Web Extra! Scroll down to view a slideshow of photos from the Music Center.
Brazilian music is not the usual fare one would expect to hear wafting from the Garfield Park fieldhouse.
But Ben Jorge’s “Mas Que Nada,” popularized in a remix by the group Black Eye Peas, served as a dress rehearsal for the Chicago West Community Music Center’s (CWCMC) summer concert, held Aug. 7, at the Columbus Park Refectory.
The concert, “Soul of Chicago,” a culminating event for the center’s summer program, was a music exploration of the city’s influence on jazz, blues, gospel and R&B. Student performances took the audience on a musical journey back in time, showcasing the works of Sarah Vaughn, Louis Armstrong, Scott Joplin and Father Hynes and how they helped revolutionized jazz.
“Jazz might have been born in New Orleans, but it grew up in Chicago,” said Howard Sandifer, founder of the music education and appreciation program. “We got an extremely rich history of all genres of music – everything from classical, jazz and gospel. Chicago has played an intimate part in the development of all those styles.”
And for the last 10 years, that has been the mission of CWCMC: to expose inner city youth to all styles of music. Students enrolled in the center’s free music program learn more than just how to develop their voice or play an instrument. Students also learn the inner workings of the music industry, how to compose music, copyright songs, record, market and publish.
The music center responded to a lack of music programs in the public school system. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, music and art programs were cut from many public schools for budgetary reasons. Two decades later, schools still lack music and art classes, which many students in the past credit for keeping them in school, Sandifer said.
“There was a great need for music program on the West Side,” he said, noting that many programs imported music instructors from outside the community to teach music education at that time. “We are called to do this, to make a difference in the community.”
The lack of music programs demonstrates the need for more after-school programs like this, said Darlene Sandifer. As a substitute teacher for the Oak Park and River Forest school districts, she sees the disparities in music and art programs firsthand.
Students in her west suburban district have every kind of instrument imaginable. But in black communities, the closest thing youth may have is a drum line or a church choir, Darlene said.
“It’s a cheap way of getting a lot of kids to sing, but they still don’t know music theory. They don’t know all the elements of music,” she explained.
“You can go into any church on Sunday [and] hear some singing like you never heard before,” Howard Sandifer added. “We’ve got some tremendously talented people in our community, but we want to be able to provide training.”
Those who come to the program are not lacking talent, added Michael Ross, the program’s instrument and performance instructor. Many students, he said, show great potential.
“They come here wanting to learn,” Ross said, noting that those who are a little hesitant “find themselves really enjoying this program to the point they want to learn the art of music and music theory.”
He attributes students’ growth to interacting with other musicians and being around other youth with similar interests.
“I think it really has impacted knowing what direction they want to take in life,” Ross said. “Some are convinced they want to be a musician and do this full time, either as an educator or music performer.”
The program has grown since its inception nearly 10 years ago. In January, the center became a member of Berklee City Music Network out of Boston’s Berklee College of Music. The network partners with community organizations nationwide to teach music education in underserved communities. The center is one of six community groups selected for the program.
Randiss Hopkins was the Sandifers’ first student selected for the Berklee summer performance program, where participants sharpen their music skills in private lessons, ensembles and concert performances.
Working with an institution on the level of Berklee confirms the work the center does, said Howard, who stumbled upon the Berklee program in a magazine and applied for it last summer. He said the institution is committed to providing high quality music education in underserved communities.
Hopkins’ selection by the program is well deserved, the Sandifers contend. When the Currie High School student first came to them, they said, he was more interested in basketball, but he soon took to music.
“He went from basketball to keyboards,” Darlene said.
Since their program began, the Sandifers have provided music instruction to nearly 1,200 youths, many of whom started with the program as freshmen and returned to teach other budding musicians. They hope to expand the program by implementing a community orchestra and band.
Corey Mathis, 21, has been with the program since he was a freshman at the former Austin High School. He credits the center with putting him on the right track and can’t imagine where he would be without it.
“That is why I am glad about this program,” said Mathis, who plans to be a professional musician and can play drums, keyboards and base guitar thanks to CWCMC. “This is something I could do to occupy my time. I could be out doing a whole bunch of other things.”
Most students in the program pick up a second instrument. Jerry Crockrell is no exception. The Eastern Illinois University student began playing the flute in fifth grade, but because of the program took up the trumpet while in college. He chose the flute because it is challenging, the same reason most youth won’t pick up an instrument, he contends.
“It is easier to throw a ball in a hoop than pick up a flute and blow air into it,” said Crockrell, a music education major.
Movies like American Pie also could help explain why few young people play instruments, said David Houston, 14, who plays percussion, drums and piano. He noted that certain movies portray being in band as “uncool.”
“It has been depicted in TV shows and movies that if you are in band, then you are a band geek. It’s a popularity thing,” said Houston, a freshman at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
As the Sandifers’ grandson, Houston has been with the program from the beginning, but he also credits it for improving his drumming skills.
“I dabbled in it a little bit, but here is where I got a lot of experience on it,” he said.