recalls Jarosz. “We did some low-key, no pressure demos. It was my first time laying things down solo.”

The following spring, Jarosz signed a record deal with Sugar Hill and began working with Paczosa on her first album, Song Up in Her Head, released in 2009. With that came her first opportunity to record with some of the musicians she’d been watching for years at festivals. Guest appearances included Thile, Stuart Duncan, and Jerry Douglas of Local 257. 

“Gary always encouraged me, from the very beginning, to reach for the stars, and ask the best people we could think of to be part of it,” says Jarosz. “I think working with him, those musicians realized I was taking it seriously.


“One of the things that was so exciting as a young musician was having the opportunity to attend music festivals during the summer break from school, and not only seeing many of my musical heroes perform live, but often times getting to jam with them backstage or sit in during their sets,” she says. “Thinking back on it, I am so thankful to all of those people for being so generous with their time and wisdom to contribute their musical genius to my albums over the years, especially the first one. It was a dream come true for those musicians to believe in me at such an early age.”

After high school, Jarosz headed straight to the New England Conservatory where she balanced studying and her career while earning a degree in Contemporary Improvisation. “It was tough, especially in my sophomore year when I was working on my second record, Follow Me Down,” she says. “I wanted to have the experience of moving to a new city and doing the college thing. I think it was important for me to have the time and the ‘buffer’ of not going directly on the road after high school.”

“Psychologically, it had a positive impact on my life, and maybe even the longevity of my career,” she explains. “Musically, it exposed me to different styles that I hadn’t been exposed to before—a lot of jazz and free improvisation, and more in-depth work on my own music. Those musical experiences expanded my ear and prepared me for the different musical situations that I find myself in [now]. To be thrown into something completely different makes you look differently at what you do.”

Meanwhile, the acoustic world was already taking note of her talent. She received a Grammy nomination for “Mansinneedof” off her very first album. Her third album, Build Me Up from Bones, was nominated Best Folk Album and its title track was nominated Best American Roots Song in 2014. The Americana Music Association’s American Music Honors & Awards nominated her for Emerging Artist of the Year (2010) and Instrumentalist of the Year (2011). In 2012, her song “Come Around” was nominated Americana Music Association Song of the Year.

Upon graduation in 2013, it was a relief to finally be free to focus on music. “Now I feel fully settled into my life and I am sort of honing in on what I want to do as a musician,” she says. As she’s matured and relaxed into her true musical self, she says Undercurrent, takes a fresh approach compared to her previous albums, which relied heavily on her instrumental virtuosity.

Paring Down

“The longer I do this, the more I think that simple is sometimes better and I don’t need to prove my musicianship within the songs themselves,” she says. “Undercurrent is the simplest album both in terms of songs and the way it was recorded. I’m trying to get closer to the ‘marrow’ of the song.”

One of Jarosz’s greatest learning experiences has been the opportunity to work with Prairie Home Companion, first with Garrison Keillor’s The America the Beautiful—Prairie Home Companion show tour and now with Chris Thile’s weekly broadcast.

“It’s been a really great outlet to sing harmony on this person’s song or play a little mandolin to back up an arrangement. It forces me to be a listener in a more supportive way. I’ve learned such great lessons from having the opportunity to do that,” she says.

Another project that got its start a couple years ago is a trio she formed with fiddler-singer Sara Watkins (from Nickel Creek) and singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan of Local 802 (New York City). During an impromptu opening set they did for the Punch Brothers at the 2014 Telluride Festival something clicked and the musicians made it a priority to get together again.

This summer the band they formed, I’m With Her, is doing a series of concerts as part of the American Acoustic tour with the Punch Brothers. The trio of ladies is somewhat of an anomaly in the acoustic world. “In some festival settings there are a lot of dudes in the line-up,” says Jarosz, though they do not dwell on the negative energy of that reality. “I know that Sara and Aoife feel the same way. If you are the best at what you do, are genuine to yourself, and do it long enough, the cream will rise to the top. Hopefully, as time goes on, those [gender] lines will continue to blur.”

“I’m really excited about this project with Aoife and Sara, and I feel like it will play a bigger role in my life and career over the next couple years,” she says. The group released its first original song, “Little Lies,” in July.

“I’m happy to say that some of my biggest influences I now consider friends. They were heroes, and then mentors, especially Chris. He’s put in so much time to teach me over the years. Now I have the opportunity to work with him on Prairie Home Companion. It’s kind of cool to look over the last 15 years and see that progression,” she says.

“I think it’s really kind of special within the acoustic scene, and I know that Chris had that as well with people like Belá Fleck and Jerry Douglas [both members of Local 257] mentoring him from an early age,” she says. “You are inclined to do that for younger people who are coming up after you.”

Just 10 years into her career, Jarosz can already name dozens of big name collaborators. This summer Jarosz will also be doing shows with Mary Chapin Carpenter of Local 161-710 (Atlanta, GA).

“The nice thing about working with Sara and Aoife is that we tend to have similar instincts when it comes to music, so working on a song we all sort of fall into the same way musically. It’s also nice to work with someone who doesn’t think the same way. That’s happened a lot on Prairie Home Companion where we are working out other peoples’ songs and seeing other approaches. Sometimes that can lead to really beautiful things because it’s not necessarily the obvious outcome. It’s important to put yourself in musical situations where you have a good balance of both,” she says.

Jarosz advises young people considering a career in the acoustic world to follow that path. “Growing up, if I was scared to sit down and jam with someone like Chris Thile, or any of my heroes, ultimately, I got the nerve to do it and it was always rewarding. Finding those situations and embracing them makes you grow as a young musician, even if they scare you a little bit. If you are constantly doing things within your comfort zone, you are not going to grow,” she says. “I attribute a lot of the work I’ve done to having great heroes to look up to.”

She concludes, “Also, finding people you love to play music with and finding ways to keep it fun is all important for a long-lasting career and love of music.”

John McCutcheon

John McCutcheon: Folk Musician’s Celebrates Activism

“It was a really confusing and fantastic thing to watch. There was this huge crowd of people and speeches. And what really hit me was the music—Mahalia Jackson; Marian Anderson; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Bob Dylan [of Local 802 (New York City)]; and Joan Baez. I had never heard folk music before. It was old, but really urgent, and it was connected to something going on in the world.”

Three years later, McCutcheon’s father bought him his first guitar, a Silvertone from Sears. “That began the long downhill slide into professional musicianship,” laughs McCutcheon. The 14-year-old immediately went to the public library and checked out Woody Guthrie Folk Songs, thinking it was a guitar instruction book, and methodically began learning each song. “I was singing ‘Union Made,’ but I had no idea what it was about,” he concedes.

Ironically, McCutcheon’s first gig, just two weeks later, was a Labor Day picnic for the local paper mill union. The neighbor who hired him wasn’t concerned when McCutcheon told him he only knew three songs, but he did require McCutcheon learn one new tune: “Solidarity Forever.”

Through most of the picnic no one seemed to notice the young musician, but when it came time to play that tune, everyone stopped talking, stood up, joined hands, and sang together. “I was flabbergasted!” says McCutcheon. “It was the first crack in the door connecting the principles that I was seeing and the songs I was singing; the song connected real people, in real life, and it moved them to do things.”

“Back then, people were from union families and it was cradle to grave. You just instinctively sided with the guys who were out on strike,” he recalls.

He soon realized the connection between the labor unions and the Civil Rights Movement, his very first inspiration. “When Martin Luther King marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, he was flanked by union guys. At the march on Washington, there were union people all over the dais. It was one great social movement,” says McCutcheon.

From that first union gig, he was hooked, beginning a lifetime of dedication to activism through music. “I wanted that to happen again and I also wanted to have the feeling that I was helpful—doing something that wasn’t just about me,” he says.

“I spent a long time working with different unions,” says McCutcheon. “In this line of work, we [musicians] have it pretty easy. I’m very aware that the hard work gets done by the people I’m coming to sing for. I constantly think about what I can do to help. And that ends up being, not only singing for them, but turning their stories into songs and singing them to other people.”

“Being part of the labor movement for my entire career, and especially being involved with the AFM, helped me keep the sentiment that it’s not just about me,” he says.

A Local for Travelers

One of the founders of “traveling musicians” Local 1000, McCutcheon explains the idea for that local came from musicians at the annual Great Labor Arts Exchange in Silver Spring, Maryland. “We were telling labor war stories of bravery and resolve of the unions we’d worked with and Charlie King said, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we felt that way about our union?’”

“At the time, the AFM essentially didn’t know that people who do our kind of work existed,” McCutcheon explains. “We traveled; we weren’t part of a big ensemble or collective bargaining agreement.”

A group of similar AFM members got together and formed what they called the New Deal Committee to explore the idea. A few years later, at another Great Labor Arts Exchange, someone asked then AFM President Martin Emerson about the possibility of forming their own local. “He didn’t shoot
it down; we started talking and eventually got chartered,” says McCutcheon.

“I remember talking to my buddy John O’Connor, who was the first Local 1000 president,” McCutcheon says. The pair came to a quick realization that they were agitators, not bureaucrats. “That’s when we began learning how to be a local. Local 1000 would never have thrived without the mentorship and help of Local 802.”

“The idea caught on. We were able to open up access to a pension plan through some very creative means via the LS-1 contract,” he says.

McCutcheon was Local 1000 president for 15 years, and now serves on the board of his home local in Atlanta. “Our union has gone through some rough times, but it’s headed in the right direction; I’m really enthusiastic about it,” he says, adding, “We’ve got a lot of myths to break down because the union has changed tremendously in the past 30 years.”

Songs that Move You

McCutcheon has written hundreds of songs, and released 37 solo albums, resulting in seven Grammy nominations. Among other projects were tributes to some of the people who inspired him, among them Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill. In creating the album This Land: Woody Guthrie’s America, Woody’s daughter gave him complete access to Guthrie’s papers, including never finished songs.

A DVD (and CD) project, Joe Hill’s Last Will, is a one-man play written by Local 1000 member Si Kahn. McCutcheon portrays labor songwriter Hill in the final hours of his life.

McCutcheon’s songs are often sparked by events in the news or happenings in his life. “I’m not writing to have a song, or even to finish anything. The more I write, the more I understand that there’s a part of you that you don’t know; it’s wonderful to explore that area.”

“Songs can transport you to another place, help you forget your world or dive you deeper into your world; they can fill you with awe, or rage, or inspiration,” he says. “They move hips and hearts, and sometimes mountains.”

His 38th album, Trolling for Dreams, will be released
February 3. Begun as a collection of earlier songs that never made it onto albums, there’s also some new material. Among the inspirations were a road trip he took with his father who was ascending into Alzheimer’s; his son’s wedding; and a perilous illness last year.

McCutcheon regularly plays more than 15 different instruments. He travels with a hammered dulcimer, 12-string and six-string guitars, banjo, autoharp, and fiddle, plus a piano is waiting at every gig. “I was taught by amazing teachers who never realized they were giving me lessons,” he explains.

While in college, McCutcheon convinced his advisor to let him do an independent study to learn banjo from musicians in the Southern Appalachians. “It was a three-month independent study that I’m still on 45 years later. I went off thinking I was learning how to put my fingers in the right place, and all of a sudden, it was about everything—the context of the music, the community that fosters the music, and the music that sustains the community. I fell in love with the region, the land, the people, the music, and the food.”

Connecting People

At McCutcheon’s shows you will hear a combination of original tunes, labor tunes, traditional songs, classic folk songs, and a healthy dose of storytelling. At first, he had no idea the storytelling would become such a big part of his show.

“Stories are like connective tissue,” he says. “I would tell stories to recreate the environment in which I learned a song, or wrote a song, so the audience could sort of climb inside a little easier.” He soon discovered that his audiences craved the storytelling.

He says “This Land Is Your Land” is always an audience favorite, especially after the contentious election. “It feels like people are yearning for a sense of connection.” The song brings him back to the paper mill workers picnic all those years ago. “It captures an audience in a way that is reflexive, unexpected, and all of a sudden they feel connected to one another.”

“I look for those moments that are unexpected and surprise you with their power,” he says. “I was surprised at 11 years old, hearing those songs, but I didn’t know my life was going to be changed by it.”

Eager to encourage young singer-songwriters, McCutcheon hosts Songwriting Camps at the Highlander Center in east Tennessee—a place that holds special meaning to him. It’s where Martin Luther King heard ‘We Shall Overcome’ for the first time, and it was the initial stop on McCutcheon’s “independent study” program. “I fell in love with this group of people who were activists from all over the Appalachian Mountains, and all of a sudden, the whole region opened up for me in a very real way,” he says.

Largely due to technology he sees a bright future for young folk musicians. “There’s a whole old-time music scene of people that can play rings around the rest of us because they grew up with it,” he says. “The Internet exposes kids to music from around the world and the stuff becomes a mash-up. That’s cool and exciting to see!”

“The dream that fueled me all those years working in a leadership position at Local 1000 is the notion that young musicians will not only find a home within the union, but help to direct it so it morphs to accommodate them. They are full of great ideas, and if we give them the foundation in unionship, we can learn from them and they can learn from us,” he says.

The Beaches

Life’s a Beach: Toronto Rock Group, The Beaches, Head Out on the Road with a New Album, New Tour, and Big Ideas

The BeachesEven through the roar of the open road, The Beaches’ youthful optimism reverberates on the other end of a speakerphone call. Leandra Earl (23, guitar), Kylie Miller (20, guitar), Jordan Miller (21, bass and lead vocals), and Eliza Enman McDaniel (21, drums) are packed in the Miller’s family van en route to Seattle where they will open for the Canadian rock duo and fellow Local 149 (Toronto, ON) members Death from Above 1979. While it’s not the most luxurious of accommodations for Canadian rockers on the rise, it will do for now. The members of Local 149 (Toronto, ON) were smart about joining the union from the onset of their careers.

Currently on their first international tour, fresh off the heels of their debut album Late Show, the musicians have gained attention in the alt-rock world for a 1970s sound and swagger transported to the twenty-first century.  Drawing from the likes of David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and The Strokes, Late Show’s lip-curling lyrics, pounding drums, and snarling guitars feature heavily on the album. Standout tracks like lead single “Money” and “T-Shirt,” show off an attitude fit for a young rock band with veteran polish to back it up.  International Musician caught up with The Beaches in the middle of a hectic touring schedule to talk rock influences, record contracts, and whether making it means just getting out of your parents’ basement.

How did you guys meet, how did The Beaches form?

Kylie: Jordan is my sister and we started playing guitar together at very young ages, six and seven. We wanted to start a band and we were looking for someone to drum with us and we asked our friend, Eliza, if she would come and audition—and she absolutely kicked ass and the three of us have been playing music ever since. We were in a Disney pop-punk band called Done with Dolls up until high school. At that point, we were looking for another band member and that’s when we asked our friend Leandra to join the band to expand the outlook. That’s how The Beaches came to be.

The BeachesDid any of you guys have plans for college or post-secondary education before getting signed?

Eliza: I think the three of us—me, Jordan, and Kylie—were kind of unified in not going to school. With Leandra, it was kind of an overlap with her joining the band and also applying to school. She got accepted to York University for classical piano. She went through a bit of a hard choice and she wasn’t sure whether she should commit to school or the band, or both. We kind of came to the unified decision that, if she went to school, she couldn’t give her all to either—and at the same time we decided that we wanted to go full force with this band.

Leandra: It was weird because I took an extra year of high school just because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after grade 12. I knew I wanted to pursue music, and the only option was to become a music therapist or a music teacher, which didn’t excite me, really. When I got the offer to join this band I was excited and I didn’t know if my parents would support it, or how far this would go. But my parents were super supportive and they’re the biggest fans of this band. They come to like every show. It’s been amazing. This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Since [hearing] my gal, Avril Lavigne, in grade four, I knew that I wanted to be on stage and play all these instruments with my BFFs, so it was insane to get to do this.

The BeachesWas there anything about being on a label that deviated from your expectations?

Kylie: There was this kind of expectation, in my mind at least, that once we got signed, we’d release a record and be on tour right away. But the reality of the situation was that we got signed and for three years we were doing writing sessions and working with different producers. At the same time, we were able to work with amazing writers and producers and we became a lot stronger as a band and as friends. We had that time to develop our sound and our band.

Jordan: The one thing I didn’t expect was how many people were going to be on our team. I thought there would be maybe six or seven people, but there are like 30 people that have their own unique job at the label that are working for you.

You guys have cited Avril Lavigne as a childhood influence of yours. Why was she so important to you at a young age?

Kylie: You know, being young women and seeing someone who’s badass playing a guitar and being a rock goddess. It was an inspiring visual image for us to see and there weren’t a lot of people doing that at the time. They were playing a different kind of sound and owning their own thing.

Do you guys take inspiration from other all-girl groups? You have a lot of male heavy rock references. Is there any other all girl group you guys idolized or looked to incorporate into your sound?

Kylie: I think that we don’t really think about gender in who we’re inspired by; it’s not really something we consider. So, there are females we’re inspired by, but there are a lot of males. We don’t really think about that when we’re writing music and making music.

The BeachesDo you feel like the “all-girl” label sets expectations for you?

Jordan: When we were in Done with Dolls we’d have people come up to us and be like, ‘Yo, I really like you guys. I didn’t expect you to be good because you were all girls, but you were awesome.’ But, honestly, we haven’t gotten a comment like that in years. I think it’s because there are a lot more females present, especially in the alternative rock industry; it’s way less of like a taboo that we’re girls in a band.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got involved with Death From Above 1979?

Kylie: We actually met them backstage at a show during Canadian Music Week [in 2016] when we opened up for Eagles of Death Metal and DFA was on tour with them. But it wasn’t until Leandra, who runs our social media, became social media buds with the guys that our relationship with them blossomed. They ended up reaching out to us and offering us a spot on this tour. To seal the deal, they ended up coming to our show this summer in Quebec City. They watched our set and officially invited us to the tour. We ended up celebrating with them all night. We went out until five in the morning and got poutine. It was rad.

Jordan: I really think the audition was how long we could stay out with them. It wasn’t even our show. [laughs]

Kylie: This is our first big international tour. It’s been really fun. A lot of unique opportunities—a lot of firsts.

What was one interesting first?

Leandra: A first for us that I thought was really exciting was we got to go on live radio in Laguna Beach and play our song “Money” for the first time and play a couple other songs. It was really cool because we’re getting a lot of radio play in Canada right now—we’re number three on the charts, nbd, it’s a good time—so to go over to America and start our journey over there is really cool.

Where do you see rock going in the next few years and where do you see your place in it moving forward?

Kylie: There’s a nice little community in Toronto currently that we’re happy to be a part of. If we can just continue to expand and explore that, that would be really awesome. For us it’s all about real music and actual rock, rock ‘n’ roll movements. There’s nothing fabricated about us. Sometimes it’s chaotic, sometimes we f*** up, but it’s all really fun and raw. I, personally, am not a fan of things that feel fake or things that feel phony, so I’m happy to see a lot of people exploring a more real side of this.

When will you guys know you’ve made it as a band?

Leandra: We haven’t really been on a headlining tour or played many heading shows, so I think when we start to do that and see people coming out to our shows and buying tickets to see just us, then we’ll start to realize, oh, cool we’re making it.

Eliza: For me personally, I think when we have a real legit tour bus—with beds and a toilet and stuff—I’ll feel like we’ve made it. Currently, we’re in a family car. Jordan and Kylie’s dad was very nice and lent us his car for the tour and we have a U-Haul attached. But I think we’ll have made it when I can sleep on my bed in a tour bus with a fridge and a driver [laughs].

Jordan: I think we’ve made it when I can move out of my parents’ basement. Like, that’s my goal right now.

Kylie: When we were in New York City, someone saw a couple people across the street yelling “Beaches!” while were trying to go get a bagel in the morning, and I said to Leandra, “Oh my God we’ve made it, people know who we are here!” And then we cross the street and see they’re our friends who were in New York at the same time. So, still making a name for ourselves, I guess.

Reggie Watts: Musical Disinformationist

reggie-watts-mic-pointingReggie Watts of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) is making a definite mark on late-night television. For years, in his solo shows, he has entertained by disorienting his audience, referring to himself as a “disinformationist.” His funky looking sweaters, colorful socks, and bigger-than-life afro made him instantly recognizable to fans. In 2015, he become the leader of the house band for The Late Late Show with James Corden. 

Watts wasn’t looking for a “day job” when James Corden asked him if he’d like to be bandleader. Watts says he approached his decision to take the gig as a sort of experiment into an unknown realm. “I thought about it pretty hard for about a month,” he says. “It’s strange to have a thing repeat, and I entered into it interested in that idea, that paradigm.”

Watts seems to have found his place on the show. “They give me the space that I need and the leeway,” he says. “They trust me in what I do.” He says he also enjoys the freedom of being able to exploit his unique improvisational skills for much of the show.

Watts hand-selected his Late Late Show bandmates: Tim Young (lead guitar), Steve Scalfati (keyboards), Hagar Ben Ari (bass), and Guillermo E. Brown (drums), all members of Local 47. “The band is really great; we have a fun time always,” says Watts.

“We create great videos that I get to watch live during the show. I’m kind of half audience member and half bandleader. I appreciate the show from two perspectives,” he explains.

As bandleader, Watts has an egalitarian take on publishing. “I made the decision to give equal publishing to everybody in the band for new material we come up with,” he explains. “Splitting things evenly just makes sense. It’s a great incentive and gives a cooperative feel, so there is no hierarchy when it comes to the money made from publishing.”

reggie-watts-james-cordonWatts likes knowing that he and his bandmates are covered under union agreements should any problems arise. “It helps them to know they are in a union, that’s great!” he says. “It’s really about guidance and advice, especially when things aren’t moving smoothly. If there’s a technical issue—a problem with publishing, overtime, or things of that nature, it helps them. It’s a resource and kind of an ambient feeling to know I have this to fall back on. It’s also about camaraderie and knowing you have a resource for questions you might have.”

As a comedian and musician on The Late Late Show, Watts not only leads the band, but also participates in other areas of the show, acting as an announcer, as well as occasionally asking questions of guests sitting on the couch. “We get incredible combinations of people on the couch, and it’s really a lot of fun,” he says.

When it comes to his questions to guests, they are just as spontaneous as his music. Watts asked singer and guitarist Noel Gallagher, former frontman for Oasis: “As a person who lives on a very interesting island with a huge history, do you have hope that humanity will make good choices for itself for the future?” And asked actress Jessica Szohr: “Would you allow me to name a really hard-core metal band after your last name?”

Watts began honing his solo act way back in high school in Great Falls, Montana. “I always thought that music and comedy went together sort of naturally. When I was in drama in high school, we would perform in statewide drama competitions and I would do exactly what I’m doing now, minus the reverb pedals,” he says.

Among his many early musical influences he names Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI), James Brown, and Elvis. On the comedy side, he was a fan of Monty Python and looked up to many of the popular comedians of the 1980s: Gilda Radner, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and George Carlin, plus Carol Burnett and Danny Kaye.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-1-43-29-pmAfter high school, Watts moved to Seattle to study music at Cornish College of the Arts and became involved in as many as 20 bands, in a wide variety of genres. This early dabbling in new areas had a huge impact on his chops and continues to shape his act. “Whether it was a pop group, a dance band, a heavy metal group, a rock and roll band, a jazz fusion band, performance arts stuff, or creating music for modern dance choreographers, all of that has contributed to my history and my performance today.”

In his one-man show, Watts switches between numerous accents, while singing and speaking, breaking into convincing faux languages. His music moves from hip-hop to blues to funk and heavy metal.

In the late 1990s, Watts was singer with the band Maktub, which also explored a variety of genres. Though the group never formally split up they stopped playing together when bandmates ended up in different cities. “We continued to make a couple albums together,” he says. And it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they could one day create another.

Watts’ most recent project is the Netflix special Spatial, which he describes as a “hybrid stand-up, science fiction, variety show.” Debuting in December, it highlights Watts’ musical and comedic talents through sketches, singing, stand-up routines, and dance. The show, like all of Watts’ acts, is completely improvised.

reggie-watts-sing“I kind of just go for it; I’m listening to everything—my intuition, the audience, and even the soundprint the microphone might be making. I react to the moment,” says Watts. To accompany himself, he uses a small table full of tools—a Line 6 DL4 delay pedal, a reverb pedal, an Eletro-Harmonix 45000 four-track looper/recorder, plus a Teenage Engineering OP1 micro-synthesizer.

Watts first incorporated loopers into his show back in the late 1990s. At first, he used the Line 6 DL4 with his band Maktub, as kind of an idea sketchpad. “I could sing ideas that I wanted the band to play and loop it,” he says. “Then, I started to use if for harmony; I would sing my lead vocals and then harmonize with the sample.” That evolved into using the looping function to accompany himself in his solo act.

Very much into exploring gadgets and modern technology, Watts calls himself a “fan” of virtual reality (VR). To that end, he created the 360-degree VR video, Waves, which includes special effects, music, and philosophy. He describes the experience he showcased at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival as “visualizing his imagination.” He says that another VR 360 movie is in the works.

Watts’ advice to other musicians? “Keep believing in music and keep making art, at all costs.”

delfeayo marsalis

Delfeayo Marsalis Creating Tomorrow’s Music Through Traditions of the Past

Trombonist and composer Delfeayo Marsalis, says “The trombone chose me. There’s a reason the trombone is in the middle of the band,” adding the punchline “to keep the trumpets away from the saxophones.”

Delfeayo_Marsalis-sittingDelfeayo Marsalis, a member of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA), has performed with venerable players like Ray Charles, Fats Domino of Local 174-496, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Elvin Jones. Early on he also parlayed his considerable talent into production work, making a major contribution to the revival of acoustic jazz recording. In 1986, on brother Branford’s recording, Renaissance, Marsalis changed the way the bass was recorded across the board “to get more wood sound,” he says. “We just unplugged the ‘dreaded’ bass direct, put up a microphone and the rest is history!”

These days, Marsalis leads the Uptown Jazz Orchestra every week at the famed Snug Harbor in the Faubourg Marigny, just outside the French Quarter. If the trombone is arbitrator, the peacekeeper between sax and trumpet, as the third of six brothers in New Orleans’ famed jazz family, Delfeayo was destined to play it. “There’s something about the trombone—the range and requirements—that really suits my personality,” he says.

In high school, Marsalis cut his teeth at the Eastern Music Festival (EMF) in North Carolina for advanced studies in classical repertoire and at Tanglewood Music Center Fellowship Program, Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer academy. As an undergraduate at Berklee College of Music, he studied performance and audio production, then went on to earn a master’s degree in jazz performance at the University of Louisville.

Marsalis has produced more than 100 recordings for
major artists—including his father and brothers, Harry Connick, Jr., Spike Lee, Terence Blanchard, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In 2014, he co-wrote a documentary, The Sound of Redemption, about the late jazz saxophonist Frank Morgan.

Famous for his colorful liner notes, Marsalis likes to incorporate political and social themes into his music. This fall, Uptown Jazz Orchestra will release its first CD with the tongue-in-cheek title, Make America Great Again. They pay homage to native people around the world who, by sharing their traditions and values, also risked their freedom. The music ranges from the New Orleans brass band “street” sounds to Ellington swing to modern originals. Several songs feature a vocalist and a rapper.

“In all, we try to best represent the full spectrum of today’s New Orleans music. Recently, an audience member said, ‘With all we go through in a day, for 90 minutes, you guys make us forget about all that.’” Marsalis adds, “It’s the New Orleans way.”

On recordings, Marsalis assembles a range of multi-generational musicians performing as many different styles as he can. In the Uptown Jazz Orchestra, the founding member is 74 years old, the pianist is a woman, and the youngest musician is 20. “It’s a true democracy,” he says.

An American Original

DMarkeyHaving grown up in an iconic family of modern jazz, it’s no surprise Marsalis has staunch opinions on what it means to play traditional New Orleans jazz. “The greatness of New Orleans jazz is the ability to easily navigate different styles,” he says, rattling off luminaries—the legendary Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, contemporaries Dr. Michael White, Lucien Barbarin, Benny Jones of Local 174-496, and the Treme Brass Band.

His own compositions are influenced by South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim’s harmonies. Marsalis says, “New Orleans maintains more of the African tradition than any other city. It’s why people love the music. They love the food. It’s a storytelling tradition.”

The greatest advantage he and his brothers had was attending high school at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Marsalis says, “Listening to classical music, my teacher would always say, ‘What do you hear?’” Listening is part of musicianship, he explains, the sound gives you much more information than the score.

“My parents taught us to learn as much as we could. The richness of life is not defined by just what you like, but how many things you are not familiar with, which you then become familiar with, learn about,” he adds.

Learning from the Best

In seventh grade, he was listening to Duke Ellington’s “Sweet Thunder.” Branford showed his younger brother how to create a feedback loop on a reel-to-reel machine, which they would use for early productions. “Branford transferred LPs onto reel-to-reel tape. He’d play music in the background, take the microphone and introduce: ‘J. J. Johnson and Stan Getz live at the Opera House, featuring Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, and Connie Kay.’ He’d list the songs and fade out like a radio broadcast.”

At 12 years old Delfeayo worked on his older brother’s audition tapes, made in the room of their house with the best acoustics—the kitchen. He laughs, “Wynton wondered why they didn’t sound like [classical trumpeter] Maurice André’s studio recordings.” It was trial and error, but Delfeayo says he discovered a process and logic that he’s used throughout his professional career. 

For all his bonhomie and good humor, Marsalis takes on a decidedly fervid tone when discussing the state of jazz education. It’s becoming more standardized, with emphasis on the notation and execution, he contends. “Reading is an important discipline, but it’s still music—it’s heard. That’s why playing by ear is a useful exercise. When I teach, the primary lesson is: use your ears; your ears will not fail you. In orchestras, the musicians are listening. This is how you play in tune; it’s how you play Stravinsky.”

Educating a New Generation

Marsalis is keenly aware of the long neglect of the jazz idiom. In his clinics for kids, he admits it’s a challenge to open their minds. He says, “Rather than students learning to improvise, they’re more concerned with being able to play something they consider unique.”

It’s a lack of understanding of the genre and its great history, he explains. Readily accessible technology provides immediate fulfillment, and to young people, the past may seem to have little to offer. Marsalis often tells them, “Everything does not serve the same function. You can’t say I only want to be around things I relate to immediately.” He stretches his students’ imaginations with a wider repertoire, playing Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, and Luciano Pavarotti. “What do you hear?” he’ll ask. “Tone, vibrato, intonation, passion, emotion. Your ears will give you much more information than your eyes every day of the week.”

Marsalis introduces kids to classical music and opera first, then jazz, and he rounds out sessions with pop music. He is currently working with his own daughter, who at 15 enjoys singing. It’s about listening—understanding timbre and pitch.

“Every day, we are working on opera, a jazz song, and a pop song, so she has a full understanding of the range of the voice. She sings in Italian, but she doesn’t understand Italian!” He says, “My hope is that within the next 15 years I’ll reach some students who’ll make the connection between the great jazz sounds and the contemporary popular, and come up with something unique that has the best of both worlds. That would be an important element in the music’s longevity.”

Individuality was a strong concept in the Marsalis household. And strangely, music did not dominate the conversation. The Civil Rights Movement was unfolding, and his parents’ concern was making sure their children could take advantage of opportunities not afforded to previous generations of people of color. Marsalis says, “They wanted us to understand our responsibility. ‘You’re going to grow up to be responsible men.’”

In 2011, Delfeayo and the Marsalis family (father Ellis and brothers Branford, Wynton, and drummer and vibraphonist Jason) earned the nation’s highest jazz honor, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters (NEA) award.

Strength of the Union

UJO_Photo_Promo-2Marsalis is a longtime union member. His grandfather, Ellis Marsalis, Sr., was a powerful business leader and a strong political voice in support of unions. Recently, Delfeayo mandated that every musician in his band join the union. Union membership in Louisiana, a right-to-work state, has declined. Musicians are often considered a commodity, and like manual labor, paid as little as possible. Marsalis says, “The union is the only professional organization we have for musicians, so it’s important to show solidarity.”

“My dad [Ellis Marsalis, Jr.] was always in tune with the importance of the unions. What he imparted is being able to manage and have an understanding of the business we’re in. He said the union establishes a respectable wage standard so we’re not working for $25 a day.” 

From the 1940s, Ellis, Sr., owned a filling station and the Marsalis Mansion Motel, which was also home to the popular nightclub Music Haven. During segregation, black dignitaries and musicians, including Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Etta James, and Ray Charles were invited to lecture or perform at downtown hotels, but they were barred from staying there. Marsalis says, “The Mansion was the colored motel. It was the reality of living in a segregated community.”

Delfeayo’s father, a pianist, is a well-respected music educator who also mentored his sons. He gained national recognition after Wynton, and later Branford, became internationally known as classical and jazz virtuosos, and another student, Local 802 (New York City) member Harry Connick, Jr., shot to fame.

But Marsalis says his father’s greatest influence on his sons was his passion, his seriousness, and his love for music. He points out, “He had to be passionate about the music because, back then, when he played there would be five or six guys on the bandstand and 10 people in the audience.”

The boys would occasionally go to gigs with their father. Marsalis describes a night when, in the middle of a set the boys, who were around eight or nine at the time, asked to go home. Without missing a note, his father said, “This engagement ends at midnight. That’s when we leave.” That passion is something Marsalis tries to pass on to students. “Whenever we perform, it doesn’t matter if it’s 10 or 10,000 people, we’re going out there with the same level of commitment every time.”

Like his father, Marsalis has long been involved in the community. To expose New Orleans youth to arts education, he founded the Uptown Music Theatre in 2000. He has composed more than 100 songs to introduce kids to jazz through musical theater. In addition, he established KidsTown After School in three New Orleans public schools. The program is designed to foster an understanding of the arts.

His clinics, “Swinging with the Cool School” workshops, where he works with students in jazz, take him around the country. He’s often a guest artist at music and jazz camps.