Getting schooled in good music
By Lou Fancher Correspondent San Jose Mercury News
Leave it to Stanley Middle School Music Director Bob Athayde to attract a standing-room-only crowd on a recent parent-teacher conference day.
Of course, he had a little help from his friends.
An anonymous donation to the Generations of Jazz Foundation brought rock band Santana's keyboard player Dave Matthews, stage (Carnegie Hall) and television (The Tonight Show) fingerstyle guitarist Jim Nichols, artful "tapper" Dwayne Pate on six-string electric bass and Deszon Claiborne, a left-handed wizard on percussion, to Athayde's music room at 9:15 a.m. on October 17.
Or, all except Matthews, who hadn't received the memo and was nowhere to be seen when the 9:15 bell rang.
But jazz musicians are masters of improvisation and Athayde is no slouch at the ivories, so the band played on as students, faculty and a few locals crashing the party filed in and out at 27 minute intervals.
"I just figured kids would be in a weird space because it's conference day and I got the donation, so here we are," Athayde said between sets.
"Mr. Matthews is on his way," he announced to rows of animated students who, the next moment, virtually turned to enthralled stone as the quartet dove into "A Day in the Life of a Fool."
There were no sheets of music, no conversations about key, no setting of tempo or talk of who'd do what when. Instead, there were five minutes of Pate making harmonies all on his own, Athayde dropping out when playing the piano would have been redundant amid Nichols' chords, and Claiborne, impressing 14-year old Connor Ogro.
"He's a lefty, so everything he does is flipped," the eight-grade Stanley symphonic band member said. "It's cool how they don't need a plan. They just look at each other and go where they need to go."
Athayde echoed Ogro's enthusiasm, explaining to the audience how a swirling finger tells the band to keep playing and an upheld fist signals an ending.
"You don't have to be a professional like these guys, but one of the best things is that you can play music your whole life. You can do it forever," he said.
"Forever" is a surreal concept to most middle-schoolers, but Athayde had them believing in music's enduring charm by asking them to snap and snarl "swinging, singing -- at Duke's place." When the band took it away, it was sound in motion, with the four-man band tossing solos like baseball players throwing 'round the horn.
Matthews entered at 9:46, waving an iPhone. "It was 9:45, right?" he asked.
"That was an email from three weeks ago," cried Pate. "Even so, you're one minute late!" Claiborne called out.
The ribbing was good natured, and soon enough Matthews was at the piano, head cocked to one side, tossing dazzling motifs to Claiborne, who filled the room with the textured scratch and crash of cymbals. Pate's rich, booming bass tones threatened to bust through the walls, while Nichols -- bespectacled and still as a professor -- thumbpicked genius out of his instrument.
"That's what we do: we play something we all know and follow the leader," Nichols told the audience.
The band members talked about the different styles they play -- jazz, country, blues, rock, funk, classical and stride piano, which Matthews demonstrated.
"Thomas (Fats) Waller was a stride musician and recorded 500 sides," he told the students, before realizing the term "sides" was meaningless to most of them. "Music used to be on records, vinyl recordings with five songs on a side, you know? Of course, now you have iPods and can get thousands on them, so 10 songs is like nothing."
During a break between sessions, Matthews said having perfect pitch helped him along the way to his musical career. Having small hands made playing some pieces more difficult, he admitted, but having the right mindset was more important.
"There's a solo/supportive mix to rock, blues and jazz," he said. "Knowing when to leave your mark and when to pull back is a language in and of itself."
Asked to comment on musicians influencing his past and current playing, Matthews dismissed contemporary country music as "pop with big hats" and punk as "only occasionally worth listening to." Instead, his respect is reserved for rap as a genre ("Ya' know, it's not all good," he cautioned.) and for classical composers: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Liszt and others.
Athayde said the best thing about having high-powered musician friends isn't the fame, or even the fans represented by local parents and jazz lovers who sneaked in to the workshop.
"The coolest thing is that these kids didn't have to miss class, they didn't have to drive over the bridge," he said. "They just got to come down the hall and hear the best in the biz."