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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.

Daryl Davis: A Life Driven by Harmony, On Stage and Off

When Daryl Davis of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) was 15, he did what some people say you should never to do: he met his hero after sneaking backstage at a Chuck Berry concert.

Davis was always enamored with the blues and early rock ‘n’ roll icons, especially Berry. A child to two parents in the Foreign Service, he experienced the cultural lag of listening to international radio. “While my peers were growing up with Frankie Avalon and the Beach Boys, I was hearing Elvis Presley [and] Chuck Berry. I was kind of an anomaly when I would come back,” says Davis.

A self-taught guitarist and pianist, Davis copied the piano playing from Berry’s songs on the radio. He studied music in the library for hours, and sat in with local bands at gigs. When considering a career path in his junior year, Davis looked to Berry. What Davis really admired was how Berry touched people and brought them joy and happiness. “I decided that’s what I want to do,” says Davis. After his senior year, he enrolled in Howard University to study music.

Though his dream of someday playing with Berry seemed improbable, Davis began writing him letters. “I told him I was learning to play piano like Johnnie Johnson and Pinetop Perkins; I told him everything about me,” says Davis. Berry never wrote back until Davis’s 18th birthday when he got a message from Berry and a poster of the rock icon.

Pianist, author, and lecturer Daryl Davis of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) has built his life around the promotion of racial and musical harmony.

Shortly after graduating from Howard, Davis joined the AFM and convinced a promoter to let him play piano and hire the backing band for a Baltimore Chuck Berry concert in 1981. At age 22, Davis achieved his dream.

“I went to his dressing room [before the show] and asked, ‘Is there anything in particular you want me to do on the piano’ and he said, ‘Well, you wrote in your letters you’ve been playing like Johnnie Johnson and Pinetop Perkins. Do that,’” recalls Davis.

From that day, Berry became a mentor and friend. Eventually, Davis acted as bandleader for Berry’s East Coast shows. “I learned a great deal, not only about music, but about life,” says Davis. “He was a shrewd businessman and I avoided some of the pitfalls that a lot of musicians fall into. He spent a lot of time with me and that’s certainly shaped who I am today.”

Thanks in part to that wisdom, Davis built an impressive career as a respected boogie-woogie and blues pianist. He has played with the biggest names in rock ‘n’ roll and blues, including B.B. King, Bo Didley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Percy Sledge. He was heralded by mentors Johnnie Johnson and Pinetop Perkins for his ability to master a style of music popularized a generation before he was born.

Another key to his success was his union membership. “It’s benefitted me by being around other professional musicians—networking, getting legal advice, and contract advice. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, serious musicians that I can call and rely upon,” he says. “It’s also a comfort knowing that there is a union that will fight for me and provide me things that I need to further my career.”

Davis also acts as artistic director for multiple groups across the country. When he’s not working, he mentors young musicians in the Artist in Residency (AIR) program at the Strathmore Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. The program teaches them about the business, including self-promotion, contracts, and booking agents.

Davis says it’s a way to give back. “[My mentors] could have easily said, ‘Don’t bother me; go learn somewhere else.’ But they sat down and showed me stuff,” he says, “and that inspires me to do the same thing for young musicians who are in the place I was some 55 years ago.”

To Davis, it means a great deal to the pass down the legacy of the music as well. Last year, he was asked to write and produce a play about the history of the blues to be shown to all fifth graders from Montgomery County School District in Maryland. “It’s important to learn the history of American music, and the blues is definitely underrated and under-taught, especially in elementary schools,” he says. “[Black musicians] have always been under-credited with the musical contributions we have made to this country. Almost every form of American music has some roots in blues, which was born out of slavery,” says Davis.

The history of blues and its roots in slavery are not overlooked when Davis talks about his decades-long mission to promote racial harmony, which has brought him face to face with white supremacists. It all began following a gig at an all-white country bar. A man came up to Davis and said that this was the first time he’d ever heard a black man play like Jerry Lee Lewis.

“He invited me to his table to have a drink,” Davis says, who explained to the man that the roots of Lewis’s music were black musicians. “The man said it was the first time he ever sat down and had a drink with a black man. I was naïve, so I kept asking why. He told me, ‘I’m a member of the Ku Klux Klan,’ and when I started laughing, he produced his membership card.”

This encounter sparked Davis to seek the answer to a question that had been on his mind since childhood: How could you hate me, without even knowing me? Davis figured the best way to answer that was to get face-to-face with Klansmen and ask. He has spent around 30 years studying the Klan, attending rallies, and setting up surprise meetings with Klan leaders who were unaware of his skin color.

Not every interaction was as amiable as sharing a drink. He calls to mind an incident at a courthouse where a group of Klansmen and women assaulted him before law enforcement intervened. Eventually he published the book Klan-Destine Relationships about his experiences.

However, Davis was welcomed by many Klansmen, in part through his music. He even played piano at a Klan funeral for Frank Ancona, former Imperial Wizard of the Traditionalist Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, whom he considered a friend. Davis says that 200 Klansmen have given up their robes after talking to him.

Though Davis is an in-demand lecturer on race relations, he has also faced backlash from those who believe his methods are “politically incorrect.” “People will criticize me and call me a sellout. It’s not that I support [racist] ideology. I support people’s right to speak their mind. I’m willing to sit down and listen to them and talk,” Davis says.

He believes dialogue is essential to improving modern race relations; there is no other choice. “If you and I agree racism is bad, then we don’t accomplish anything by talking to each other. We have to go out and find those that disagree with us,” he says.

For Davis, all his efforts on stage and off come down to the pursuit of harmony. “It is my job as a band leader to bring harmony among the voices on my stage,” he says. “When I step off the bandstand, I maintain that concept. I want to bring harmony among the people in the society that I want to live in.”


How do you connect with your community? Is there a cause that you support? Tell us about it. Please write to International Musician managing editor at: cyurco@sfm.org


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.

How do you connect with your community? Is there a cause that you support? Tell us about it. Please write to International Musician managing editor at: cyurco@sfm.org

Unknown Hinson

Unknown Hinson Leaves a Mark with Persona and “Chart Toppin’ Hits”

Unknown Hinson

Stuart D. Baker of Local 342 (Charlotte, NC) performs rockabilly and blues tunes onstage as his redneck, Dracula-inspired persona, Unknown Hinson.

The story of guitarist and performer Unknown Hinson is closer to rockabilly myth than biography. His wild, womanizing, honky-tonk persona has been carefully crafted by Stuart Daniel Baker of Local 342 (Charlotte, NC), a music teacher and studio musician.

Unknown Hinson was first conceived by Baker as a character for the Charlotte, Virginia, public access TV show, The Wild, Wild South. With his creative partner Don Swan, Baker would perform politically incorrect songs and skits and feature Hinson’s music videos. Wild, Wild South came to an abrupt end in 1995 when Swan, who played Rebel Helms on the show, passed away. Baker then spun off Wild, Wild South into the Unknown Hinson Show, which found success, winning Creative Loafing’s “Best Of” poll for Best Public-Access Television Show four years in a row.

Baker’s Hinson persona is a legendary oddball outlaw. The story goes, Hinson learned one chord on the guitar from his mother who mysteriously disappeared when he was 10, leaving him orphaned. His father—and namesake—was “unknown.” Hinson went to work for a traveling carnival, playing the guitar and working as a sideshow act biting the heads off live chickens.

In another chapter in Unknown Hinson’s legend, in 1963, at age 21, he was framed for the murder of his boss at the carnival. Sentenced to 30 years in the Illinois State Penitentiary, he spent most of his time “pickin’” guitar and growing his knowledge on the instrument by listening to the radio in prison. Rumors also persist that he is a 400-year-old vampire.

“If people believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, or call me a vampire, I’m going to let ’em. It doesn’t bother me none. I’m just going to go out and put on a good show for ’em,” says Baker, in character, as Hinson.

Rarely does Baker appear out of character. Baker grew up in a musical family in North Carolina. His father was a musician who taught him to hold a guitar right-handed, even though Baker is left-handed. He also played the drums in a local band he started with his brothers.

Baker decided to move to New York City in 1979. He found the “studio racket” as he put it to be a “dog eat dog” world. “I learned a lot but everything I was making was going to rent and food,” says Baker. After two years of session work, subbing on guitar for bands, and even putting together his own group, Baker returned south. During the day, he would do more session work on the guitar and bass. He began moonlighting in the house band of a honky-tonk bar in Darlington, South Carolina. This is where Unknown Hinson began to materialize.

“I didn’t realize what I was doing in a honky-tonk full of drunks six nights a week. I told myself ‘well, what you were doing then was R&D for Unknown Hinson,’” Baker explains.

Baker also found inspiration for Hinson from his childhood. “Any small southern town is going to have interesting, funny characters,” he says.

In 1999, Baker moved away from the Unknown Hinson Show, taking his act on the road. He started recording albums of the songs he performed on the show. He soon built a cult fan base performing as Hinson with songs like “Unlock This Bathroom Door” and his signature appearance characterized by a tuxedo, silk bow tie, and jet black hair slicked into a high widow’s peak. Baker based this look on a combination of the redneck persona and his fondness for old horror film icons like Frankenstein and Dracula.

Baker’s break from television didn’t last long. He has been the voice of Squidbillies—a cartoon that pokes fun at southern hillbilly stereotypes—as backwoods patriarch Early Cuyler for the past 10 seasons and he is currently working the 11th.

Not surprisingly, admiration for the actor and musician in the industry is expressed in unconventional ways. The grandson of Hank Williams Sr., Hank III, has a tattoo of Hinson on his bicep, which Baker considers “an honor.”

While he’s known for his comedic and outrageous character performances, Baker proves he has chops and has been a frequent touring partner of Reverend Horton Heat and also as a bassist with Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters. Baker has earned accolades and professional recognition, including the Independent Music Awards and Vox Pop vote for Best Alternative Country Song for “Torture Town” in 2009, and the Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Male Outlaw in 2014.

After more than a decade of performing, Baker announced his retirement from touring in late 2012. Shortly thereafter, his wife and manager, Margo Baker, lost her battle with cancer. That fall, he began touring again. “It’s what I do. You’ve got to do something to justify your life,” Baker says. “I didn’t want to sit on the couch all day, watch television. I’m about making music and playing for people.”

Because of his larger-than-life appearance and colorful lyrics, Baker’s character is often pegged as a comedy act, a designation he thinks shortchanges his talent.

“A lot of people pin me as just a ‘hee-haw act,’ but I try to have quality music,” he says. “I’m known as much, if not more, for my guitar playing than my songwriting.” In the end, Baker seems indifferent to all labels, vampire or comedian, concentrating instead on what he does best: pleasing the crowd.

“They can make of it what they will, I’m still going to play the same for a crowd of 300 or a crowd of 3,000,” he says.

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.

Reggie Young

American Original: The Storied Career of Reggie Young

Reggie Young

Reggie Young of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) with his 1957 Stratocaster at Jackson Highway Studio, Florence, Alabama.

Few session musicians can lay claim to the deep roots of Reggie Young. Among guitarists, he is revered. His instinct for phrasing has consistently rendered artful licks mimicked by hundreds of other players. The now 80-year-old musician of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) crafted some of the most famous guitar riffs in history. Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street,” Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Dusty Springfield’s classic “Son of a Preacher Man,” and Elvis Presley’s comeback hit, “Suspicious Minds.” The list goes on.

In the 1960s and early 1970s Young and the rhythm ensemble known as the Memphis Boys were at the heart of the American Sound Studio at 827 Thomas Street in Memphis. What followed in that five-year period, between 1967 and 1972, was an unparalleled run of more than 120 Top 40 hits.

“We thought it was normal,” Young says, “but it was extraordinary. The talent of everybody combined contributed to the success.” Session work would take Young from Memphis to Nashville and corridors along the way at FAME Studio, Muscle Shoals Records, Stax Records, and Royal Studios. The work led to major tours around the country and Europe and as an opening act, witnessing Beatlemania. “I feel like I was in the middle of the peak of the session world as a studio player.” Of those days, he says, “It was rewarding. There was a lot of camaraderie.”

The story of Reggie Young may well be the story of Southern soul music. He was born in Caruthersville, Missouri, in 1936, and raised in Osceola, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee. His father played Hawaiian guitar—old music like “Sweet Lelani,” Young recalls—and bought him a National flat top when he was 14 years old. Young was fueled by the Delta blues, as well as Django Reinhardt and B.B. King. Most of his musical education came by way of radio, inspired by the Chet Atkins and Jerry Byrd show, Two Guitars, which aired on the now famous WSM radio out of Nashville.

By 1955, Young got his first break with Eddie Bond and the Stompers, which recorded the rockabilly song, “Rockin’ Daddy.” The song charted quickly and Mercury Records signed the band to a deal. A local disc jockey promoting tours hired them to join a tour that included Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton, and Roy Orbison.

In 1959, Young was working at Royal Studios cutting records, expanding his range with saxophonist Ace Cannon, trumpeter and bandleader Willie Mitchell, and drummer Al Jackson. Young wrote several instrumentals with Mitchell, who would later produce Al Green’s most successful albums. Young recalls playing the Plantation Inn in West Memphis with B.B. King’s band. “A white guy couldn’t sit in with that band. The crowd wouldn’t go for it. So, I’d do it, but I’d be behind the curtain,” he says.

Young says, “You could sell instrumentals in those days.” He was just practicing on his old ’59 Gibson when, he says, “I tuned the guitar down two whole steps, striking the loose strings with a pencil in a rocking rhythm. The strings were heavier back then and it sounded real good when I played a shuffle beat.” It was an old jazz trick the drummer would use with his sticks on the upright bass. The record was signed and the tune “Smokie Part 2” became the number one R&B hit and rose to number 17 on the pop charts. Instrumentals would set the standard for the label for several years and Billboard voted Bill Black’s Combo the number one instrumental band from 1960 to 1962.

Young was drafted into the Army in 1960 and served for almost two years at Kagnew Station in Ethiopia. When he returned, “Smokie” was still on the charts. Fortunately, Young says, “The studio gave us a choice of paying us scale or letting us have a piece of the record. We all took a cut except for the saxophone player. He got scale—$41.25—and we made a lot of money.”

In between sessions, Young often traveled to New York City to work for Atlantic Records, adding guitar to releases by R&B greats Don Covay and Solomon Burke. Because of their success putting out smash hits, Bill Black’s Combo got an offer to be an opening act for the first American tour of The Beatles. Thirty days in the states and 30 days in Europe. It was in 1964 and “A Hard Day’s Night” was a hit.

At the time, Young says, “The union had a trade agreement with England and we were the trade band for The Beatles. In Europe, we backed up The Ronettes, who had the hit, ‘Be My Baby.’ Lulu was there, and The Kinks.” The tour yielded great music, long jam sessions, and new musical partnerships. Young became good friends with George Harrison. On the second leg of the tour, he met a 20-something Eric Clapton (then a member of the Yardbirds). “He was a blues player and I was too, so we hit it off pretty good. We learned from each other,” Young says.

In 1967, Young joined the house band of guitarist and producer Chips Moman (of Stax Records fame) as part of The Memphis Boys. at American Sound Studio. With Young on guitar and fellow Local 257 members Gene Chrisman on drums, Bobby Wood and Bobby Emmons on piano and organ, and Mike Leech and Tommy Cogbill alternating on bass, they ushered in waves of rock and roll, soul, and early R&B. In fact, it was one of the few studio bands at the time to play both pop music and R&B.

Many musical collaborations would change, seemingly overnight, when Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis April 4, 1968, according to Young. Big acts, like Aretha Franklin, canceled bookings at American Sound Studio and worse—although musicians had long integrated—Young felt in the aftermath, even good friends became distant.

Hi Records and American Sound Studio came to an end, and Young moved on to Nashville in 1972, where he quickly became an integral member of the Nashville studio scene, playing with J. J. Cale, Cat Stevens, George Strait of Local 433 (Austin, TX), Paul Simon of Local 802 (New York City), and Merle Haggard, among others. In 2014, Young contributed to the album, The Breeze: An Appreciation of J. J. Cale, produced by Eric Clapton and Simon Climie.

In the mid 1980s, Young hit the road with The Highway Men, which comprised Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson of Local 433, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson of Local 257. He says, “It scared me at first to leave my main job, doing studio work. But we’d go out in fall and springtime, all over the world for five years.” Young remembers each star trying to outdo the other on stage at night. He says, “Everybody had a bus. It looked like the Ringling Bros. Circus.”

Of his distinctive sound, his wife, Jenny—a classically trained cellist and member of Local 257—says, “It’s his tone; even at 80, he has beautiful tone.” Young adds, “I was never trying to be somebody else.” Eric Clapton famously singled out Young in his autobiography as one of the best guitar players he’d ever heard.

Earlier this year, the musician who was responsible for scores of hits by other artists finally recorded his first solo record, Forever Young. In his golden years, the master of session work finally found time to record his own solos. Everyone who has heard the classic songs he made famous over a 60-year career will recognize the soulful, lyrical strains of Young’s genius.

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.”

James Francies

Young Pianist, James Francies, Inspired by Range of Influences

James FranciesTwenty-one-year-old James Francies of Local 65-699 (Houston, TX), is not your typical college student. At the School of Jazz at The New School, where he studies jazz piano performance, he juggles course work with professional gigs, which these days include touring across Europe.

He’s already performed with heavy hitting Local 802 (New York City) members such as Joe Lovano, Houston Person, and Terrell Stafford. Later this summer, he’ll be working on his debut album with Blue Note Records—and simultaneously on a duo album with drummer Eric Harland.

When he was 15, Francies met drummer and fellow Houston native Chris Dave, who was impressed with the young pianist. When Francies moved to New York City, Dave recommended him for The Tonight Show band, The Roots, where Francies subs. From there, more doors opened and he started getting calls from people like Stefon Harris of Local 802. He’s played with the Thelonious Monk Institute All-Star Jazz Sextet, The
Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, and the Texas Music Educators Association’s All-State Jazz Ensemble.

In addition, Francies won the Ruth and Eli Nadel Scholarship Award at Stanford Jazz Workshop (2012-2013), earned a full scholarship to Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute in Saratoga Springs, New York, and was awarded the Moran Scholarship Award from pianist and 2010 MacArthur Fellow, Jason Moran of Local 802.

At 17, he was a recipient of the AFM’s President’s Youth Award. He’s played in the Grammy Jazz Session Combo, the Monterey Jazz Festival, Montreal Jazz Festival, at The Kennedy Center, and Jazz Standard in New York City.

Classically trained at the High School for Visual and Performing Arts in Houston, he says he got a taste of performing and traveling early on. “I’ve been surrounded by music my whole life. My mom played clarinet and my dad and grandmother sang in the choir,” Francies says.

Francies shares his accomplishments with everyone who has helped him over the years, from his parents, who encouraged him to immerse himself in the rich musical culture of Houston, to teachers, like Bobby Lyle who took him to the next level of improvisation. Francies says, “I thought I should join the union early. I’d be ready to get work and recording contracts through the union.”

His favorite composer is Igor Stravinsky, followed by Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, but his musical interests cross over into broader cultural expression. Francies is just as comfortable playing on Chance the Rapper’s Grammy Award-winning album, Coloring Book (where he played keyboards on the hit single “No Problem”). He’s worked with drummer and producer Questlove of The Roots on numerous projects, plus commercials, film scores, and singles for different artists. 

He views his own art through a global lens, drawing especially on the influence of black culture. “To be a true artist you need to reflect what’s going on now. For me, in different segments of a set, I’ll incorporate different speeches or words. I want it to be a learning experience for the audience. Beyond music, it’s how you carry yourself. Being a young black pianist who travels the world may not be typical. I try to show younger people that you can be something,” he explains.

A perfect opportunity arose for Francies when he collaborated with other musicians on the compilation album, Nina Revisited: A Tribute to Nina Simone—a contemporary and nostalgic record that echoes Simone’s complex place in the fight for social justice. The album accompanied the release of the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? Francies composed the opening track, the cheeky “My Mama Could Sing,” sung by Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone.

He’s been named twice to the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop poll for composition and jazz arrangement. He often takes inspiration from what he hears. Most interesting is what he sees when composing. Francies has a form of synesthesia, which according to experts, applies to only about 5% of the population. The most common form is grapheme-color synesthesia, in which people perceive individual letters of the alphabet and numbers to be shaded or tinged with a color. 

He explains, “When I hear a note or chord, I see colors with it. I’ll have different colors in different orders to arrange harmonies and melodies, or harmony superimposed on something else. It’s like a third eye. When I see it, it’s kind of like a flash from a camera inside my head.”

Now, he’s paying it forward. In between New York City and international tours, Francies returns to teach master classes at his old high school.

Paul Nowell

Paul Nowell: From Jazz to Hip-Hop, L.A.’s Trombone Evangelist

Paul NowellOne of the first gigs Paul Nowell landed just out of Berklee College in 2007 was a world tour with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The repertory was straight out of the swing era and he remembers that some of the sheet music was in Miller’s own handwriting. He says, “I thought, ‘Wow, this should be in a museum. Why am I on the bandstand reading this on a gig?’”

Nowell discovered the trombone in the fourth grade when his family moved to Cleveland, Ohio. “The band director told my parents my arms weren’t going to reach it. I didn’t care. When I found out the trombone could do the plunger sounds from Peanuts—the adult character voices—I thought, oh, that’s cool.”

By 17, he was making forays into the jazz scene, leading ensembles around downtown Cleveland. It was at one of those gigs that he met Ron Ellington Shy, the nephew of Duke Ellington—an unexpected opportunity that fortified his decision to make music a career. Two days later, Nowell was at Shy’s house working on music. He says, “I saw a lot of gold records! As a kid that was quite something to experience. He told me about playing with one of  my trombone idols, J. J. Johnson.” J. J. used to tell him that when you improvise, be aware of creating little melodies in your solo, rhythm first, then melody. If people can’t sing along you will lose them.

In the summer of 2008, right before he played the pit in the Broadway hit Memphis—which at the time was in a pre-Broadway run at the La Jolla Playhouse—he joined the union. He says he knew it was the right thing to do and it’s served him well. It’s about establishing lifelong relationships, Nowell says. “A lot of the people I went to school with are union members and we get the opportunity to work together now in the real world. It’s cool to see those relationships continue to develop.”

Now living in Los Angeles, 34-year-old Nowell of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), bills himself as “Paul the Trombonist” and is a much sought-out session player for big bands. He leads a three-piece horn section, directs his own jazz combo, and does solo gigs as a DJ trombonist. For the latter, he explains, “It’s me, keyboards, looping devices, and my trombone. I’ll cover pop tunes, some of the old standards. An older audience is exposed to new stuff and a younger audience gets to hear the classics for the first time. It’s like cross-pollinating so everyone can learn something new.”

Nowell has played with 10-time Grammy winning trumpeter and Local 47 member Arturo Sandoval (with whom he created a series of online videos) and considers his Berklee professor, the virtuosic Phil Wilson, a member of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA), his mentor. He says, “Phil saw what I was doing after I graduated and he came to LA to work with me to do a video series. It was an important moment; it opened a lot of doors because he’s so respected.”

Nowell promotes his instrument with rhapsodic fervor. “I’m like the Johnny Appleseed of the trombone,” he laughs, “I want people to know about this instrument, its history, and what it’s capable of.” Now his career is four-fold: educator, producer, freelancer, and Internet personality.

“If I’m playing in a great ensemble and everyone is in the zone—reading and blending, it’s fun. There’s another feeling when you’re playing in a small jazz group and you’re letting improvisation take over and it’s going great places and you’re free,” he says. “Then when I go and play in nightclubs and I’ve got all these people dancing, who might have never heard the trombone. They’re surprised by the music, that the trombone can have that affect. It’s very satisfying.”

Whether it’s presenting an Internet program, teaching a master class, or playing a music festival, Nowell immerses himself in knowledge of his instrument. For his video series on the history of jazz trombone, he transcribed 12-bar blues from 56 of the most influential trombonists up to the bebop era, breaking down each musician’s performance so the audience could hear the different styles.

“What I’ve noticed about the people I look up to is that they’re still students. They have that drive, that thirst to learn; they constantly want to get better. In the case of Arturo Sandoval, he’s like a kid when it comes to his excitement about music. It’s infectious. He gets excited about playing, learning new techniques, and studying. He’s still inspired, has that energy. It’s an important trait if you want to do this in your life.”

On his YouTube program, Bone Masters, Nowell plays host to famous trombonists he grew up listening to. You get a lesson in articulation from Local 47 member Dick Nash, different slide techniques with Alan Kaplan of Locals 7 and 47, and a languid duet with Bill Watrous. “I have an entire wall of every trombone player I ever heard,” Nowell says. “I’d study the earliest trombone players, the contemporary trombonists, and transcribe all of them, hundreds of players, from swing to bebop. I think it’s important to know where we came from in order to gain a new perspective and find your own voice.”

Nowell likes a full-bodied trombone sound, influenced by the tones of J. J. Johnson and Clifford Brown. He says, “I don’t like to overplay. I like to use space that people can latch onto so they can sing along to the melodies.”

Good lines are a priority for him. He says, “Chet Baker used to say, ‘If you have a good sound, everything you play will always sound good.’ So, for me, sound has been key in terms of what I want to convey on my instrument. And it supersedes any technical facility or trying to impress people. Phil Wilson, my mentor, always told me, ‘Paul, good lines impress. A good sound and good lines will resonate with the audience—none of that trickery. I remember I was in a lesson with him and I had learned a technique—doota lot dooo—and Phil said, ‘Knock that off.’”

He says, “It’s your trombone and the audience—just the trombone to get their attention. If you can do that with a single-line instrument, then when you get together with an ensemble, you’re going to be way stronger as a musician.”

Journey to the World is Nowell’s first record, a mix of electro soul, hip-hop, jazz, and melodic pop. He imagined it as an exploration of different galaxies. He says, “I wanted to keep the natural acoustic quality of the instrument without manipulation.” Having grown up in the electronic world, with hip-hop, dance music, and techno, he chose to fuse the sounds.

Earlier this summer, Nowell participated in the International Trombone Festival in Redlands, California, where he conducted clinics on improvisation, home recording studio setup, making videos, how music is organized, and solo playing.

joe ely

After Years on the Road, Joe Ely Takes a Literary Turn

joe ely

Writer, musician, and longtime Local 433 (Austin, TX) musician Joe Ely says the solidarity and protections of the AFM are important to him. He’s been inducted into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame, was named 2016 Texas State Musician, and most recently was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.

Joe Ely of Local 433 (Austin, TX) was recently inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters, which he says came as a shock, something he never saw coming. But it’s storytelling, after all, and no one tells a story like Ely. He’s been writing songs since he was a kid growing up in Amarillo, and later, in Lubbock. Ely says, “I was always listening to things, background noise, the wind blowing a branch against a screen window.”

Ely has kept journals for years and often sketches to have a visual. He recalls Tom T. Hall once telling him, “Some people can travel all around the world and not see a single thing, others can travel around the block and see the whole world.” “That made me continue to keep writing down observations and eventually building them into a form,” says Ely. The University of Texas eventually published some of the journals as raw material titled Bonfire of Roadmaps.

As a songwriter turned novelist, it was difficult for Ely not to keep the words to a minimum. “Instead of a line in a song, it’d have to be three pages in a book. It was the first thing I had to overcome,” he says. Like Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy—of whom Ely is a fan—he draws on the landscape to deliver the emotional depth of his characters. In his autobiographical novel, Reverb (2014), he writes of Lubbock in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a gritty world, but Ely digs into the story of young working-class men, usually in trouble, driving barren roads, living with the threat of going to war.

It’s easy to imagine the narrative running through his life. Ely left home at 16, went to Fort Worth and joined a band. From there, he went to Houston and Los Angeles. “My daddy died a few years before that and I was not doing good in school. I just didn’t see any future in Lubbock. I was playing in bands. I was kind of the sole breadwinner in the family. I’d play till midnight or one in the morning and try to go to school the next day. After school, I washed dishes at an old fried chicken place. I didn’t see an end,” he says.

In the mid-1960s Ely would periodically return to Texas to appear before the draft board, which at the time, he remembers, was drafting about 50,000 kids a month. “I’d always come back and regroup and go somewhere else, from one coast to the other,” he says. In New York City, he ended up joining a theater troupe and going to Europe. “That’s how I started traveling and collecting songs, during that era.”

In the summer of 1971, back in Lubbock, Ely teamed up with friends Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to form the country-folk group, The Flatlanders. The band toured extensively, headlining small shows and opening for bigger acts. Among these, remarkably, was the punk rock group The Clash. (In fact, Joe Strummer was supposed to record with Ely’s band, but died before it happened—one of Ely’s greatest disappointments.)

Such offbeat arrangements are not unusual for Ely, who once made a record with German opera conductor Eberhard Schoener. Ely says, “He had the first Moog synthesizer, which he bought from John Lennon—who hated it. We worked with that synthesizer and two acoustic guitars and did an experimental piece. A couple of years later, I bought an Apple computer and started working on songs as an experiment. He kind of inspired me.” 

Ely has always been something of an artistic maverick, seamlessly moving between country music and rock and roll. In the 1970s and 1980s, especially, he championed the progressive country scene in Austin. “At a young age, I discovered Woodie Guthrie, who lived in Amarillo for a good part of his life. In my teenage years and early 20s, I just happened to run across some of the songwriters who would influence me for the rest of my life,” he says.

Ely has played with mandolinist Chris Thile of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) on A Prairie Home Companion and with Bruce Springsteen of Locals 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and 399 (Asbury Park, NJ), James McMurtry, The Chieftains, Tom Petty of Local 47, and John Mellencamp. With Guy Clarke, Lyle Lovett of Local 257, and John Hiatt he formed a group that played 40-50 shows a year for about 20 years. “We’d go all over the states, a different city every day. We’d all sit on stage together in a guitar pull, where one person does a song and passes it on to the next.”

On his albums, Ely likes to incorporate cover songs, especially ones he feels have not gotten their due. When he was working on Letter to Laredo, he was just about finished with the record when he went to Europe for a few gigs. “I was in a bar in Norway and heard a song on the jukebox about a guy who crossed over into the US with a fighting rooster and went up and down the coast of Texas and California trying to win enough money to buy back the land that Pancho Villa stole from his family,” he says, explaining that the song eventually made its way onto the album.

A member of the AFM since 1972—when the first Flatlanders’ record came out in Nashville—Ely says the union is an important part of being able to make a living, especially as a traveling musician. That solidarity informs his work. The Flatlanders song, “Borderless Love,” (2009) about the fence on the US-Mexico border, is even more relevant amid today’s political tumult so the band has reintroduced it to live sets.

“I think you take from what’s been and give to what will be,” says Ely, who now lives in Austin and works with a number of young musicians there. Just after the 2015 release of the more literary and deeply personal Panhandle Rambler, he was inducted into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame and was named the 2016 Texas State Musician, an honor previously bestowed on Willie Nelson of Local 433 and Lyle Lovett.

Along with 25 albums to his credit, the 70-year-old Ely has about five books of poetry written, which he hopes to compile into a single collection. He’s led symposiums for Texas Tech University; he recently conducted a solo acoustic tour in the Midwest; and for the next couple of months, he will tour Texas and California. “I like to mix it up. Playing with a band full time can be restrictive. You’re always herding people. I prefer to go out, me and the guitar and a bag of stories.”