Tag Archives: jazz

all singing

All Singing: The Elise Witt Songbook

all singing

Swiss-born, Atlanta-based singer, composer, educator Elise Witt, a member of Local 1000 (non-geographic), has released a book of 58 original songs arranged for solo and community singing. From folk ballads and jazz vocalizes to rounds and singalongs, Elise’s music spans many styles and continents, and includes her Polyrhythmic Multi-lingual Musical Collages. Available in print and digital.

by Elise Witt, www.EliseWitt.com.

Paul Preston

Reflections on a Lifetime of Music

On Sunday, October 8, The Queen City Jass Society (QCJS) in Buffalo, NY, honored clarinetist, saxophonist, and member of Local 92 (Buffalo, NY) Paul Preston for his unparalleled achievements, unwavering dedication, and innumerable contributions to the Traditional Jazz scene in Western New York (WNY). As an interviewer, musician, band member, and, most importantly, friend of Paul, I could not agree more with that description.
Growing up as a trumpet player in WNY who loved Dixieland Music, I sought out as much live Traditional Jazz as possible. It wasn’t long before I was introduced to the premiere Dixieland Band in Buffalo, The Bar-room Buzzards. This was in the mid 70s, and I remember sitting in awe at their performances. I didn’t personally meet Paul Preston until the late 90s, when I was called to substitute in his band. I was awestruck as Paul floated seamlessly from measure to measure and song to song; every note perfectly placed in musical phrases that were nothing short of perfection. I held my own (barely) on that first gig and went home to practice, just in case I got another call. Well, in the music business as in life, situations change, and I did get another call.

Lewis D. Custode, Jr., (left) and Paul Preston at an October tribute concert
celebrating Preston’s contributions to the Western New York trad-jazz scene.

From 2004 to 2005, Paul and I subbed in each other’s bands and played together almost weekly. During the summer of 2005, Paul offered me the trumpet seat in the Bar-room Buzzards, which I humbly accepted. I subsequently retired my band, The Bourbon Street Brass, and began a personal and professional relationship with him that lasts to this day.
In July 2019, as we sat in Paul’s living room sipping our beers and reminiscing about music and life in general, Paul says, “The music business isn’t what it used to be. Back when Jim [Koteras] and I broke away from Eli Konikoff’s Yankee Six, there was plenty of work to go around. Don’t get me wrong, we worked hard at getting gigs and we got a lot of them, but it’s a different story today.” Taking a sip of beer and sitting back in his chair, Paul continued: “Demographics are against us and the younger generation isn’t listening to Dixieland. There’s just not that much demand for Traditional Jazz anymore; I’m thankful for our club [QCJS] and that there’s someplace for bands to play at least once a month.”
It isn’t a stretch to say that Paul is intimately connected to the Queen City Jass Society. Not only was he a founding Charter Member, he also served as the chairman of the first three QCJS Jazz Festivals. Now fully retired from performing, Paul still speaks with pride when referring to the Bar-room Buzzards, which he started with lifelong friend and partner Jim Koteras. “When Jim and I broke away from Eli, everybody thought we were crazy and they would never hear from us again. … We just had this idea of a quartet, and tried out a number of musicians in the early days of the band,” he says.
The group began to take shape in 1965, and the first official quartet began in 1966 with Preston (clarinet/vocals), Koteras (trumpet/vocals), Danny McCue (banjo/guitar) and Craig Hodnett (tuba/bass). Bands are musical and artistic organizations that operate under the characteristics of businesses and have dynamics similar to families: not static and ever evolving. Such was the case with the Bar-room Buzzards, as personnel and the group’s musical approach and style evolved as the band matured. The band has endured more than 50 years, and was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame in 2002.
Over a lifetime of performing Traditional Jazz, which was his music of choice, Paul Preston set the bar extremely high. He literally brought Dixieland music to the forefront in Buffalo and inspired a generation of younger musicians to carry on that musical tradition. Paul’s unwavering dedication to his art established him as the unparalleled “reed-man” in all of WNY for Traditional Jazz, and although retired, he is still revered among his peers today.
When looking at all that he has accomplished, Paul Preston also has done something very few musicians (if any) can claim: he kept the same band working for over 50 years. This, in itself, is nothing short of remarkable.
In a recent conversation, someone referred to Paul Preston as “a treasure.” I couldn’t agree more.

Jazz Suite for Flute Quartet

This three-movement work features different jazz styles in each movement. It opens with the up-tempo swing tune “Two-Hand Hot!” featuring intertwining solo lines for the entire quartet. “KB Blues” is a medium tempo blues piece with a classic style blues bass line and groovin’ melody with an improvised solo section for flute. The closing movement, “Irregular Swing,” is a fast swing tune reminiscent of bebop classics, but with changing time signatures that keep the players and audience on their toes. 

Jazz Suite for Flute Quartet, by Peter Senchuk, Forest Glade Music

Lennie Cuje

The Freedom to Play: How Jazz Saved Lennie Cuje

Lennie Cuje has been a fixture on the jazz scene for more than 60 years. A Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) member since the 1950s, the celebrated vibist has experienced life on a grand scale—in music, in war, and in two homelands.

Born in 1933 in Giessen, Germany, (40 miles north of Frankfurt)  Cuje grew up during the Nazi regime. He was enrolled in an elite music school at nine years old. Like all German boys, it was compulsory to join the Hitler Youth, making the pledge, he says, “‘born to die for Germany.’”

Near the end of WWII, when there was a shortage of soldiers, he and other 12-year-old boys were drafted by the SS to train on MG-42 machine guns. His conductor father got into trouble with the Nazis for refusing to play preferred music of the regime and was exiled to the front to drive a truck. After his school and city were bombed out, the family was evacuated from Frankfurt and became separated. Cuje and his classmate and friend Ulrich found themselves in the hands of the French. They were spared internment in POW camps and found refuge at a local convent to live out the remainder of the war.

The story of the boys’ journey in 1945 across Europe and a decimated Germany in search of their mothers is the subject of a play that recently aired on Hessian Radio Frankfurt and Kultur Radio Berlin. Ulrich, who made a career as an actor and in radio back in Germany, was instrumental in compiling their story, which has aired in Germany four times already in the last year. A recurring theme in the play is freedom, as Cuje explains. “We went to sleep in a barn and were surprised to wake up to realize that we were still free.”

At the end of the war, Cuje was going through an American sentry post when he first heard jazz. “I heard that strange music in the guard house, which I thought was African. It was exciting; it just grabbed me,” he says. The tune that enthralled him—which would define the rest of his life—was Lionel Hampton’s “Flying Home.”

Back in Frankfurt, his family subsisted on meager rations. He traded on the black market to provide for them. Cuje says, “The hunger, poverty, coldness, it was a part of our life. The currency was cigarettes.”

When Cuje immigrated to the States in 1950, he was already well versed in American jazz standards, owing to the jazz shows on American Armed Forces Radio. He says, too, that he formed the first German baseball team, the Frankfurt Juniors. “Baseball and jazz—that was going to be my life.”

With the support of his aunt who had been in the US since the 1930s, he embraced everything American. He was drafted into the Air Force in 1952, later attending East Tennessee University to continue his music studies. He learned to be American, Cuje says, “penny loafers and all.”

“When I left Germany, I left everything German behind,” he says. “The way they taught it, Germany was the only country that could save the world. Reality for me was a lie. By 1945, when it all collapsed, my friend Uli, he knows. Suddenly, we realized we’d been lied to for the first 12 years of our lives. I didn’t want to have much to do with Germany. As a Hitler youth, I had to take an oath to die for the swastika. And here, in the air force—I had to swear to two flags. It makes you think about a lot of things.”

“Jazz was like medicine for the mind and it brought a feeling of freedom. Baseball had that same feeling—freedom!” His late wife, Reneé, a professor of German at American University, convinced him that he needed to revisit his past in a profound way. She encouraged him to re-establish his Frankfurt school connections.

In 2016, after 71 years, Cuje and his old friend, Uli, were reunited. “We always wondered whether the other made it out alive. When Uli found out I played the vibraphone, he was amazed. Uli said, ‘My god, Lennie Cuje is a known jazz musician in America.’”

Cuje began speaking German with his wife again, which he had not done in many years, and it helped him reconcile past and present. “It brought peace to me. It was important for my musical career. I was able to put the two Lennies together,” he says. “That’s when I started my career all over again, from the beginning.”

When he began playing in the 1950s, Cuje was one of the few white players on the U Street corridor of Washington, DC, part of the Chitlin’ Circuit. He says, “I had all black cats in my band so I played on the black scale, which was less than the white union. We’d go from one juke joint to another and pass the hat. My nickname was ‘snowflake’,” he laughs, adding, “Those were glorious days for me.”

In 1960, he joined the Buck Clarke Band with Charlie Hampton, Duane Alston, and Billy Hart and recorded with Clarke for Argo Records. At the height of the avant-garde movement in 1963, like many musicians, he made an exodus, anxious to join leading players like Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and especially John Coltrane in New York City. He landed his first gig with Dave Figg and Paul Bley, whom Cuje knew from DC, and studied with renowned vibists Warren Chiasson of Local 802 (New York City) and Dave Pike. He played gigs with David Amram of Local 1000 (Nongeographic), Philly Joe Jones (Miles Davis’s drummer), and Larry Coryell.

Later, back in Arlington, in 1983, he began a 10-year engagement at DC’s famous One Step Down with Nasar Abadey of Local 161-710 and at Baltimore’s Harbor Court Hotel with Lou Rainone for 20 years. Spike Wilner of Smalls Jazz Club in New York City became a good friend and frequent collaborator and even now, on occasion, he plays vibes with Chuck Redd, with whom he’s performed over the last 30 years.

In 2000, Cuje’s artistic vision took him in another direction. After Cuje’s aunt, Magdalena Schoch, died, he found poems and a handwritten manuscript of music in the family’s basement, which were composed by Albrecht Mendelssohn Bartholdy (grandson of composer Felix Mendelssohn) and dedicated to Cuje’s Aunt Lena.

Cuje explains that she was Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s protégé. “It was a love affair that never was. They were partners who formed the first German international law office in the late 1920s. She was a professor at Hamburg University until 1934, when Mendelssohn Bartholdy—a scholar and advocate for peace—fled Nazi Germany for England. He died there in 1936, and the Nazis warned that if Lena attended the funeral, she’d lose everything.

With Reneé’s help he arranged the music titled “Lieder for Lena,” which premiered in West Berlin’s Mendelssohn House. “We decided to bring it to life in honor of my aunt who brought me to this country so I could live my dream,” says Cuje.

At 85 years old, Cuje calls himself a “civilian.” He’s retired the tux, but plays local gigs and occasionally when his old friend Spike Wilner comes to town. Cuje has come full circle, embracing everything American, German, and jazz.

His favorite baseball team is the Yankees. “I love to see a good baseball game,” he says. “It’s like jazz, you’ve got the pitcher and the batter and when that ball hits the wood, everything goes into action, like a band. It’s wonderful.”

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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Creating a Bridge to Improvisation

Krista Seddon of Local 92 (Buffalo, NY) is a pianist and composer whose modern arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ “Lullaby” was selected for Buffalo’s new John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, which opened in November. The hospital launched a contest for a new rendition of the old masterpiece, which is heard each time a baby is born. Her arrangement has a distinctively jazzy feel. “My objective was to take something so pure and beautiful as the Brahms’ ‘Lullaby,’ and respecting it fully, bring it into the 21st century,” she says. “It was a challenge.”


Krista Seddon’s arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ “Lullaby” was selected as the official recording for the maternity floor at Buffalo’s new Oishei Children’s Hospital. She is a member of Local 92 (Buffalo, NY).

A classically trained pianist with degrees from The New England Conservatory and the University of North Texas, Seddon has had a long affiliation with the Buffalo Philharmonic that includes recordings and solo performances. The Director of Ensembles at the historic Trinity Episcopal Church of Buffalo, Seddon regularly conducts dual lecture performances at schools and universities. In addition, she often collaborates with Alan Broadbent and Robert Nowak, members of Local 802 (New York City), and previously, she transcribed works for the late jazz pianist Marian McPartland.

Next year, in honor of what would have been McPartland’s 100th birthday, Seddon plans a tribute lecture tour performing McPartland’s signature portraits of artists and discussing their 10-year collaboration. Seddon’s work with McPartland included transcribing the portaits.

“I’ve always believed in totality, a universality of music. It’s a good thing for musicians to be able to improvise—and there are different ways to go about it, not only through standards, but through composing. That is Marian’s influence on me,” she says.

“Jazz is the thing that encouraged me to compose,” Seddon says, “It doesn’t have to be large scale or follow strict rules. In jazz, we’re composing more to improvise.” In her own music portrait series, Seddon takes the audiences on a journey into the lives and work of the world’s major composers, exploring the connections between classical music and jazz.

Great jazz musicians—McPartland, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, and Duke Ellington—drew heavily on classical music, she says. “Historically, in classical and Baroque—they all improvised, especially in the Baroque era. Improvisation was required, if you were to be considered a musician of any kind.”

Ideally, Seddon says, jazz techniques to support classical players could be taught and incorporated into university music departments. “I use jazz extensively,” she says. “For example, taking a big classical composition and making it into a lead sheet with just melody and chords. Instead of 20 pages of complicated music, you can boil it down to its essence. It’s the difference between reciting and telling a story.”

The strict theoretical confines of classical music restrict improvisation. She says, “I like to decode that for people, especially for classical musicians because we have so much in our toolbox. It’s a natural progression—to grow out of the classical training and take it to other places.”

There are other benefits to learning improvisation skills. Seddon explains, “If during a classical performance, a musician gets off track somehow, instead of crashing and burning, with some improvisation techniques, there is space to find your way back. Jazz teaches us to get real with the music.”

“Classical musicians tell me, ‘I wish I could improvise. Would you teach me?’ Music of the day should be flexible, improvised over, and shared with people. It’s how I live my life. I hope to teach that and bring it to a wider  audience,” she says.

Seddon is in process of recording a CD of mainly original compositions.

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Study Finds Jazz Musicians Have Unique Response to Unexpected Events

Wesleyan University Scientists used electroencephalography to examine the differences in the brain activity of classical and jazz musicians during unexpected chord progressions. The study, published in the journal, Brain and Cognition, included 12 jazz musicians (with improvisation training), 12 classical musicians (without improvisation training), and 12 non-musicians, observing them while they listened to a series of chord progressions. Some progressions were typical of western music and others were unexpected progressions. Jazz musicians had a different response to the unexpected progressions that demonstrated increased perceptual sensitivity to unexpected stimuli along with an increased engagement with unexpected events.

Ray Reed Jazz Originals

Ray Reed Jazz Originals: 45 Great Compositions by The Jazz Master

Ray Reed Jazz OriginalsRay Reed was a first call, woodwind multi-instrumentalist who performed on hundreds of jazz recordings over a 40-plus year career, including with Stan Kenton, Johnny Mandel, Bill Holman, and Frank Zappa orchestras. He also worked with Med Flory’s Grammy-winning Super Sax. Over his career Reed composed more than 100 jazz tunes. This book includes 43 of his better known compositions, as well as a comprehensive biography of Reed. It is available with or without a CD with printable pdf lead sheets in concert, Bb, and Eb keys.

Ray Reed Jazz Originals: 45 Great Compositions by the Jazz Master,
by Bob Irvine, Infinity Publishing, www.buybooksontheweb.com.

Jazz in Italy

Bebop, Swing, and Bella Music: Jazz and the Italian American Experience

Jazz in ItalyThis book explores the contributions that Americans of Italian descent have made to jazz. It includes profiles of major composers, musicians, and singers, and overviews of minor figures. Early chapters are dedicated to single players, from Louis Prima to Frank Sinatra to Bucky Pizzarelli. Other sections discuss jazz in Italy and women of jazz. The book also explores the discrimination and stereotyping faced by Italian immigrants in their efforts to assimilate into American culture.

Bebop, Swing, and Bella Musica: Jazz and the Italian American Experience, by Bill Dal Cerro and David Anthony Witter, Bella Musica Publishing, www.italiansinjazz.com.

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.