Monday, June 4, 2012
The Power of the Arts: A Bronx Tale
= The following are excerpts from an oral history interview I did with trumpeter/composer/educator Jimmy Owens who grew up in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, and learned to play his instrument in the public schools of that borough. As public education is under attack throughout the nation, I want to take this opportunity to give a sense of the incredible arts instruction that once existed in the public schools of New York City, that allowed young people who made the band and orchestra in the junior high school to take home musical instruments to practice and offered music instruction from teachers who themselves were often great musicians. As more and more arts instruction is being pushed out of our schools by test prep, and as public school around the nation are starved of resources, I thought this little vignette might capture how something precious is being lost if we continue to follow current policies to their logical conclusion MN: Who were your teachers at Junior High School 40 that had the biggest influence on you? JO: I think the first teacher was the person who was in charge of the music department, Mr. Lightner. As I said before, he was the person who come to P.S. 99 to give the students who were selected, the special music aptitude test to see if we could go into a special class when we went to Junior High School 40. I was lucky to pass the exam to be in that class. After Mr. Lightner a new teacher came in the eighth grade. Her name was Edna Smith. I found out that she was a professional bass player who worked with a group called the Sweethearts of Rhythm. I played the trumpet. Ninth grade came the time for the exam for the High School of Music and Art and I said to her “I want to take the exam for Music and Art” so she started to ask me questions and I didn’t know them well. She then said “ You can’t just play good and get in. You have to know music theory.” So she started to teach me the scales, and she started to team me the key signatures. I remember she taught me key signatures up to four flats and four sharps MN. So you had not been reading music before JO. Well I was reading music but I was kind of cold reading my music. It wasn’t something that was emphasized. So she- Ms Smith- taught me this stuff. I had three or four weeks before the exam and I would go to her room after school for individual instruction. Then on Saturday, sometimes I would go and meet her at her house. She lived over on Fulton Avenue near Bronx Hospital. Sometimes, she would meet me at the beauty parlor rather than her house because she was always there getting her hair done While she was in the chair, she would say “What’s the key with one flat? What is that flat? Explain the scale to me.” MN What did the other people think? JO. I never thought about them, but she was nice and would introduce me to all the people by saying “He’s going to be a great young musician.” I would up getting into High School of Music and Art thanks to MS Smith and stayed in touch with her for the first year, periodically going back to JHS 40 to see her. Then she left one or two years after and went to teach somewhere else. I lost track of her. MN: When you were graduating from Junior High School 40, were you playing in any venues in the community? JO: Yes. MN: Where were some of the places you would be performing at that time? JO: The only places that I could perform was at the community centers and auditoriums. There was a group of us who were learning how to play and we would use the these places for jam sessions. . MN: Who were some of the people in these jam sessions? JO: We would go into Harlem and there would be a trumpet player named Faruk Daud, who wrote the song “Daud” for his father Talib Daud. He played with Dizzy Gillespie. Pianist Larry Willis and alto saxophonist Johnny Simon were from the Bronx. . At P.S. 99, we used the auditorium because there was a guy by the name of Mr. Tibbs. He was a real community person who took us all under his wing. Mr. Tibbs was a Physical Education teacher. He would present a concert and have alto saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Jackie McLean come by and play in the auditorium.