Tag Archives: interview

In the Jazz Club and Classroom, Percussionist Nasar Abadey Inspires

Just after this photo was taken in 2010, Nasar Abadey of Local 161-710 embarked on a month-long Supernova tour to East Africa sponsored by the US State Department. (Photo credit: Jos A. Beasley.)

This month, Nasar Abadey, drummer, bandleader, and educator will receive the DC Jazz Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, alongside Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés.

Abadey, of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC), has played with masters of the jazz world, among them fellow DC union members Andrew White and Lennie Cuje. Abadey was tapped by Sun Ra in the early 1970s in New York City. “I was sitting in with McCoy Tyner’s band at a club called Slugs’ on the Lower East Side. When I left the bandstand, Sun Ra’s manager he asked if I was interested in playing with Sun Ra. I said, ‘Well, sure.’ He said, ‘Meet me at Penn Station tomorrow at noon.’”

Named Best Drummer in Jazz in 2011 by the Washington City Paper, Abadey went on to play with other greats, like Stanley Turrentine, David Sanchez, Charlie Rouse, Gary Bartz, Cyrus Chestnut, Gregory Porter, Frank Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Jones, and Bobby Hutcherson.

Back in 1976, Abadey was playing gigs in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, when he got a call out of the blue to play with Ella Fitzgerald. Throughout his long career, he’s built a solid reputation as a sideman with many groups. He has recorded and performed with innovators Malachi Thompson and Joe Ford (saxophonist in Abadey’s group Supernova).

With Supernova, Abadey performs jazz steeped in hard bop, modal, and avant-garde, often incorporating traditional African rhythms, bebop, fusion, Afro-Cuban, and Afro-Brazilian influences. He is also founder and artistic director of the 16-piece band Washington Renaissance Orchestra (WRO).

For a time the family lived in Buffalo with his mother’s cousins, the Dunlops. Frankie Dunlop was the prodigious drummer who famously played with Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, among others. He says that Frankie practiced every day in the attic and became one of his main influences. Abadey was just six years old when Frankie put a set of sticks in his hands and showed him how to start playing.

“I didn’t know who he was. He left Buffalo when I was seven years old and I didn’t see him again until I was 13. I had a transistor radio and I heard the song ‘Monk’s Dream’ on a jazz program and I said, ‘Wow, the drummer sounds like my cousin Frankie.’ When they announced the group members, the drummer was Frankie. I remembered his sound.” They reconnected when Abadey moved to New York City. He’d often visit Dunlop in his Harlem home where Dunlop would tell him stories about his years playing with jazz legends. 

Abadey who has lived in Washington, DC, since 1977, embarked on his own career in jazz that placed him in a class all his own. Drawing on influences from powerhouse drummers such as Tony Williams, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, and Elvin Jones, he built a solid career as an artist and teacher. Now, he is one of the mid-Atlantic region’s premier jazz drummers.

In 2006, Abadey was asked to join the faculty of the Peabody Institute. “The process of education has been an organic kind of thing. Each semester, each year, I find myself incorporating more into what I teach and how I teach. As a result, I become a better musician and drummer,” he says.

“I like to think of music as going in many directions simultaneously—poly-directional.” Which he calls “multi-D”: multi-dimensional and multi-directional, a term that is also easy to pronounce and remember in any language. “It helps the listener understand that they are experiencing various dimensional realms while listening to music. I like to think the music is more complex than traditional forms of jazz.”

Abadey invokes plenty of John Coltrane’s automatic technique, which he says allows the music to lift off into a spiritual zone. “The unknown can always render something new because it is the unknown. How your spirit interacts with the creative endeavor,” he says.

He encourages his students to go to his gigs to hear him play so they know that what he’s teaching is not abstract. He adds, “It’s also important to articulate the source of a particular rhythm when I play it and understand it when I hear it played. I look at Africa as the source and different rhythms from Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico.”

Throughout his career, the union, which he joined at 18, has provided support. He says, “With the union, you’re associated with an organization that has what every musician needs to indulge their art and the backing to make sure we’re getting proper wages, benefits, and pension. When you get gigs, you will not be paid below a certain amount. All those things are in place. Plus, you have legal representation.”

In addition to Supernova and the Washington Renaissance Orchestra, Abadey leads the Renaissance Trio (rhythm section) and the Washington Renaissance Orchestra Octet. In between gigs this summer, he is working on a project writing for strings for his 11-piece Supernova Chamber Orchestra.

Sound. Words. People. The Intentional Practice of Alexander Laing

Alexander Laing thinks a lot about diversity, inclusion, and equity, especially in the context of the culture of orchestras and classical music. He’s spoken on the topic at symphonic conferences in the US and in the UK. Through a practice focused on sound, words, and people, the Phoenix Symphony principal clarinetist is hoping to be part of the solution to building symphonies that better reflect their communities.

Alexander Laing

The Leading Tone’s Yeti Records Project (photo cred: Ben Scolaro.)

When Laing began his career in Phoenix in 2002, he discovered a very welcoming community, incredible colleagues who inspire him, and 299 days a year of sunshine! Since then, the Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ) member has performed around the city and become deeply involved in his community.


“In many ways we’re a typical mid-size American orchestra—hardworking, somewhat under resourced, with beautiful music making that just keeps getting better. Phoenix is a young city that’s more focused on reinvention than tradition. That’s influencing and supporting our explorations around how an orchestra serves and engages people,” he says.

“Over the years, I’ve been lucky to play a lot of great concerts—in concert halls, the ballet pit, and classrooms all over Phoenix,” he says. Among two that stand out were concerts led by James DePriest, and a concert celebrating the music of John Williams, hosted by Steven Spielberg and conducted by Williams [a member of Local 9-535 and 47]. “I think the whole band was trying to honor Williams and thank him with our playing. It felt amazing,” says Laing.

In February, he took part in the world premiere of Opera Philadelphia’s Cycles of My Being. This summer he will be on the faculty for the League of American Orchestra’s Essentials of Orchestra Management course in Los Angeles.

He’s also involved with the League of American Orchestra’s diversity forum, which was convened to address strategic priorities in diversity, equity, and inclusion. He’s on the board of the Gateways Music Festival and Arizona School for the Arts. In 2015, Laing founded his own nonprofit The Leading Tone.

Laing says that all of his activities boil down to how he defines his practice. “For me, music is about sound, words, and people,” he says. “Sound speaks for itself—I try to make a great sound and play great. I’ve been intentional about my words and about trying to use those words to reveal and examine the operating systems in the art form and in the business. And, I’ve been intentional about the people I want to serve, engage with, and make central to my practice.”

At the end of 2017, Laing was recognized by Musical America as one of its Top 30 Professionals of the year. On March 21, he will receive a Sphinx Medal of Excellence and $50,000 career grant. The Sphinx Organization is dedicated to changing lives through the power of diversity in the arts. It awards the medal to extraordinary emerging classical artists of color who, early in their professional careers, demonstrate artistic excellence, outstanding work ethic, a spirit of determination, and ongoing commitment to leadership.

“It’s exciting and genuinely humbling because there is a lot of really good work being done,” he says. “For them to shine this light on me is amazing. It has made an impact on my career and family in ways I can only be grateful for.”

A union member for almost 20 years, Laing first joined in the summer of 1998 when he had an opportunity to sub with Boston Symphony Orchestra for a Tanglewood concert when he was fresh out of graduate school.


Alexander Laing

“My real education in the role of the union in orchestras came when I got my job in Phoenix and became active, serving on committees and being engaged in that way. The union and my committee work have been a big part of my professional development, especially on the words and people front,” he says. “The AFM has done so much to professionalize music making, having practice space for this art form that offers an adult, professional, living wage drives this whole thing.”

The seeds of Laing’s community involvement go back to graduate school where he was introduced to the concept of community engaged music making. “Up until that point, I had a desire to connect to community and serve, but music was not a part of that. In fact, sometimes they were at odds with each other,” he says. “The idea of practicing this art form in engagement with community, not just as a one-way exchange, was exciting for me. It allowed me to imagine a whole new practice for myself in which music, blackness, coolness, youthfulness, and community were all intertwined.”

This led to The Leading Tone, a nonprofit that uses quality out-of-school music opportunities to help students learn to succeed. “You don’t necessarily touch a broad cross section playing concerts,” he says. “This is work I wanted to do to feel complete as an artist and connected to community.”

Laing says that Local 586 played a big role in helping him start a pilot program in the summer of 2015 where he created a bucket band with elementary students. The local donated space, put him in touch with someone who ran a youth development organization, and the program’s first teacher was a fellow union member.

Since its inception, the program has changed in ways that Laing could never have imagined. “Every year it’s been a different program,” he says. The current focus is The Yeti Records Project in which kids are making and recording their own music, using keyboards, microphones, and computers.

Laing recalls how music shaped him early on. “Learning to play an instrument gave me an identity at a time when many young people didn’t have one,” he says. “With the support of my first teacher, Charles Stier, I really started to organize my life around the clarinet, practicing, and competitions.”

In his senior year, he received a fellowship with the National Symphony in Washington, DC, then attended Northwestern University for clarinet performance. Midway through, he made the bold decision to withdraw for a year to spend time on what he calls a “clarinet retreat.” He went to the Sweelinck Conservatorium, Amsterdam, where he earned an artist’s diploma under George Peterson, principal clarinet Concertgebouw Orchestra.

“I felt like I needed to do something dramatic if I was going to get to the next level,” says Laing. “I put myself in a circumstance where the only focus was clarinet. It was a critical year for me. I rebuilt my technique and practiced a ridiculous number of hours.”

After graduating with a degree in clarinet performance from Northwestern, Laing entered the Manhattan School of Music in its Orchestral Performance Program, a unique curriculum that also looks at orchestras as working organizations.

When he began studying under then Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Principal Clarinet Ricardo Morales (now principal for The Philadelphia Orchestra and a member of Local 77), he says it was transformative.

“We were both in our mid to late 20s; it was the first time I had a teacher who was nonwhite,” says Laing. “It was the perfect situation for me—the closeness in age and cultural outlook, coupled with the most incredible clarinet playing I’d ever heard. I had my first lesson with him on Wednesday and was a better player by Friday.”


Alexander LaingToday, Laing is concerned about the lack of diversity in symphony orchestras as well as the culture of orchestras. In February, he moderated a panel at SphinxConnect, a conference of The Sphinx Organization. Explains Laing, “Sphinx convenes the field, holds a competition for black and Latino musicians, and puts together an orchestra, which I first played in about 10 years ago.”

Laing’s panel, “The orchestra as an inclusive institution?” relates to his work as co-chair of the League of American Orchestra’s Institutional Readiness Taskforce. “We are tasked with looking at orchestra cultures and seeing how our current culture helps or hinders our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals and aspirations,” he says.

Other panelists were MET Second Trombone Weston Sprott of Local 802 (New York City), AFM Symphonic Services Division Director Rochelle Skolnick, Albany Symphony CEO Anna Kuwabara, and Laing’s brother, Justin Laing, who runs his own nonprofit arts organization, Hillombo.

Participants addressed orchestra culture from two perspectives. “Inside Looking In” examined the culture as stakeholders and “Outside Looking In” assessed orchestras as organizations within an ecosystem of other nonprofits in entertainment, education, and community dynamics.

“Orchestras have been talking about our lack of diversity for decades and not much has changed. I think we have to allow that there are bigger things standing in our way than just systems and talent development, like our values,” Laing says.

Often, he says, “We are taught to think of our art form as silent on issues of cultural affirmation. Talking about the ‘universality’ and ‘classicality’ of the art form leads us to start to believe that this music is outside the bounds of race, space, and time.”

Stories often relegated to the background are what form frameworks and systems. Laing says, “I think if we adopt different stories about what’s valuable about this music—ones that see it as more of a dialog than a monologue—then we would be able to see how we can make this music better.”

“There is also the question for institutions,” he continues. “Are we preservers and protectors of culture or are we culture makers? If we are makers, we need the different voices to make the best culture and respond to what is happening in our culture. What could it be like if there was more attention paid to the culture of orchestras as workplaces and artistic practice spaces? A lot of studies show that a diverse and inclusive team will outperform a homogeneous exclusive team.”

While Laing agrees that unequal access to instrumental instruction is also a problem, he doesn’t believe it’s the main challenge. “Having played in the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra and Sphinx and gone to school with a lot of people, I reject the idea that the talent is not out there in the underrepresented communities that we say we want and need in our orchestras. So the question becomes, do we really want this?”

Though difficult, changing the orchestra culture is possible. “People do amazing and impossible things in this business and we make them normal at some point,” he says. “The Tchaikovsky violin concerto was considered unplayable when it was first written, and now students play it.”

Laing says that the union has a role to play when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Certainly part of this will be working within our own union and conferences. We know as union members that change doesn’t always come from the corner office,” he says. “We can advocate for this ourselves—individually as bargaining units and collectively. We don’t have to wait for others to lead.”

He sees examples in what other unions are doing. The Chicago teacher’s union, for instance, is bargaining on issues for the students that go beyond teacher working conditions. “What would it look like for us to have a more outward focus? Could we advocate for equitable access to music instruction?” Laing says, “We absolutely should be raising our voices as musicians, as union members, and as members of this ecosystem and our communities.”

Beyond the stage, he says, “There are other ways we express our values with things we control—our boards, leadership, the music we play, the soloists and conductors we hire, and the way we contextualize ourselves and our music.”

“Artists are discovering ways and spaces to bring their whole selves to their work,” he says. “Ultimately, I think orchestras are going to have to recruit and compete for the artists they want, not just against other orchestras, but against affirming musical and human experiences that artists are creating for themselves in chamber and popular music.”

“Ultimately, I hope that orchestras will become more reflective of their communities because they want to make better music and better musical experiences for people,” says Laing.


Piano Man Mike Renzi Creates Colorful Orchestration


Pianist Mike Renzi of Local 802 (New York City) was just 12 years old when he joined the AFM and began his professional career.

Pianist, arranger, and musical director Mike Renzi of Local 198-457 (Providence, RI) and Local 802 (New York City) joined the union as a youngster. Recognizing the young Renzi’s abundant talent, his piano teacher booked him to play at the Narragansett Hotel. “Every Saturday night, they had dining and dancing. It was a six-piece group with three horns and three rhythm players. My piano teacher put me there with a big fat book—but I’d already been memorizing songs. I was so young, in fact, people would dance by and ask, ‘How old are you?’” he recalls.

When he heard jazz, he explains, “It was like a magnet. My parents had great jazz records. I loved the harmonies and songs. I wanted to learn to play this kind of music, and that’s what I did. I started doing that when I was eight or nine and did my first job when I was 12.”

Renzi went on to win seven Emmy awards for musical direction and composition, both for his work on Sesame Street and the long-running soap opera, One Life to Live. Now semi-retired, Renzi divides his time between Newport, Rhode Island, and Florida, but still performs with longtime friends and colleagues, including accompanying singer Marlene VerPlanck in New York City; gigs at Birdland; an Irving Berlin tribute at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center; dedication of a new Tony Bennett-Frank Sinatra Studio in Queens; and performing with Michael Feinstein and the Kravis Center Pops Orchestra Big Band in Palm Beach.

Throughout a career that’s stretched nearly 60 years, Renzi has worked with a panoply of stars—among them: Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ben Webster, Julius La Rosa, Gerry Mulligan, Mark Murphy, and Local 802 members Houston Person and John Pizzarelli. He played with Lena Horne on Broadway in Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, later joining her at Carnegie Hall and recording the CD, An Evening with Lena Horne: Live at the Supper Club in the late 1980s.

He was a studio pianist on the films The Birdcage, Everybody Says I Love You, Broadway Danny Rose, and Biloxi Blues. Then he was called to play a session for the soap opera Ryan’s Hope. “The music supervisor needed a couple of extra cues, which I composed on the spot. Before I knew it, I was writing music for the soaps, from the 1980s until 1990s,” says Renzi.    

Eventually, he was tapped by Sesame Street as a big band arranger. “The script writers would say, ‘This is my song about a veterinarian, ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Fur,’ and I want it to sound like ‘I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.’” He arranged songs to zydeco, disco, and funk.

“I kept that gig for 12 years,” Renzi says. “It changes you financially. Two recording sessions a week adds to a union pension.” He notes that the entire band on the show was contracted through Local 802, including Glenn Drewes, Wally Kane, Steve Bargonetti, Ben Brown, and Ricky Martinez.

Before graduating from the Boston Conservatory of Music and Berklee College of Music in 1974, he played professionally with local and visiting artists. Following an engagement with Sylvia Syms, he was recruited to work with Mel Tormé, a partnership that would last nearly 25 years.

Trained classically from the time he was a child, Renzi says, “When I practice, I don’t play jazz, or show tunes. I play Bach fugues, Chopin waltzes, or a Beethoven sonata. I keep my hands in shape that way.”

Renzi owes his musical genius to those who came before him. He says he learned by listening to great pianists—Sergei Rachmaninoff, Earl Wild, Dave McKenna (who hailed from his hometown), Dick Hyman of Local 802, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Tommy Flanagan, Red Garland, Bud Powell, and Monty Alexander. He’s a big fan of Local 802 members Bill Charlap, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock.

Having developed his own hard bop style, Renzi became a much sought-after arranger over many years, establishing rapport with some of the greatest jazz soloists: Cynthia Crane, Freddy Cole, Blossom Dearie, Jack Jones, Eartha Kitt, and Peggy Lee, among others. He and Maureen McGovern have been frequent collaborators since 1981, when Mel Tormé first introduced them. Their CD, Pleasure of His Company, is one of his favorite recordings.

“I like to make colors and orchestra behind singers,” he says. “Accompaniment is a very beautiful thing for me. Words mean a lot to me and I know the lyrics to most of the songs I play. The words help me color the song, [to know] how I’m going to fill in a certain space, what kind of mood I’m going to try to create. The lyric and mood  help me pick my chord voicings, how I fill it in, and create an introduction and ending. I’m creating not for me, but for them—but vicariously, how I would like to be accompanied.”

Other pianists capitalize on Renzi’s experience, at times asking for direction on particular pieces. “Occasionally, professionals come by the house. They’ll bring in a song and ask how I’d play it and we’ll sit at the piano. I’ll spend two or three hours with them—almost like an informal clinic,” he says.

What’s most important, Renzi explains, is to have the taste and the skill to edit your own playing. “You can have all the chops and technique in the world, but you still have to edit and make musical sense out of it. A lot of people have so much technical facility—they play a million notes and it’s impressive, but the editing is important. You make that happen through improvisation—make it melodic and swinging. Everything in jazz and improvisation is articulation and time feel,” he says.

Stylistically, nothing defines the freedom and unpredictability of improvisation more than his three-year world tour with classic crooner Tony Bennett. The repertoire may not change, but the interpretation, the undercurrent of each song shifts to fit the mood of the audience. “We did the tour with Lady Gaga, which was fabulous. With Tony, you’re at the greatest venues—great theaters and high-end casinos. He was 87 when I joined him. He’s remarkable and still sounds great,” says Renzi.

A sign that he has no intention of completely retiring, Renzi and singer Nicolas King paired up to record the CD, On Another Note (2017) comprising Great American Songbook standards like “Skylark,” “The Way She Makes Me Feel,” “It Amazes Me,” “Love Is Here to Stay,”  and “On Second Thought.” The song “You Must Believe in Spring” from the album has been nominated for a Grammy Award.

john Scofield

John Scofield Brings Country, Rock and More Into His World

john Scofield At age 66 this month and 40 years in, John Scofield is at the prime of his career. A major guitarist in the jazz scene since the 1970s, “Sco” is one of the most prolific jazz geniuses, in a perpetual cycle of recording and touring. In 2016, he received his first Grammy award for the album Past Present, and two more followed in 2017 for Country for Old Men. He’s been nominated a total of nine times and almost constantly has several projects in the works. “I haven’t had a lot of dead air time,” he says.

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faith seetoo

Faith Seetoo – Zen and the Art of musical

Faith Seetoo of Local 76-493 (Seattle, WA) has spent most of her adult life on the road as associate conductor with more than a dozen touring Broadway shows, among them: The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Mamma Mia!, A Chorus Line, and Newsies. Since April 2017 she has been on the North American tour of Aladdin.

Seetoo’s first glimpse into the world of theatre music came when she saw Peter Pan at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles as a child. She was so taken by the show that she wrote to both the show’s star, Sandy Duncan, and the conductor of the orchestra, Jack Lee.

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Nurit Bar-Josef: Behind the Scenes with the National Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster

Nurit-Bar-JosefWhen Nurit Bar-Josef of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) was selected as concertmaster for National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) at age 26, she was the youngest concertmaster ever appointed to a major symphony orchestra. More than 16 years later, she recalls initial surprise on finding out she’d won the spot.

“I knew some of the others who had auditioned—it’s a small world—and I thought they might think I was too young or too inexperienced,” she says.

The young musician was aware of the huge responsibility she had accepted. “I knew what to expect from my previous experiences in St. Louis and Boston, where I saw just how much the concertmaster has to deal with on a daily basis,” she says. Bar-Josef was assistant concertmaster for Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops when she auditioned with NSO.

Leading from First Chair

“It’s constant pressure; when you are sitting in that chair, you are expected to always be on—it’s 120%, all the time. I feel like I represent the orchestra and there are times when the whole orchestra is looking to me for guidance,” she says. “That’s the biggest challenge; no matter what is going on at home, or what’s going on around you, or on the podium, you are out there for your colleagues.”

Meticulous preparation is key, she says. “Knowing the score well, in and out, and knowing everything that’s going on. You have to have that first violin part down like no one else,” she says. “And because you are number one, you have to always play the solos and play them well. I try to do my best every single time.”

“It’s a good lesson in time management because there is so much music coming out, week after week,” says Bar-Josef. “It forces me to prioritize and manage my practice, even when I have limited time. I have to figure out what I need to do now and what can wait.”

Above all, she has a passion and dedication to the current repertoire, whatever it may be. “Every week, whatever we are playing, I throw myself into it. That’s what we live and breathe for that week. Oftentimes, I feel like we are actors given a role to play,” says Bar-Josef. “If we play a Shostakovich symphony, he becomes my favorite composer that week. If we are playing Brahms, I am all about Brahms, emotionally and physically.”

For pleasure, she says, “I always, always enjoy playing a Beethoven symphony or even a Beethoven violin sonata. I wouldn’t say that he’s my favorite composer, but I would say anytime I’m playing Beethoven I’m musically and technically fulfilled,” she says.

Like all principal string players, Bar-Josef spends time marking bowings. “The other principals are waiting to get my part in order to mark their bowings to match mine, and I’ve got the library waiting for all of that to happen. That’s added pressure,” she says. “Part of the process is making sure my colleagues have the music well enough in advance to feel comfortable.”

A Conductor’s Liaison

Nurit Bar-JosefBar-Josef has the honor of meeting guest conductors and acts as a liaison to the rest of the players. She ensures a smooth working relationship between members of the orchestra and the conductor. This, she says, “is an incredibly rewarding responsibility.”

“I learn a lot from working with conductors,” she says, explaining that many of them request a one-on-one meeting before the concert, especially if she will perform a solo. “Every musician who comes to visit is different. It’s really important to me that I represent the orchestra well. No matter what is going on, I try to connect with the person on the podium.”

“Conductors travel the world and they conduct all different orchestras, from the top notch to smaller groups in smaller towns,” she continues. “I want them to feel like the NSO is an all-around good experience. As concertmaster, I am part of that—making that connection with the person. It’s a short period of time and it can be really intense for those few days.”

Though Bar-Josef relishes the challenge of these responsibilities, she admits her role can be isolating, sometimes setting her apart from her colleagues. The time requirements mean she has less time for socializing, particularly when they are out on tour. “When we go on tour, I’m constantly thinking about what we are playing tomorrow, what we are playing tonight, and how much time I have to prepare. I don’t have a whole lot of time to hang out and have fun in some new city.”

Though she is passionate about playing solos, Bar-Josef admits, “It’s one of the hardest things I do. It’s very rewarding that I get to play amazing solos like Scheherazade, though it’s stressful. There’s a lot of pressure playing solos with some of the greatest conductors standing one foot away from me.”

Bar-Josef is currently one of an estimated 25 women concertmasters in the US and Canada. While there have been some remarkable women in this leadership role over the years—for example, Cecylia Arzewski (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra 1990-2008) and Emmanuelle Boisvert (Detroit Symphony Orchestra for 23 years)—their numbers are still far below the current ratio of women to men in orchestras. Bar-Josef feels like more women will likely take the leadership role in the future.

Of course, blind auditions help to ensure the best candidates, male or female are selected fairly. And fortunately today, unlike just a couple decades ago, female orchestra musicians enjoy equal treatment. “I have never felt that anyone looked at me as a female or thought they’d rather have a man in my position; I never once felt that a guest conductor was disappointed by having a female concertmaster,” says Bar-Josef. “Today, I feel it’s all about the music and what type of musician you are—gender doesn’t matter.”

The Joy of Chamber Music

nurit-bar When Bar-Josef has a chance, she looks forward to performing in smaller chamber groups. “I always love playing chamber music,” she says. “I enjoy the camaraderie and the intimacy of it—sitting in a group close together, having my sound blend with theirs and not having to worry about leading a section. I can be much more free in a chamber group.”

A founding member of Kennedy Center Chamber Players, she performed with them for nine years. “It’s basically a core group that started out as the principals of the National Symphony—Principal Viola Daniel Foster, Principal Cello David Hardy, and Principal Keyboard Lambert Orkis. We would ask other people from the orchestra, both titled and nontitled players, to join us for four chamber music concerts a year at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.”

The other group she’s been involved with for a long time, the Dryden String Quartet, came together less formally about 16 years ago. “When I first moved to DC, I didn’t have any family here. I had to play over Thanksgiving so I was stuck in town,” she recalls. “Daniel Foster asked me if I wanted to go to his family’s house for Thanksgiving and he said, ‘Bring your violin, we might do some sight reading.’ He’s cousins with [Time for Three] violinist Nicholas Kendall and [Philadelphia Orchestra Assistant Principal Cello] Yumi Kendall. It ended up being a pretty good group.”

The group named itself after John Dryden Kendall, grandfather to Foster and the Kendalls,  who brought the Suzuki method to the US. “The first concert we played was at an embassy event in honor of their grandfather,” says Bar-Josef. “Unfortunately, everybody is just so busy in their own lives it’s difficult to find time. We try to get together at least once a year, sometimes twice if we are lucky.”

Every now and then Bar-Josef finds time to perform in other chamber groups. “I like to do outreach with different NSO players and Millennium Stage performances at the Kennedy Center, house concerts, or whatever pops up,” she says.

She has performed at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, Bay Chamber Festival, Aspen Music Festival, and festivals in Tanglewood, Portland (Maine), Kingston (Rhode Island), Steamboat Springs, Garth Newel, and Caramoor, where she performed piano quartets with André Previn at his Rising Stars Festival.

This season Bar-Josef looks forward to working with incoming NSO Music Director Gianandrea Noseda. “I am excited that we have so many great programs coming up with him,” she says. In particular, she looks forward to playing Chausson’s Poème in November. “It’s just such an honor and a privilege. I’ve always wanted to perform that piece and what better opportunity than with the NSO and Noseda conducting.”

Nurit Bar-Josef currently performs on the G.B. Guadagnini, 1773, the “ex-Grumiaux, ex-Silverstein” violin.

Dare to Drum

Film Brings Together World Drumming, Rock Star Composer, and Dallas Symphony Orchestra

Dare to DrumOn September 19 the documentary film Dare to Drum, featuring numerous Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth) AFM members, was launched on iTunes and Amazon. The video includes Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) musicians, former Police drummer, turned composer Stewart Copeland of Local 802 (New York City), and features the group D’Drum. It is the story of a group of friends—Local 72-147 musicians Doug Howard (DSO principal percussionist), Ron Snider (DSO assistant principal percussionist, John Bryant (producer, composer, and percussionist), and Ed Smith (University of North Texas professor, percussionist, and vibraphonist)—who traveled the world collecting percussion instruments and created the percussion ensemble D’Drum.

“Eventually, we went to Bali and Balinese/Javanese style gamelan music really caught our attention,” explains Bryant. In 2008, they commissioned Copeland to compose Gamelan D’Drum, a three-movement piece featuring 75 world instruments and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The piece premiered in Dallas, February 2011.

From the start of the project, Bryant, who has more than 20 years of experience in filmmaking, saw the potential for a documentary film. “We had three cameramen shooting throughout the process of meeting, rehearsing, organizing, restructuring, trips to Bali, and finally the concert itself,” he says.

During a 2013 interview, Copeland said one of the purposes of creating the film was to promote orchestral music. “I think this film will increase the awareness that orchestras can really do interesting stuff. There are new things coming out of the orchestra world that are exciting, that pump, that rock, and that are awesome.”

An initial version of Dare to Drum was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign in September 2013. It premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival April 2015, and played a few other film festivals later that same year. “All along, the goal was to find a distributor for the film,” says Bryant.

Kino Lorber expressed interest in late 2015. “I knew they would be the company to go with because their catalog is full of highly artistic films of all genres. Dare to Drum is an unusual film because of the disparate and eclectic elements involved—rock star composer Stewart Copeland meets work percussion group D’Drum to create a work of Indonesian gamelan music within a symphony orchestra setting.”

The original Dare to Drum had only about a four-minute montage of the 2011 premiere. “Although Kino Lorber thought the 85-minute documentary was great on its own, they wanted to add the full 30-minute February 2011 concert performance to the package,” says Bryant.

More money was raised to edit, mix, and finish the concert film. In total, 348 people around the world contributed $95,142 to create the final film.

“The money also paid Dallas Symphony Orchestra musician fees as stipulated in the AFM’s Integrated Media Agreement,” says Bryant. “It took a while, but we successfully raised the additional funds. And with great help from AFM Director of Symphonic Electronic Media Debbie Newmark, we signed release agreements with the Dallas Symphony musicians. I am happy to report that we were able to pay nearly $20,000 to the musicians in fees and pension fund contributions.”

As of September 19, the film is available on DVD and for streaming and downloads on iTunes, Amazon, and through KinoLorber.com. It is also available for educational licensing through Estelle Grosso (egrosso@kinolorber.com).

The film is great for students of all ages, says Bryant. “It covers orchestral music, world percussion, world travel in finding and creating old and new instruments, work with Stewart Copeland, and work with Dallas Symphony Orchestra Maestro Jaap van Zweden,” says Bryant.

Lorraine Desmarais

Bandleader and Jazz Pianist Lorraine Desmarais Takes Charge

Lorraine Desmarais

Lorraine Desmarais of Local 406 (Montreal, PQ) is among a handful of women big band leaders. She and her bands are regularly featured at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Lorraine Desmarais of Local 406 (Montreal, PQ) made her solo debut as a jazz artist at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1983. Before that, in 1982, her trio was the first jazz group to tour through the Jeunesses Musicales du Canada, which at the time, she explains, presented mostly classical music. “So, we were delighted to be the first jazz trio ever to be put on the road!”

In 1984, Desmarais won a Yamaha Jazz Competition at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Entering the jazz scene at age 21—old for a jazz player, according to Desmarais—the stage was set for her to be prominent in the festival’s lineup for years to come.

Among prizes she’s received are First Prize at the Great Jazz Piano American Competition (in 1986), the Oscar Peterson Award of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Artistic Creation Award of the Conseil des Arts et des Lettres du Québec prize, and the Ontario Arts Foundation Prize for Keyboard Artistry.

She joined the union in 1982 when she began doing a number of club dates, concerts, and touring, and sat in as a keyboardist on television shows. In 1983, while finishing her master’s degree in classical piano, Desmarais received a grant to study in New York City with Kenny Barron of Local 802—her first formal jazz lesson. She joined a few jazz combos, and at McGill University, she devoured the jazz standards and the history of jazz piano, from ragtime to nu jazz. She began transcribing solos by Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, and Herbie Hancock of Local 802 (New York City).

In 1999, Desmarais played keyboards for a two-month, 45-concert world tour with the Diva Big Band out of New York City and she fell in love with the big band sound. “It’s so exciting being surrounded by soloists and playing charts and arrangements,” she says.

By 2004, her status as a virtuosic jazz pianist was well established. But she still had a dream of playing with Chick Corea of Local 802. Desmarais says, “He was one of my greatest influences. I love his music; he’s a great pianist. His solo and electric band corresponded to my own career.” When he and his electric band trio performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival that year, she asked if they could arrange something for her. Twenty minutes before the pair went on stage, Corea asked her, “Do you know ‘Spain’?”   

“In 2005, I said, it’s now or never. I took many of my compositions written for trio or quartet and rewrote them for big band. It’s a way to learn arrangement,” she says. It was challenging, she admits, writing for wind instruments and making the sax or trumpet soloist front and center. “In smaller groups, you have more freedom; it’s more spontaneous, everybody is soloist from time to time. But in a big band, it’s almost like a portrait of a soloist.”

Her 2016 big band album, Danses, Dansas, Dances, showcases to full effect the talents of each musician. Along with her all-union, 16-member big band, she is the leader of a trio comprising longtime big band drummer Camil Belisle and bassist Frédéric Alarie, both members of Local 406.

Desmarais says she is a big fan of Brad Mehl-
dau of Local 47 and was inspired by the piano stylings and compositions of McCoy Tyner and big band leader Maria Schneider of Local 802, the latter of whom also influenced her approach to arrangement and orchestration. She has played with luminaries: the late Marian McPartland, Jacky Terrasson, and Joe Lovano both of Local 802.

It was a great honor for her to premiere the song, “For Lola,” by Dave Brubeck at a 2013 concert with the Brubeck Brothers (members of Local 802) at Théâtre Jean-Duceppe during the Montreal International Jazz Festival.

With 12 albums of mostly original compositions to her credit, a number of which have become jazz standards, the ever-humble Desmarais acknowledges that she seems to have earned a distinguished place in the world of music and jazz. In 2013, she became a Member of the Order of Canada and received a Prix Opus from the Conseil québécois de la Musique. Three of her albums (Trio Lorraine Desmarais, Jazz pour Noël, and Big Band) have received Félix awards.

Growing up in Montreal, Desmarais studied classical music, all the while playing pop music. “The best part was trying to improvise and compose on piano,” says Desmarais “Luckily, I had a teacher who encouraged me.” At the French-language college, Cégep de St-Laurent, Montréal, Québec, where she teaches jazz piano, Desmarsais emboldens her students to do the same. She uses two pianos in her classes to improvise with them, explaining that playing off each other makes the music more accessible. “It really has to be fun. You have to make young people feel they have potential and it’s possible to develop.”    

As she looks ahead, Desmarais calls 2018 her symphonique year. Among other projects with symphonies, she’ll perform with Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony to create a soundtrack for the 1965 film The Railrodder and produce a number of commissioned works, all of which have her stepping out of her comfort zone. She says, “When I return to my work, I’m that much stronger.”   

What’s next for Desmarais?  She says she’d like to go back to where it all began: “I would like to do more tours with my big band.”

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.”

William Bell: Longtime Soul Man Creates New Legacy For Young Musicians

With a career spanning more than 50 years in the recording industry, Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA) member William Bell received his first Grammy this year in the category Best Americana Album. The honor was fitting for This Is Where I Live, a retrospective album that also marks Bell’s return to Stax Records, where he began his career all those years earlier.

william bellWho knows what would have become of the Memphis native if not for the music emanating from 926 East McLemore Avenue. “Jim [Stewart] and Estelle [Axton] established Stax Records right in the heart of the deprived neighborhood we lived in,” explains Bell. “It kept us out of trouble. We went to the record shop and listened to songs. All the neighborhood kids had an outlet there.”

Aside from the music they heard hanging out at the record shop, he and friends like David Porter and Isaac Hayes, listened to disc jockey Rufus Thomas who worked for WDIA, the only black radio station at the time. “We heard everything on the radio—country and western, blues, and rhythm and blues. It was just an extension of our lives,” he says. “Music was everywhere—on the radio, in the clubs, and on the street corners.”

William Bell began singing in church, but by age 16 he’d moved on to singing “secular” music and won a Mid-South Talent contest and a trip to Chicago to perform with the Red Saunders Band. Upon return to Memphis, he spent the next five years working with and learning from the Phineas Newborn Orchestra.

Bell wrote his first hit song, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” in a New York City hotel room during a tour with the band. “We had a night off and it was raining. I’m sitting in the hotel room and missing the girl back home. This song just came to me,” he says. He recorded it with Stax, and even though it was the B side of the record, it ended up being one of the record company’s first hits.

Bell says many of his songs come from a personal place, while others are inspired by the people around him. “I’m a people watcher. I’ll go to a party and sit in the corner and watch the human factor take over. I write about life and things I think people can relate to. Other times I just come up with an idea and construct a song.”

That’s what happened when he wrote “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Booker T. Jones of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA). “It was back in the ’60s when everyone was talking about zodiac signs. I’d finished a bass line, one verse, and a chorus. I was at the studio doing an Albert King session. He didn’t have enough material. I sang it for him and he just fell in love with it, so Booker and I finished
it overnight.”

“We knew that we had something special. But we didn’t know it would become so iconic,” says Bell. One of the most covered blues tunes of all time, Bell wasn’t too keen on recording it for This Is Where I Live when producer John Leventhal of Local 802 (New York City) first suggested it.

Leventhal said he wanted to do a stripped down version, very “back porch-ish.” When Leventhal presented him with a track, the first thing Bell noticed was that the iconic bass line was gone. But after living with it a couple days, he found himself humming along. “The more I listened to it, the more I came to like it,” he says. “We captured it on the first take, so I guess it was meant to be.”

Such open-mindedness has been key to surviving in an industry that has seen tremendous change over Bell’s career. “Technology has changed the playing field. When you record something it’s for the world. You put it on the Internet and everybody hears it at once. You have to really do your homework and create a great product,” he says.

“Years ago, we went into the studio with eight or 10 people and created. That instilled discipline because you had to get it right the first time. Now you can keep going over a part until you get it just like you want it, but it’s a little sterile,” he says. “I’m still from the old school. I like the bodies in the studio so we can feed off each other.”

Bell says the union has helped him tremendously throughout his career. “And they are still fighting,” he says. “Technology has created some new problems for us to get paid. And the new generation thinks it should all be free. But creators have to make a living. We need that body to speak for us. The union kind of levels the playing field a little bit.”

Coming back to the Stax label brought back memories from the early days of Bell’s career. Somewhat of an oasis in the 1960s, Bell recalls that race and gender didn’t enter into the mix at Stax. “We accepted a person for what they could bring to the table in terms of creativity and musicianship,” he says.

Touring with Stax Revues in the early ’60s, the interracial tour was unusual. “We were like 50/50 with the band and the artists,” says Bell. “We caught a lot of flack, but we tore down a lot of barriers because we were a tight-knit organization. If we stopped somewhere to have lunch and they would not accept blacks in the restaurant, none of us went in.”

“We would go to little towns where it was horrible to even stop for gas,” he says. “We set our parameters. Some cities wanted to have two performances for blacks and whites and we insisted on one performance for everybody. They would put the blacks upstairs and whites downstairs, but at least they were all in the same building.”

The 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis brought the racial unrest from the rest of the country to the forefront. Behind the walls of Stax the music continued under the shadow of grief.

“Sadness hovered over the studio, over the city. We had also just lost Otis Redding [in a plane crash],” Bell recalls. “Outside of the studio the whole atmosphere had changed. It was a bad scene for a while in Memphis. There was burning and looting and practically every building in the neighborhood was touched except for Stax. They had a reverence for us. We would walk the white participants out to their cars and say, ‘Hey guys, they are a part of us.’ They would back off.”

Other things had begun to change at Stax. Longtime distributor Atlantic Records had been sold to Warner Bros. in 1967. When Stewart was unable to reach a distribution deal with Warner Bros., the company refused to return Stax’s master tapes.

When Estelle Axton left in 1969, new vice president Al Bell began rebuilding the catalog, recording 30 singles and 27 albums in eight months. Though it was a period of some success, the atmosphere had changed. “Our tight-knit family became a corporate structure,” recalls William Bell. “Some of the musicians were unhappy. Booker moved to L.A. and I moved to Atlanta.”

“But that’s not why it went under,” he continues. “It was systematically put out of business. It was one of the largest black-owned corporate structures; the year before it filed for bankruptcy it cleared more than $20 million in sales.” The company’s cash flow was affected by its inability to distribute the hit records it was recording, then the minute the company couldn’t pay its debts it was foreclosed upon. The unpaid debt totaled just $1,900 when the bank took everything in December 1975 and escorted the owners out at gunpoint.

“A lot of us artists hung in there until the very last, in lieu of getting our royalties. We wanted Stax to pull out of that downward spiral. Some artists lost homes and cars when it folded. Thank goodness I was in the creative end of it as well, so I could still write and produce for other labels,” says Bell who was so disenchanted with the music industry that he took up acting.

Bell never thought he would record for Stax again. But when Concord Records bought the label in 2004, it began reissuing the classics, as well as creating new records with Stax artists.

Despite the building being torn down in 1989, 926 East McLemore Avenue also saw a rebirth thanks to Bell and other former Stax musicians. “It was a vacant lot with beer bottles thrown about,” he says. “It was heartbreaking after we had spent 14 years, almost 24 hours a day, on that corner.” They just hoped to erect a monument, but once they got the ball rolling through fundraising concerts, community leaders and philanthropists also stepped in and together they formed the Soulsville Foundation.

They unearthed the original blueprints for the building and erected an exact replica, founding the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in 2003. Later they created the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School, which together cover a whole city block. The current generation of talented Memphis children now has a place to go to learn a craft just as Bell had in his youth.

Bell’s dedication to the next generation doesn’t end there. He is politically active, lobbying for music education through Grammys on the Hill.

He, along with a number of other Memphis artists, including Bobby Rush, Mavis Staples, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Ben Cauley, and Charlie Musselwhite, shared their music legacy through the Take Me to the River film, tour, and an educational curriculum developed through Berklee College of Music. The 2014 documentary (available on Netflix) brought together iconic Memphis musicians, popular young musicians, and students to create music.

“We are working with a lot of organizations promoting and preserving the legacy and teaching the origin of the music. Kids have gotten into sampling so much. We are trying to teach them how to create their own sound,” says Bell, who continues to tour with Take Me to the River. “Teach kids the ground roots of the development of the music, and not only from the ’60s, but all the way back so they can get a good foundation. Once the get a good foundation, they can survive in it.”

Of the proceeds from the film, 75% goes to the Soulsville Foundation and organizations that support musician well-being.

Bell says they are now working on Take Me to the River Part 2 with New Orleans’ musicians. He is also active with the Notes for Notes, which gives kids access to instruments, recording studios, and mentors/educators to teach them about the music business.