Preaching the Power of Real Music

Litle Steven and the Disciples of Soul

When the show starts with a blistering version of “Sweet Soul Music” and just keeps getting better, that’s a good show. And that was only part of it.

We were at the House of Blues on Wednesday for Little Steven van Zandt and the Disciples of Soul, and the “teacher appreciation tour.” And Tori is a teacher. So she had the chance to sign up for the event as “professional development.” Usually that means a day listening to a speaker talk about diversity in the classroom, or new reading theories, or discipline or common core. All important topics, I’m sure. But none of them can hold a candle (or a Bic lighter) to Wednesday’s program, which included a two-hour concert. And because she’s a teacher, it was free and she could invite a “plus one.” That was me. (Our son Max, a music major at UNO, was the plus one of one of Tori’s colleagues. Thank you, Ruth.)

SvZ talks to teachersIt was a program by a group called Teach Rock. Check them out at teachrock.org. They’ve got a ton of resources – music and video – and lesson plans and hints for how to use them in the classroom. Not just so kids learn about the history of rock ‘n’ roll – not that that isn’t important. Do you realize there are kids today who have no idea who Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly were, or even Elvis!!?!

But this goes WAY beyond that. There’s material on how to use rock and pop music to teach English, social studies, even math and science.

And Steven van Zandt is a big supporter of the program. The event started with a three-song set by van Zandt and his band – 15 musicians total. It was – Wow! Then he talked to the hundred or so teachers gathered on folding chairs on the floor of the House of Blues, calling them “the most underappreciated and underpaid” workers in America – true that – and also apologizing for the hell he gave his teachers in high school. Then they took a “class photo” – van Zandt is front and center, of course, you can see Tori and Max in the back row, left of center, making peace signs.

Teach Rock class picture

The program itself took about an hour, and I don’t think anyone would have minded if it had gone twice as long. This group – Teachrock.org – has put a lot of thought in how to use popular music to engage kids who might otherwise not give a damn about school. Tori got a ton of inspiration and ideas that she can’t wait to bring to her classroom next school year.

Then they cleared the chair from the floor and opened the doors – people had been lining up outside for three hours. Yeah, some people had to pay to see the show, Imagine that!

And then – well, like I said, they opened with a blistering “Sweet Soul Music” – that hot horn opening, Do ya like good music (Yeah yeah) That sweet soul music (Yeah yeah) – and when the song was done I turned to Tori and said, “If we had to leave right now, I’d be okay with that.” It was that good.

SvZAnd it kept getting better. Van Zandt wasn’t just performing – he was preaching, singing the gospel of “real, live music.” Not computerized, no autotune or drum machines. Two percussionists pounding the skins and the horn section blowing their souls through hunks of hot metal. That kind of real music.

It was a great show. “Down and Out in New York City,” “Soulfire,” “Forever,” “Princess of Little Italy,” some Temptations and lots more – two hours of great, hot, real music.

And Tori got credit for professional development. And a lot of great ideas for using in her classroom next year. And a T-shirt!

If you’re a teacher or student, check out teachrock.org. You can register and have access to a ton of resource and ideas and maybe learn a thing or two that will liven your classroom next year and engage your students in a way they haven’t been before.

Tori and SvZ

Blues on a Sunday Afternoon

Max at Preservation Hall 061117About this time five years ago we were planning our move from St. Croix back to the mainland, and we had picked New Orleans as our landing spot.

It wasn’t the “safe” choice – we could have headed back to the Northwest where we have friends, know the lay of the land, could have blended right back in. But we wanted the adventure to continue. So we picked a city we’d visited once and found interesting and started getting ready.

We also wanted to give Max a chance to explore. He was 14 years old and really getting into music. What better place to scratch that itch than New Orleans?

And Sunday that all paid off! On Sunday, Max got a chance to perform in the legendary space of Preservation Hall, one of the cradles of traditional jazz and the blues. Pretty much anyone who is anyone in the New Orleans jazz world has played in that very modest space. And now Max has too.

Max has been taking lessons at the Guitar Center almost since we got here. Back on St. Croix he took lessons from a teacher at Good Hope School. This fall he’ll continue his study as a music major at the University of New Orleans.

Preservation Hall is not a grand concert space on the order of Carnegie Hall or anything like that. It’s actually one of the shabbier buildings in the French Quarter, and that’s a place that has some shabby buildings. The hall’s exterior is a muddy brownish color with streaks of other hues – it’s almost impossible to describe the color except for “old and weather beaten.” Inside, the paint is peeling, the plaster is cracked and falling. It’s maybe 25 feet square, with a couple of rows of benches in front of the performance space. I leaned against the wall in the back – but only after checking to make sure it wouldn’t collapse under my weight.

But it’s not about the state of the walls. It’s what has happened inside those walls, in the air, the enclosed space, that matters a great deal. It was started in the 1950s as a place for the city’s traditional jazz musicians to gather and jam. It became the place to hear traditional New Orleans jazz, and grew into a band that traveled the world, turning people on to the joy of their music.

That joyful music was starting to fall by the wayside in the ’50s, along with the musicians who had lived it all their lives. Preservation Hall became the place where it was collected and treasured and performed and revived. And now Max has a part of it.

The Guitar Center holds a regular performance time – I guess you could call it a recital – and the woman who organizes it happens to be married to the guy who does tech for Preservation Hall, and one thing led to another and there we all were Sunday at 11 a.m. Instead of cramming into the performance space at the center, we were cramming into one of the hallowed venues in the city.

Instead of the Guitar Center’s electronic keyboards, the piano students played the hall’s old upright piano – battle scarred but still with a bright sound. Several of the drummers, playing on the Preservation Hall kit, did very well. And there was a woman, I’m guessing in her late 30s/early 40s, who a year ago decided she wanted to play sax. She got up there and did fine. Got a ways to go, but I marveled at the guts she showed.

And then there was Max. He was playing “Graveyard Playboy,” a blues song he wrote that displayed both very good musicianship and his weird sense of humor. Over the years all our kids have all displayed humor that the more rigid, stodgy types might sniff at and call “inappropriate.” It comes from being raised in a largish theater family where the influences included a lot of hanging around with adults. And Max, being the youngest by a good many years, has it in spades.

Max is very comfortable in his skin, he knows who he is, isn’t afraid to show that to the world, and isn’t interested in judging or being judged about it. He just got up and performed – he’s a good musician, can play the hell out of that guitar he got as a high school graduation present, and perhaps more importantly, he’s becoming a very good entertainer. (You can see his performance here.)

So when he sang about meeting a woman in the cemetery who was there to bury her second husband (who had died when she fired a bullet “and he got in the way,”) he paused and said, “I like ’em crazy,” it was pretty funny. The woman sitting next to me paused, cocked her head then said, “OK” and laughed.

Max had a couple of things the other kids didn’t. It wasn’t just the musicianship. There was a pretty wide range of that. But most of the kids, you could see them thinking, could almost hear them counting, worrying more about getting the exact right note than keeping the flow, the rhythm. Max was just up there playing, relaxed and confident. He had stage presence. He missed a couple of lines, jumped a couple of places, but if you’d never heard him practice the song you’d never have known it. He just smiled and kept playing. He had fun with it, and the audience did, too.

And now, no matter where he goes in life, no matter what he decides on for a career, he’s always got that on his resume. “Oh yeah, I played Preservation Hall.”