Tag Archives: musician

Donn Trenner

Donn Trenner: Pianist, Musical Director, Arranger, and Author

by Ginny Bales, Member of Local 400 (Hartford-New Haven, CT)

Donn Trenner

The remarkable career of Local 802 (New York City) and 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member Donn Trenner is highlighted in the book Leave It to Me: My Life in Music.

It would be remarkable enough to have played with jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Anita O’Day, and many others; to have entertained the troops with Bob Hope or led the band for the original Tonight Show; to have served long stints as musical director for Ann-Margret, Nancy Wilson, and Shirley MacLaine; and to have declined doing the same for Frank Sinatra. But can you imagine what it was like to tour with big bands led by Les Brown, Charlie Barnet, or Buddy Morrow?

Donn Trenner, a member of Locals 802 (New York City) and 47 (Los Angeles, CA), has done all of these things in his dream career characterized by consistent hard work, unstinting devotion to quality musicianship, and careful attention to making gigs run smoothly on all levels.

The AFM is important to Trenner. “I am a very devoted union member, starting in New Haven when I was 15 years old. I believe the benefits of being a member outweigh anything else,” he says.

Trenner’s life and career began in Connecticut, and we are fortunate that he has returned to this area where he continues to lead the Hartford Jazz Orchestra. Everyone who has ever known or worked with Trenner appreciates his depth of musical experience, gentlemanly charm, and sense of humor. 

The book Leave It to Me: My Life in Music (BearManor Media, 2015) by Trenner and Tim Atherton, jazz educator at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Westfield State University in Massachusetts, tells the tale. It’s filled with gig stories and anecdotes often involving well-known musicians and entertainers. 

Those interested in understanding how to write arrangements that work well will find Trenner’s insights invaluable. One section of the book is devoted to his philosophy of orchestration, and the entire book is peppered with observations on arranging, dynamics, instrumental balance, stagecraft, and how to bring the best performance out of other musicians. 

At age 90, Trenner continues to be a role model. He connects us to iconic music “scenes” from classic jazz and big bands through international touring, TV, and Las Vegas-style shows. He continues to create beautiful music and also entertain through writing and speaking engagements.

A quote on Trenner’s piano reads: “Don’t just play notes—tell a story.” His key to happiness? “Keep music in your life.  Music and laughter are the most important beneficial ingredients in a person’s life.”

Minnesota Musicians Work with Students in Arts Access Project

In early May, students from Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, presented a concert in the atrium of Orchestra Hall as part of the Minnesota Orchestra’s new Arts Access project. Over the course of the 2016-2017 season, the orchestra has partnered with ComMUSICation, an after-school choral youth-development program based in Saint Paul; and with the MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis. Minnesota Orchestra musicians support MacPhail’s programs by playing alongside students  and working with them to compose arrangements of folk songs. Students have performed in spaces at Orchestra Hall, and have received free tickets and busing to Minnesota Orchestra concerts.

Participating Minnesota Orchestra musicians and Local 30-73 (Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN) members include bassist David Williamson, cellist Pitnarry Shin, violist Kenneth Freed, and violinists Pamela Arnstein, Catherine Schubilske, and Deborah Serafini. The partnership with the youth programs is planned to continue next season.

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.

Musicians Recognized for Community Service

Three AFM musicians received 2017 Ford Musician Awards for Excellence in Community Service in May. Violinist Diane McElfish Helle of Local 56 (Grand Rapids, MI) leads the Grand Rapid Symphony’s Music for Health initiative, which sends symphony musicians into hospitals to assist with patient rehabilitation and support. Since 2002, she has also worked with the String Discovery Ensemble, a violin quartet offering hands-on musical experience to 4th graders. In her 37th year with Grand Rapids Symphony, McElfish Helle also created Grand Rapid’s Upbeat pre-concert lecture series.

In addition to being a violist with The Phoenix Symphony since 1995, Mark Dix of Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ) has been active in educational and health and wellness programs including Mind Over Music (science based string orchestra programs), B-Sharp Music Wellness, and A WONDER Project Alzheimer’s Initiative.

Kansas City Symphony principal flute since 2007, Michael Gordon of Local 34-627 (Kansas City, MO) has worked hard to promote the value of music in his community through Community Connections. He collaborated with Arts in Prison to produce a series of chamber music concerts for inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility. He’s also a board member of the Northeast Community Center, which operates Harmony Project KC, a tuition-free music education program for underprivileged children.

A panel of peer professionals selected the musicians through a competitive nomination process. The awards include a $2,500 grant for each musician and a $2,500 grant to each musician’s home orchestra to support professional development focused on community service and engagement for musicians.

andrew white

From Nashville to Paris: The Roots of a Jazz Musician

andrew white

Iconoclastic musician Andrew White of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) has successfully run a music publishing business for 45 years, which includes an exhaustive collection of John Coltrane solos.

Andrew White is a quintessential artist. A sax player, classically trained oboist, composer, and arranger, a wildly eclectic and spirited genius who has transcribed 840 of John Coltrane’s free-flight solos.

“From the first time I heard Mr. Coltrane, at the age of 14, I thought he was the most significant linguistic contributor to the language of jazz—in the history of jazz. I started transcribing his music because I wanted to see what the music looked like,” White says.

It was only when he turned 70, that White of Locals 161-710 (Washington, DC) and 802 (New York City) started using the term musicologist. He is unaffected and laughs easily. He’s a virtuoso who has mastered many instruments in a range of styles, but who has learned not to take himself too seriously.

He’s transcribed sax solos by Sonny Rollins of Local 802 (New York City), Charlie Parker, Jackie McLean, Paul Desmond, Billy Mitchell, and Stan Getz, plus trumpet solos by Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. White says, “I wanted to satisfy my curiosity about the things I could hear, write them down so I could see them and connect them visually.”

At Howard University, in Washington, DC, White was part of the renowned JFK Quintet. The group played regularly at the legendary Bohemian Caverns. During intermission, White would slip around the corner to Abart’s Internationale to hear Coltrane play.

One night, Eric Dolphy was in the audience. He asked White if he could borrow his horn, and White says, “I was sitting next to Walter Booker, our bassist, and he was laughing hysterically at what Eric was playing. ‘He said, Andrew I’ll never give you a hard time again for your alto sound after hearing that man play your horn. This guy’s playing your stuff.’”

The comparison between the two is now legendary, and White says, “I’ve recorded his tune, ‘Miss Ann,’ twice and people mention the similarities.” White would eventually transcribe 11 of Dolphy’s demanding solos.

In 1963, White went off to Tanglewood to study oboe, and the following year entered the Paris Conservatory on a John Hay Whitney Foundation Fellowship. In early 1965, at 21, White played at the Blue Note Paris, sitting in for Ornette Coleman. “So much of the music business is happenstance,” he says. “I was at the right place at the right time.”

After Paris and another two years at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the State University of Buffalo, he joined the orchestra pit of New York City’s American Ballet Theatre in 1968. By then, he was a successful session jazz player and sideman, playing with drummer bandleaders Elvin Jones and Beaver Harris, and recording with Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner. He eventually made a name for himself as a funk bass player with Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI) for a couple of years—while simultaneously playing oboe for the American Ballet.

White was playing bass with the 5th Dimension in the early 1970s when Joe Zawinul of Weather Report saw him on TV. He and Wayne Shorter of Local 802 knew White could help their band create the funk sound they needed to extend their fan base. In the slicked-up album Sweetnighter, White contributed a distinctive electric bass line, and even played English horn on a couple of tracks.

A descriptor frequently applied to White is “iconoclastic.” He has shared the stage with some of the greatest jazz players in the world and is a deft interpreter of Coltrane, but it was his foray into popular R&B and funk as an electric bassist that ultimately provided the resources he needed to become an independent artist and music publisher.

Since 1971, White has recorded under his independent label, Andrew’s Music, which has an inventory of nearly 3,000 products: vinyl records, CDs, books, his own compositions—nearly 1,000—almost 2,000 transcriptions, and an 840-page autobiography. His catalog includes his series of transcriptions, The Works of John Coltrane, Vols. 1-16: 840 transcriptions of John Coltrane’s Improvisations and the semi-autobiographical Trane ‘n Me, which is a scholarly exposition on the music of Coltrane.

White says he has too many different artistic interests for one commercial label. “Blue Note Records would not record me as an oboe player playing Mozart. Motown would not record me playing as an iconoclastic jazz saxophonist, and Columbia would not take me on as a funk rock ‘n’ roll bass player,” White says. Under Andrew’s Music, he’s been able to do it all.

His own compositions are broad, steeped in eclectic influences, including classical. In 2006, he received the Gold Medal of the French Society of Arts, Sciences, and Letters in Paris, the only American that year to have been presented the honor.

White joined the union in 1958 and jokes that he could go anywhere, play any club, bar mitzvah, or wedding, because his dues have been paid up since 1958.

“As artists, the best thing we ever did was create a union,” says White. With a number of his recording contracts, he has had to invoke the clause regarding reuse. Though there were a lot of opportunities for mishaps, he says that because he had union contracts, he knew to read the fine print. With AFM contracts, “when doing TV, musicians are working for the studio or network and cannot be undercut.” White stresses, “The AFM is a professional organization. Beyond the benefits and the pension fund, it protects musicians on a fundamental level, on stage and in the studio.”

White turns 75 in September and has already begun marking the occasion with what he calls 75th Anniversary Festival Concerts. He started with two shows this spring—one in April at D.C.’s Blues Alley and one in May at the Jazz Gallery in New York City.

bobby baird

Bobby Baird: The Man with a Horn

by Edward J. Zebrowski, Secretary of Local 140 (Wilkes-Barre, PA)

bobby baird

Still an active performer, trumpet player Bobby Baird has been a member of Local 140 (Wilkes-Barre, PA) for more than 73 years.

It was my pleasure recently to spend some time talking with Bobby Baird about his musical career—a career that has spanned most of eight decades. Baird began playing trumpet at a very early age. He played his first solo at the age of five for his grandfather and never stopped. 

Baird joined Local 140 (Wilkes-Barre, PA) September 30, 1944. He had to be granted a special exemption from the minimum age requirement in effect at the time, since he was only 14 years old!

On September 30, 2017, Baird will achieve the enviable record of having been a member of Local 140 for 73 consecutive years. To the best of my knowledge, no other member has ever achieved that milestone. We at Local 140 are honored to have had Baird as a member all these years.

When he was 18, Baird achieved another milestone: he became the youngest member of the United States Navy Band to be chosen as concert trumpet soloist. It was a position he went on to hold with many bands, including several local bands, such as the Stegmaier Gold Medal Band, during its heyday.

During his stint with the Navy Band, they toured all 48 contiguous states and Canada. It is worth mentioning that Baird, who led his own Dixieland Jazz Band for many years, can still blow the doors off trumpeters who are half his age. Baird still performs actively, and says he will continue to do so as long as he has the breath to blow through that piece of brass.

On a more personal note, Bobby Baird and his wife, Pat, recently celebrated their 63rd anniversary. Congratulations to them both! 

When you talk with Baird, you quickly become aware that he is a very humble and modest man. He provided a number of newspaper articles to use as background information, but he also made it very clear that he was more interested in having people know that he has been a trumpeter for eight decades and a union member for 73 years. He wasn’t interested in having me write about all his accomplishments—performing for several presidents, being honored recently with a special tribute by the Back Mountain Chamber, playing in a Grammy-winning band, or the many other well-deserved accolades and awards he has received.

Baird has a great sense of humor. During a recent conversation, he asked me how old I was and I told him. He says, “Heck, you’re just a kid!” For that, Bobby, you have my profound thanks. It’s been a long, long time since anybody said that to me! 

All of us at Local 140 hope Bobby Baird will be around sharing his wonderful music with us for many more years.

Anja Wood

Hamilton Cellist Anja Wood Follows Her Heart to Aid Families in Ethiopia

Anja Wood

Anja Wood, cellist for the Broadway show Hamilton and a member of Local 802 (New York City), founded her own charity to help Ethiopian families overcome poverty.

When Anja Wood of Local 802 (New York City) graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music in the early 1990s, she headed east to carve out a life as a freelance musician. A classical cellist armed with a master’s degree, she easily settled into a tidy routine of playing in regional orchestras and touring Japan during the summer with conductor Mamoru Takahara (also of Local 802) and the New York Symphonic Ensemble.    

“I lived like a pauper with little gigs here and there, and eventually worked my way up,” she says. Wood joined the union in 1997 when she first started subbing on Broadway.

In 2014, Wood received a call from musical director Alex Lacamoire of Local 802, who asked her to join the orchestra of the Broadway hit, Hamilton. It was the same creative team that produced In the Heights. Wood says, “It was exactly what I’d been wanting to do for years,” adding, “It was long before we knew what Hamilton would be. We knew people would react well. We just didn’t know it would be this juggernaut success.”

They play eight shows a week, but the union contract allows the orchestra musicians to take off four days a week and still maintain their contract. Wood says, “The brilliance of that is we can go and play another gig, and a friend and colleague whom we trust and love can come and play the show for us, and is happy to have the work. It’s a great system for musicians in New York.”

In a different role, a world away from New York City and Broadway, Wood serves as president of the Lelt Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps severely impoverished Ethiopian orphans and families. It began in 2009, when she and her husband began the adoption process for their second daughter from Ethiopia. Amid agency-wide and embassy delays, Wood says that their daughter, who should have already been in the States, was still in Ethiopia five months after she was legally theirs.

Taking a leave from work, she traveled to Addis Ababa to take custody. In Ethiopia, they stayed with her friend, the late Carrie Neel-Parker, who also adopted a daughter from Ethiopia. While visiting state-run orphanages, many in grave disrepair, they realized that some basic, inexpensive upgrades could vastly improve living conditions for the children. With the help of friends back in the US, who chipped in about $30 each, they were able to provide 250 girls in Kechene Orphanage with mattresses and linens, plus repair the crumbling outer compound security wall.

Wood initiated a music program at the Kolfe Boys Orphanage, where an instructor comes in twice a week to teach students electric piano, bass, and electric guitar. She felt confident that the efforts made in just a couple of months would give way to more initiatives. “Our daughters gave us this gift of having Ethiopian families and we wanted to continue to give back to those we now consider our family,” she says.

Back home she filed for nonprofit status, formed a board of directors together with Neel-Parker, and the Lelt Foundation was born. Its focus: nutrition, education, and job creation programs for very impoverished neighborhoods. “Our whole mission is to help people so they won’t need us in a few years,” Wood says. “People graduate from the program with assistance we give them—it’s a hand-up, not a handout.”

A partnership with the Ethiopian government helps the organization identify the most impoverished families in the region. Lelt pays the fee for their children’s public school education, about $2.50 a year, and gives them a daily nutritious lunch and after-school tutoring. Families are provided counseling and job creation services, monthly food rations, and household necessities.   

In just six years, Lelt has built a community center, and homes for girls and boys, which are refuges for children who are abandoned or severely abused. A dedicated staff in Ethiopia, managed by a husband and wife team (called Mommy and Poppy by the children) live on site, in the compound. “This team is deeply committed to the community. This is their mission. It’s what they want to die doing,” Wood says.

Lelt conducts seminars on money and business management skills, providing micro loans to families to launch their businesses—a “jumpstart to financial independence,” says Wood. “The kids are in school, moms have just started a small business, like vegetable wholesale at the local market or bread baking. Once they get started, we usually see graduation from the program about three years later.”

Investing in music education is a natural component of Lelt’s mission. In addition to Western instruments—keyboards and guitars—students learn to play the traditional instruments of Ethiopia, including the masinko (an ancient violin), the krar (a lyre-shaped guitar), and traditional drums. Traditional folk music is important to Ethiopians, Wood explains. It is what folk music might be to people who grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “Everybody has a grandparent, an aunt, or uncle who plays an instrument, and the children want to learn, too.”

In the music community Wood has found many on-and-off Broadway friends and donors who support her work. “In fact, 20% of the people who sponsor children in the organization are musician colleagues,” she says. “They are by no means wealthy, but loyal and compassionate humans who want to contribute in some way.”

Now, a busy mother, managing daily operations and directing the foundation’s fundraising efforts, Wood says, “Playing a show is the easiest part of my day. I get to go off and be my adult self and who I’m trained to be. I have a few hours of easy peace and artistic expression.”

Working with fellow pit musicians in Hamilton, Wood says, “I love knowing this group really well. I love coming in and knowing exactly where I’m going to put my F# in ‘Right Hand Man’ because my quartet is sitting right next to me. I know exactly where the first violinist is going to use less vibrato for emphasis and I’m going to match him. I know where we’ll sit behind the beat on ‘Room Where It Happens’ because I’ve learned this band so well—and that to me is exciting. We’re making this music as perfect as possible.”

For more information on the Lelt Foundation and to make a donation, visit www.leltfoundation.org.

Rick Robinson

Rick Robinson: Classical Music Delivered to the Masses

Rick Robinson

In 2011 bassist Rick Robinson of Local 5 (Detroit, MI) set out on a mission to bring classical music to the masses.

Just after the 2010-2011 Detroit Symphony Orchestra strike, and during an especially difficult time in his life (including the death of his father), longtime DSO bassist Rick Robinson of Local 5 (Detroit, MI) says it seemed like the time to take a risk. “You’ve got one life to live. I decided I should take it all the way.”

He left the orchestra to work full-time with his own production company, CutTime Productions. Robinson, a Kresge fellowship winning composer says he’s focused on “demystifying the huge classical tradition for broader humanity.” He aims to change the way classical music is presented for the lay audience, utilizing nontraditional settings—casual venues, cafés, clubs, restaurants, classrooms, and festivals.

The ensembles include CutTime Players (a mixed octet), which performs full and abridged symphonic masterpieces and CutTime Simfonica (with strings and percussion), featuring abridged openings of symphonies and Robinson’s own compositions, blending urban pop with neo-classicism. He calls it “an on-ramp to Schubert, Mozart, and Brahms, the music I love so much.”

What makes these programs unique is that Robinson and his musicians are willing to play in noise—in bars, clubs, and restaurants. “That’s a deal breaker for most symphony musicians,” says Robinson. “We play lively music to show that aspects of dance are in classical music. We pass out toy percussion instruments to the audience and ask them to join in. We talk about the development and the significance of instrumental music.” And then there are the burning questions, Robinson says, like, “Why is it called classical in the first place?” and “Why do you guys wear tails?”

Classical music can be adaptive, Robinson insists. In its reconstituted form, it can be spiritual and spontaneous all at once. Instead of centering on the art in the concert sanctuary, CutTime centers on the audience. “Once we focus on the audience, it doesn’t matter how precisely we play. The excellence comes from whether we can draw them into the music,” he says.

In the 25 to 40-year-old crowd he has a particularly captive audience. “In the orchestra world we learn to serve knowledgeable audiences within our arts bubble, which I realized was kind of a church-like experience. But I started thinking, what about everybody else? How are they being served by classical music? Some people hear better on their feet or with a drink in their hand, eating food, or with friends and family.”

“Jazzing up Mozart can make it more relevant,” he says. “The industry has always referred to this as ‘dumbing down.’ But we need to get beyond dumbing down to smarten up for a new audience.”

Robinson grew up in Highland Park, Michigan, in a fourth-generation musical family. His mother played the piano and sang. When he was 10 years old, his older sister and brother took him to a chamber orchestra rehearsal led by Joseph Striplin, one of the first black musicians to play in the Detroit Symphony. “When I first heard Brandenburg No. 3,” Robinson says, “I cried. That’s when I decided to take up cello.”

By eighth grade, he had changed to double bass. After Interlochen Arts Academy, Robinson went to the Cleveland Institute of Music and then New England Conservatory to study with Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) member Larry Wolfe. In 1987 Robinson won the Haddonfield (NJ) Symphony Concerto Competition playing Bottesini’s Concerto No. 2.

Following school, Robinson became principal bass of the Portland Symphony Orchestra in Maine and assistant principal of the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, led by John Williams of Locals 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and 9-535.

In 1989, Robinson returned to his hometown to become the second African-American to hold a chair in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. That’s when Robinson began adapting solo works from other instruments.

“The AFM is a major partner of DSO musicians, particularly through negotiation times, and especially during the six-month strike of 2010-2011,” he says. “The Detroit Federation of Musicians has shown it’s flexible to the changing times we’re all facing, with audience decline and reprioritization of foundation grants. The union—particularly the collective bargaining agreement—of major orchestra musicians is critical to maintaining benefits and working conditions.”

Robinson hopes to train and hire hundreds of resilient musicians in what he calls the new classical tradition. He says, “Bringing this fine art into a commercial ecosystem will bring balance to the force of classical music and change the conversation.” In the meantime, Robinson says, he’s having fun—a lot of fun!

stann champion

Chicago’s Stann Champion Has Deep Roots in Community

stann champion

Last summer Stann Champion of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL) was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to his community through music.

Stann Champion of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL) has dominated Chicago’s vibrant Caribbean music scene for 30 years. His band, Roots Rock Society (RRS), has cultivated a wider community audience by redefining the performance venue and connecting with people where they live—in schools, cultural centers, colleges, churches, and sports venues. Champion says, “We are a movement committed especially to reaching young people of all cultures with our message of mutual respect for one another and learning through music.”

“This music chose me back in 1978,” says Champion. He was recruited in 1980 by the reggae band, Gypsi Fari, for a recording project at Bob Marley’s Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica. Champion explains, “At the time, very few Chicago musicians could play reggae and other island rhythms.”

As a child, Champion was already exposed to a rich collection of American and island roots music. “We grew up in a black cultural environment listening to a wide range of artists like Miles Davis, Harry Belafonte, Mariam Makeba, Trini Lopez, and Ray Charles,” he says. “I started playing guitar and listening to B.B. King and rumba and flamenco.”

Champion got his first guitar at 13 years old and studied the sounds of Chuck Berry, Wes Montgomery, Albert King, The Beatles, and Bo Diddley. “The first song I learned was blues. I wanted to learn anything on a six-string,” he says. A gifted child, he attended the art education program at The Art Institute of Chicago from 10 years old through high school. And during his tenure at Columbia College Chicago, art was his focus.

“In my home, it was important I finish college, since I was the first in my family to do so. But I still maintained my passion for the guitar and continued to play,” he says. Champion was on a path bound for a career in commercial art. After a trip to the Caribbean where he experienced roots music in its most authentic form, he returned to Chicago with a different mindset. He says, “I could have continued on to a ‘Madison Avenue’ type of advertising career, but I chose to use my talents, my drive to create and advance positive change for the greater community around me.” For Champion the decision paid off.

He formed Roots Rock Society in 1986 and they began touring with top-flight reggae bands such as Steel Pulse, Third World, Culture, Burning Spear, and Gil Scott-Heron. Along with the traditional reggae fare, the group performs calypso, samba, soul, and zouk. Champion explores writing songs in Swahili, Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia), French, and Spanish.

In the tradition of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey and his movement, Champion, who has been a member of the union for 15 years, says this is his life’s work. “It’s about uplifting our community with culture, knowledge, and reaching one’s goals—which were not part of life as a slave. I find this same hunger in all communities. It is my duty to use my gift in a positive manner,” he explains.

He and his band are deeply committed to issues of peace and social justice. Champion, who also hosts a radio show says, “We work in schools, hospitals, churches, and community events. It’s all about compassion and tolerance, messages passed along from the African diaspora.” Each summer, he spends time working on Chicago’s south side, where campers learn the roots of instruments, storytelling, and songwriting. The band conducts education workshops throughout the community to promote awareness of hunger and homelessness, and Champion runs a weekly workshop, CampChamp, at Arthur Ashe Elementary.

Among his numerous awards, Champion has been honored by Chicago Police Department and the Chicago Music Awards a dozen times, including Best Calypso and Soul Calypso Entertainer, Best Gospel/Spiritual Band, and last summer he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the music industry and to the community.

grace kelly

Grace Kelly: Jazz Prodigy Comes of Age

Grace kelly

At 24, but already 10 years into her career, saxophonist, vocalist, composer, and Local 802 (New York City) member Grace Kelly is moving past the label “prodigy” and defining her voice as a jazz musician.

Growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, Kelly displayed an affinity for creativity and a talent for music from an early age. Formal piano lessons began at age six. When she was bored with the repertoire, she improvised, writing her first song at age seven. In fourth grade, inspired by the music of Stan Getz, she picked up the saxophone. Six weeks later she was learning the standards.

Kelly began touring soon after recording her first album at 12. “At age 14 I traveled to Norway to play my first international show, and then I came back to being an 8th grader,” she says, explaining the surreal teenage life she led.

That same year she had one of her most memorable performances when she was asked to play with the Boston Pops Orchestra in a concert opening for Dianne Reeves. Already an incredible invitation, Kelly is not sure what inspired her to ask Conductor Keith Lockhart of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) if she could write a score for the occasion.

He asked, “Have you done that before?” She hadn’t. “I was out of my mind, but I wrote a 40-page score for the Pops and I was the soloist in the middle of it. It was such an incredible moment; I felt like I was floating on a cloud,” she says.

Career already in full swing, it made sense to leave high school early with her GED. Though she considered forgoing college, at age 16, Kelly was accepted with a full scholarship to the only college she applied to: Berklee College of Music. At Berklee she adapted her studies to accommodate touring while working toward a degree in professional music.

“The most important thing that I got from music school was connections to my peers,” says Kelly who describes college as a playground that offered her the chance to explore courses in things like string arranging and percussion. She found mentors among the faculty. Associate Professor Alain Mallet took her under his wing, while another associate professor, Darren Barrett, used a “tough love” approach to push Kelly to improve her technical skills.

But on saxophone, most of Kelly’s mentoring came outside of college. Saxophonists Lee Konitz, Phil Woods, and Frank Morgan each, in his own way, helped her develop as a young player. At age 13, she began studying with Konitz. “He gave me the incredible gift of explaining what improvisation is. I’ve never met an individual as spontaneous and who really practices improvisation in his life as much as Lee does. He taught me how to improvise on stage and in the moment, reacting to other musicians. I still live and play today by that idea,” she explains.

grace kellyShe treasures the opportunity she had to tour and record an album with the late Phil Woods. “It was an osmosis thing being on stage with him. I wrote a song for him called ‘Man with the Hat’ that we’d play together. I would catch onto musical things that he was doing just by being next to him and that helped me grow as a saxophonist,” she says.

“Frank Morgan—a direct prodigy of Charlie Parker and one my favorite saxophonists in the whole world—taught me about the power of moving people with a ballad and playing beautiful music,” says Kelly. “He told me that, in his set, if he could make one person cry, if he could touch the audience, he could go home feeling satisfied. Nobody played ballads the way Frank did. He was an incredibly virtuosic saxophonist, but to him, the way he measured how he played was not through all the notes. That really sticks with me.”

Other mentors include Dave Brubeck, Harry Connick, Jr., and Wynton Marsalis of Local 802—each of them impressed by the young musician’s talents. “The first time I played with Dave Brubeck it was one of those extreme ‘pinch me’ moments. I grew up listening to his music and [his saxophonist] Paul Desmond was one of my favorite saxophonists. I used to fall asleep to Dave Brubeck’s albums every night,” she says. “He was so kind when he had me sit in.”

grace kelly

Kelly recalls how she met Marsalis at a steakhouse during a gig with pianist Antonio Ciacca, also a member of Local 802. She was just 16 and Ciacca mentioned that a trumpeter would be joining them in the second set. “Wynton Marsalis walks in with his son and he takes out his trumpet and plays the whole second set with us. Meanwhile, I’m like, is this really happening?” recalls Kelly. “A week later, I got a call from his people at Jazz at Lincoln Center saying, ‘Wynton would love it if Grace would be a special guest with his orchestra at Rose Hall for three nights.”

Kelly looks back on these “pinch me” moments, and is inspired by the kindness musicians showed her. Though the thought of playing with such big names was at first intimidating, she says, “I realize all these people are musicians and they are human beings. As soon as the music starts, I’m not so nervous because that’s my most comfortable place to be—in the music, on stage.”

As she matures, Kelly has begun to teach through Skype, and at educational workshops and master classes. And like her mentors, she doesn’t hesitate to bring talented students on stage. “I’ve grown up with this incredible generosity from musicians. I would never think twice but to continue that,” she says.

Kelly describes teaching as extremely rewarding. “It’s been great to see how the climate for women in jazz is changing in a really positive way. I’ll see a sax section of all young girls and that is so exciting for me! It wasn’t like that 10 years ago. We are headed in the right direction,” she says.

When she started playing professionally, Kelly says that every time she got on stage someone would mention her age. As she gets older and matures as a musician, that’s changing. “When you start at a really young age, a lot of it revolves around the story of that,” she says. “Certainly people [still] ask how young I am, but now it’s a lot more about my artistry and music.”

grace kellyKelly says it took her until her most recent album to start to develop her own sound. “I didn’t get into the music industry with a strong musical identity. It’s a big transition because, for most of my life, I’ve been identified as ‘the young girl,’ but for me it’s always a growing experience.”

So what is it that Kelly wants to say musically? “Why I got into music from the very beginning was because I think music is an extremely powerful medium of healing people and of bringing joy and sunshine. That’s the type of person that I am. I love it at the end of the show when people say I’ve lifted them up,” she continues. “I think that’s how my show differs from a lot of jazz shows. We integrate jazz, pop, and blues, but always with a positive sunshine, fun demeanor under it. My music comes from a very emotional place.”

Kelly has spent the last few years learning, trying new things, and dipping her toes into different types of performances, including television. She did a six-month stint on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in the Stay Human band. Last December, bandleader Jon Batiste invited her to do a two-week appearance, which ended up being six months. “That gig was an incredible experience,” she says. “We were the house band for a lot of great artists, and then just learning the ins and outs of how a show like that works too. It was very surreal.”

Last summer she was in the house band for the television variety show Maya and Marty and she also made a cameo appearance as herself on season two of the Amazon series Bosch, for which she wrote the tune “Blues for Harry Bosch.” On the composing side, Kelly recently was executive producer and wrote the music for a 20-minute short The Bird Who Could Fly directed by Raphael Sbarge, which is making its rounds at film festivals.

grace kelly

Kelly says that the AFM has been incredibly helpful in navigating all the different types of work. “I’m extremely grateful for how the union takes care of musicians. Every time I have a question, I can go there. It’s extremely helpful in the TV world how they take care of someone like me,” she says. “It is a huge thing to know there is an infrastructure in place.”

Kelly also enjoys the networking aspect of her union, noting that she recently took part in a Local 802 panel discussion about women in jazz. “They put on all these great discussions and it was wonderful. It is a place for everyone, especially young musicians, to get together and network. I very much appreciate that and I have been very happy to be a part of the family,” she says.

While she says performing live is her first love, Kelly continues to experiment in other art forms. “I’ve recently been dipping toes much more into the production of videos and I’m starting a couple new web series that will be up on social media,” she says. “Grace Kelly Pop-Up is basically me, with my saxophone, in places you wouldn’t expect to see me, whether it’s an amusement park or on top of a car.” Launching this month, Go! With Grace Kelly has her interviewing all types of artists about the creative process, but always with a musical element. Plus, her Sunny Sunday Sessions are broadcast from her living room to Facebook Live.

“I think that the climate for musicians today is so much about social media and being on the web,” she says. “We are able to connect with people around the world, which is fantastic.”

And, of course, Kelly has big plans for this coming summer. She will be touring with her band in the US and Europe, and also working on her next album. “The cool thing about music is we never know who we are going to meet, what opportunities might come up. And I really love that,” she concludes.