Jeremy Coleman takes his sax solo.
The demise of Stax Records unfolds as one of the great tragedies in our city’s past, but the legacy of Memphis soul carries on today through the talent and ambition of the STAX Music Academy. The community youth development program began in 2000 with its first SNAP! Summer Music Camp at Stafford Elementary School, immersing 75 neighborhood boys and girls in the rich history of soul music once produced by Stax, with help from such legendary Stax artists as Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla.
“I wasn’t around during the original Stax days, but listening to the kids talk and watching them perform, to me, it’s like we’re doing absolutely the same thing all over again; providing a place where kids can make music together and hang out, learning as they go. The Stax people didn’t have instructors or anything like that, but it was all like their school,” says Tim Sampson, communications director for the Soulsville Foundation.
It’s all about soul
The idea behind the academy, to re-invest in the city’s musical roots, began with the creation of the Soulsville Foundation. This nonprofit organization founded in 1998, was built with the intent of creating the Stax Museum of American Soul Music (opened in May 2003) in conjunction with the academy. The Stax Music Academy has since expanded to an after-school program housed in a two-story building next door to the museum. They also host summer camps and special workshops in order to serve teens year-round.
“They had a summer camp coming up, and I just got into that, and I’ve loved it ever since,” says Amber Robinson, now a student at Middle Tennessee State University, who plans to become a music lawyer.
The building also became The Soulsville Charter School, which opened in 2005 with a class of 60 sixth graders, and now educates students in grades six through eleven with plans to extend to twelfth grade in 2011. The curriculum is focused on rigorous academics, and the students are required to learn to play one instrument and participate in an orchestra class. They recently broke ground for the construction of their own building, separate from the academy, at the back of the Soulsville lot. The new school is set for completion this summer, but for now everyone makes do converting classrooms to practice rooms at the end of every day.
President and CEO of Soulsville Foundation, Kirk Whalum describes the academy’s vision as existing to nurture the next generation of great soul communicators from our region, providing the teens with the tools they need to excel. Whalum, an internationally respected gospel and jazz saxophonist, originally became involved with Soulsville in 2006 as the organization’s first artist-in-residence.
“At the Stax Music Academy, it’s all about soul, and soul has many permutations, many different colors,” says Whalum to the audience gathered for the academy’s winter concert entitled “Funk in the Soul.”
Pumping out the groove
During the December concert, the group of 55 students took the stage dressed in full-on 1970s garb to pump out one classic groove after another; such recognizable hits as “Everyday People/Dance to the Music,” by Sly and the Family Stone, and “Superstition,” by Stevie Wonder, alongside Stax gems like Isaac Hayes’ “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic,” a mouthful in itself that Justin Hicks, a 15-year-old tenor, performs with the same profoundly nonchalant swagger you would expect from Hayes himself.
“There are so many arms that come from soul music, from the blues,” says Paul McKinney, the academy’s music director. “Funk didn’t just happen in a vacuum, there were things that led to it, and we believe that soul had its roots in spreading to funk.”
McKinney’s team of instructors communicate that principle quite clearly to students, who perform songs from both genres with zeal and conviction. The teens range from rising eighth-graders to seniors, but demonstrate a level of professionalism uncommon to most of their peers. Besides auditioning students for admittance to the academy based on skill level with the instrument of their choosing, instructors also assess their level of maturity and adaptability.
“It’s up to the kid. It’s skill, but it’s not always the most talented kid that gets the opportunity. If you’ve got the personality, or some other quality that we’re looking for, then I’m so excited to have you,” says McKinney.
Auditions take place for one of four ensembles: Premier Percussionists, the drum line; Streetcorner Harmonies, the choir and vocal group; Stax Music Academy Rhythm Section, a group of full-band instruments; and the Soulsville Swing Band Horns, a jazz band. Aside from concert-level rehearsals, the four groups interact in various ways throughout the year.
“The first thing that we do, within the first week, is a scavenger hunt in the museum. They have two or three pages of questions with things like, ‘What year did Otis Redding’s plane go down?’ We have workshops, guest speakers, and private instruction, but Friday is a great day to have independent sessions and then come together,” explains McKinney.
The story of Stax
It’s not just about teaching principles of music to the members of Soulsville, it’s about the vast influence of Memphis and Stax artists on the world’s stage. The students are also encouraged to explore the history of Stax
through various means, whether it be watching classic performances via the Internet or doing independent research for the Foundation’s Ben Cauley Scholarship, in honor of the sole survivor of the plane crash that took the lives of Otis Redding and four members of The Bar-Kays.
“You can’t just walk on this campus and not know about Stax. We are standing on the shoulders of legends,” says McKinney. “I think we give the kids a good understanding, and they’re more grounded than most students because of this environment.”
Now, the academy boasts a world-class music theory curriculum as well as high-quality music instruction for kids who’d like to go into other fields, such as production, management, or music law.
“In addition to Apple’s Garage Band program, which gives the students an introduction to production and composition, we’ve partnered with the Berklee College of Music in something that they call the City Music Network, for urban areas with underserved music programs. They have a flash-based web program called Pulse that ranges from music theory to videos, lessons, and practice tools,” says Dirk Kitterlin, assistant music director and head of the new Apple computer lab.
Although it targets at-risk teenagers, the academy accepts students from across the city, including those from their own Soulsville Charter School. The summer camp hosts kids from around the world, which has included students from North American Indian Reservations and exchange students from England. Youth mostly come to the academy by word-of-mouth, but McKinney and Whalum also actively recruit.
Groups of Stax Music Academy students have traveled to Europe, Australia, and around the U.S, opening for the likes of Booker T. Jones as well as accompanying Ballet Memphis and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. The Academy works to guide each student into college, and for the past two years, every senior they’ve graduated has achieved that goal, with many receiving scholarships.
McKinney reflects, “When you see, through the things that you’re teaching, the seeds you’re planting blossom and grow within a child, that is the ultimate reward.”