Boston's highly-respected Berklee School of Music brought its nationally recognized City Music Network Conference to downtown Memphis this week, posting up at the Westin Hotel for a three day intellectual dissection of the theme: "American Popular Music: The Untold Story."
The conference was a joint presentation by Berklee and the Stax Music Academy, which is part of the national link of music schools in Berklee's extended online music curriculum. Six students from Stax were among 109 students from throughout the nation that participated in the summer program on the Berklee campus. Fifty-nine students from 4th through 12th grade earned full scholarships through the college's online Pulse music program.
Featured panelists and speakers included several Stax connections: Soulsville creator & former CEO, Deanie Parker; former bandleader for the Temprees and later CBS executive, Schuyler Traughber; former president Al Bell; Chief Creative Officer Kirk Whalum; and Music Academy Vocal Director and Director of Operations Justin Merrick.
And listed as the Intergalactic Master of Outer Space Funk, cultural and industry icon was George Clinton. He spoke on the opening day's panel "Whence We've Come, Where We're Going & How We Get There: Popular Music and Teaching for Social Change."
Known to many for his unforgettable music and equally outrageous attitude, Clinton's inclusion was a perfect illustration of the panel's theme. Seventy-one now, usually suited and booted, as he was this day, the older and quieter Clinton shared the panel with "Amistad" author Alexs Pate and Latin jazz educator and composer Michelle Rosewoman.
Sharing his thoughts afterward, Pate, an associate professor of African American and African Studies at the University of Minnesota, talked about the disconnection in African-American society that many feel is created by today's rap music. He teaches a class called the " of Rap."
"There's never been a time when parents, teachers and older people have been separated from what our kids are doing," said Pate. "Rap is hard for many people to listen to, because some of it is dangerous, but there's a lot of it that is not. It's only dangerous because it's unchaperoned.
"We have to be in tune with what our kids are listening to be able to engage with them," he said. "Knowing about Kanye West or Talib Kwale bridges the gap of communication, giving parents and teachers a chance to open dialogue about things happening in their lives. And that's a good thing."
Expanding thought for its students is Berklee's goal, explained J. Curtis Warner Jr., who wears dual hats as associate vice president for Education Outreach and executive director of Berklee City Music.
"The goal is to expose the kids in our programs to many levels of music-based careers to teach them the importance of education in protecting their art," said Warner. "One of the interesting trends we see is that because they are educated they see far beyond the elusive music contract."
A graduate of Berklee himself, Warner's career experience is a perfect example. He was born in Philadelphia, a '70s soul music capital, which gave birth to Gamble and Huff's United Sound Studio. United Sound generated dozens of chart topping hits from artists such as The O'Jays, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes andThe Spinners). Warner got a record contract but the music was never released.
Moving to Boston after becoming a music instructor, Warner taught industry successes Bobby Brown, New Edition, Darren Starr and others. It's the stories behind such names that really stick with him.
"There was a young man, William Jr., who won a full scholarship to the Boston City Music program, read a book by a doctor in his senior year and decided he wanted to become a doctor," said Warner.
"Right now he's doing his residency at Temple University Medical School. The thing that is beautiful about this program at schools like Stax, we empower the kids to make their own decisions."