It’s not Deep (full interview)
Breaking it Down with Harvey White Jr.
Read the narrative version >
Pulitzer Prize-nominated musician and composer Harley White Jr. has been living life out loud, one note at a time, since the moment he picked up his first instrument (a violin) at the daybreak of his youth. Although the self-described “Bluesician” is best known as a virtuoso bassist, White, leader of the Harley White Jr. Orchestra, always had an eye for sounds, and the mellifluous colors that span across each measure. The Northern California-based instrumentalist’s talents earned him a 2015 Pulitzer Prize nomination as musical director of Mark Stein’s “Direct From Death Row, The Scottsboro Boys: An Evening of Vaudeville and Sorrow.”
The Harley White Jr. Orchestra is Harley White (bass), Darius Babazadeh (alto sax), Reagen Branch (tenor sax), Byron Colborn (baritone sax), Justin Au (trumpet), Aaron Smith (trumpet), Brandon Au (trombone), Clark Goodloe (piano) and Erinn Anova (arranger, resident diva).
articulator: Describe your work.
Harley White Jr.: I make music.
I don’t believe in labels. I think they are a 20th-century idea that was very helpful finding music in record stores back in the day, but in my world, Beethoven sits right next to Chuck Berry, it’s all interconnected. Whether jazz, classical, funk, or blues—I make music.
articulator: Do you have difficulty finding work in Sacramento?
Harley White Jr.: I have the orchestra, and that’s my primary baby. Though, because I live in a culture that doesn’t support live music and the fact that a lot of people don’t have ample space or budgets, I also have a modular version of the band.
There’s the nine-piece band, and if you can’t afford that, we have the trio or the quartet; consequently, the trio became good due to the sheer number of gigs we played. The trio became its own entity, but the orchestra and the trio are related, and as a matter of fact, there’s no orchestra; there is the trio plus six.
I’m also not dogmatic. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, and I have another band, Black Yacht Club, where I get more of my contemporary ideas out. I’m very good at r&b, and I’m good at disco, too.
In the end, it’s really just two bands, a funk band, and a jazz band.
articulator: Who are the members of the core trio?
Harley White Jr.: Dominick Garcia and Clark Goodloe, we’re the three amigos. Clark is my right-hand man. I mean, we’re not Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington, but we do have a very symbiotic relationship. There would be no orchestra without Clark.
articulator: You also compose?
Harley White Jr.: Oh, yes. That’s my primary vocation. People call me a bass player, and I actually have to correct them.
articulator: Do you perform any of your pieces live?
Harley White Jr.: Being a jazz musician. I know the standards, but I always make a point to play original music. My orchestra is like 80% of my music. We have a swing book, so when we do swing dances, we play the hits for people. But everything else you hear, I wrote.
articulator: Where can people find your music?
Harley White Jr.: I’m on Amazon, Spotify—“Cupcake”, that’s the name of the album. And then my old band, Papa’s Culture, is still available on Amazon. Papa’s Culture and my orchestra’s record are my two pieces of art.
articulator: What are your thoughts about the tension between creative expression and commercial success?
Harley White Jr.: Hmm. Is there tension? I think people who really love this don’t give a shit about the money. George Clinton said the funk is its own reward, and Branford Marsalis said, “everybody that can play jazz, does.”
For the most part, I believe that’s true, everybody that can play jazz, does. Not because it’s easy or cool, it’s hard and takes commitment. Musicians that get it and have the intellect to play at that level and understand what the fuck’s going on are special.
They stand out because a lot of people cannot play this art form. What’s that worth? I mean, I’m in a select group of people, I’ve spent hours learning the music and suffering and doing all this stuff, and to me, that’s the reward.
Ok, so let’s talk about consumerism, there are so many basic bitches making so much money that it’s not funny. In fact, it’s sad, because dudes can’t even sing anymore. I’m not jealous of these guys. I have a girlfriend, and I have a car. What do they have going on? Oh, they have jewelry, cars, and the trappings for a perceived lifestyle. No, I’m not conflicted.
So many people don’t have a fucking clue who they are and what they want to do with their life. I’m not one of those people, for me, while it’s been feast or famine, it’s been a life lived. How much money can you put on that?
Like Charlie Mingus said, “I always have a few dollars in my pocket,” you’ll never convince me that I’m not rich. I’ve had this conversation with people, and I understand what they’re saying, that my portfolio could be this or that, but I’m rich as fuck. You can disagree with me, I don’t care.
Along the Wayward Path
articulator: Where does that come from?
Harley White Jr.: My grandma, Laura Louise, she was strong, independent, and entrepreneurial. But mostly she didn’t take shit from anyone. She told me that I was great and smart, and not to take shit from people, they can all kiss my ass. It’s not deep.
But it wasn’t like she smothered me with kindness, she held me to high standards. She dealt with secondhand clothes, so I worked at flea markets and went to clothing stores with her. I saw her deal with customers of all stripes, all types of people, all walks of life. She dressed many cross-dressing performers during the 70s, so I got over homophobia years ago. She taught me to treat people with respect.
She was a force of action, and that shaped me as a person. Yeah, do what you’re told and apply yourself. Same with my cousins, if you look at my family, especially the women in my family, we all have college degrees. In fact, my grand-uncle, James Smith, who had lost a leg, attended Tuskegee University in the 1890s, and after teaching, he eventually became the Principal of the segregated black grade school in his hometown of Bastrop, Louisiana. He was the first in our family to become an educator.
I come from “can-do” people. Period. Dwelling on the disadvantages that African Americans deal with in America, no, I’m not here for that, I set my mind on something and just get it done. At some point, you don’t have time for excuses. You just got to get it done.
articulator: Did you grow up in Sacramento or Oakland?
Harley White Jr.: I grew up in both. I’m from Oakland, and when my parents divorced, I went back and forth during my teen years.
I claim Sacramento as home. I’m proud of Sacramento, but as my friend Raphael Saadiq once told me, you can take the boy out of Oakland, but you can’t take Oakland out of the boy.
articulator: When did music enter the picture?
Harley White Jr.: Well, it’s always been there, both sides of my family are musically talented, and I’m very fortunate because my dad is one of the top musicians in the Bay Area, and also one of the top educators.
So, when I was a kid, driving around with him in his car, we weren’t listening to r&b, we listened to classical music and jazz. His two concessions were Earth, Wind and Fire, and Bill Withers. I did get to listen to r&b records around my mom and my aunts.
To this day, my dad is always teaching and talking about music, it’s the most annoying thing about him. On every visit, you know you’re going to get a music lesson. Two hours on the road, come in the house and sit down on the couch, and my dad nags, “come to the piano, man.” “No, dad, let me get some water.” “No, I got to show you this arrangement….” It always happens. I don’t take it personally because even my brothers and sisters, who don’t play music, get the same treatment. Even my niece, she was like, “Grandpa, I don’t play the piano.” But, “no, that’s fine, let’s just have a seat and let me show you something.”
It’s just the way it is, and while it can be annoying, it’s also a beautiful environment that allows you to grow as an artist. Between my grandma’s grit and savvy, my mom pushing academics and my dad just being a brilliant musician and educator, my family has enriched my life in so many ways.
articulator: What grade level did your dad teach?
Harley White Jr.: He taught band class all over. When I was in his band, it was at the Alvarado Middle School, but he also taught at Skyline High and San Francisco State. Longfellow Elementary was his first teaching gig. I remember that vividly. I remember being a seven-year-old kid, and my dad’s elementary school orchestra playing the theme to Shaft.
Huh? Come on, man. There was this kid on wah-wah guitar. This is 1974, and you’re a 10-year-old kid, and you get to play the theme to Shaft! With a string section and the wah, wah, and I’m just a kid in the audience thinking, oh yeah, this is good. This is the way it should be.
articulator: Did you see yourself becoming a music teacher, like your Dad?
Harley White Jr.: Yes and no, initially, when I was on my academic track, I had no interest in becoming a music teacher. I saw what it did to my dad, and I had no interest in running into that burning building, and it’s too bad because I probably would’ve been good at it. I love music, but I knew that school administrators are going to make my life miserable. And, I can’t be sad in front of a bunch of kids, who wants that? Who wants a band director showing up mad all day, every day, and that’s who I would have become teaching in public schools.
articulator: So, you became a community-education-based music teacher?
Harley White Jr.: For the longest time, I wouldn’t say I was a music teacher because I have friends who are credentialed, and I believed I would be disrespecting their education. They really did the work to earn those degrees. So, really, it’s semantics. For the longest time, because it has a broader definition, I’d call myself a music advocate. It allows me a little more leeway, letting me say some things that they can’t.
articulator: For instance?
Harley White Jr.: I love my educational colleagues, but they’ve been given a shitty deal when you consider how music education fits in our society.
articulator: What do you mean by that?
Harley White Jr.: Well, if you’re a rich kid, you probably have a decent band. Prop 13 killed all the equitability that allowed kids in lesser advantaged neighborhoods to have music education, so let’s get to the root of this.
I live in America, where blues and jazz were invented, we’re talking about slavery, call, and response, and all the things that it took to make a Louis Armstrong. Louis didn’t happen in a vacuum.
There is a case to be made about cultural appropriation in music and the money, without any thought of redistribution or reinvestment that came with it. I can go through jazz AND blues society photos from the last 40 years, and considering all the youth outreach those organizations made, you won’t find any black kids in those pictures.
You say, Black Lives Matter, you love black culture, you have the hat with the matching t-shirt, and are quick to say, “I’m not a racist.” I need to point out that you’re not necessarily for us either. So that makes you worthless to us. Can you understand that? Oh, good for you. You’re not a racist. You’re just a cultural appropriator and taker. Good for you.
articulator: What if they’re playing the music out of respect and appreciation, what would giving back to the community look like?
Harley White Jr.: Go find a little black girl and give her a clarinet and pay for her lessons. That’s what you can do, just do that and see what follows.
articulator: So, changing one life at a time…
Harley White Jr.: Yeah. You think black kids don’t want to go to Sly Park, get out in the woods, and play their clarinets to the deer. Huh? Why would you think that? That’s fucking weird. Stop lying. Stop being weird. Be human, right? But if you have a little edge, and you just take enough and give back, nobody is going to call you out.
For whatever reason, this is particular to America. Cause when I go to Europe, they don’t have any problem with black people being smart. There it’s like, if you’re brilliant, we’ll just roll with it, you know? For instance, a good friend of mine who is a very successful rock musician, and also a Trump supporter, once told me that Obama was the “whitest black man ever,” and I was like, “oh, I didn’t know you had credentials on what is black and what’s not? Dude, you can’t play funk music, so where’d you get your black credentials?”
articulator: What does the Obama comment say to you?
Harley White Jr.: Well, the fact that Obama is articulate, smart, and has two degrees offends my friend’s every sensibility, cause he’s a blue-collar, white dude. And, like I said, very successful. So, I take it that if a black man is successful, he’s supposed to be doing what my friend does or something similar. Reading books, being articulate, and lecturing on constitutional law doesn’t fit his image of a black man. He thinks a black man is either a pimp, a basketball player, or any stereotype that’s out there. But Obama was top of his class, Harvard Review, bro, he just did Obama shit.
articulator: Then what’s the common ground with your friend?
Harley White Jr.: Well, we’re both huge music fans. We’re both fans of producers.
I mean everybody likes the guitar player, the singer and the other musicians. But we actually like the guys behind the board, too. That’s how much we love the game. And it doesn’t hurt that we have a mutual appreciation of Paul McCartney. We both love him, so we can, even today, go on and on about Paul McCartney when we are together.
He also was a patron of my band, Papas Culture, and gave me a lot of producing tips.
articulator: You mentioned you’re classically trained, where did you attend school?
Harley White Jr.: North Texas State, which was amazing. And then went to the University of Southern California on a full ride, and it was not amazing because when I got there, most of the classes were western classical music classes. I had to do it because that’s the degree offered. I was there for jazz, but all the undergrad classes were classical music, so I worked hard and earned A’s in every class. I love music history and music theory, and since I grew up listening to classical music, I wasn’t a fish out of water because I already had a deep love of classical music.
My big thing in college was getting the scores, putting on the classical recordings, and in my mind’s eye, while listening to Debussey, or Stravinski, watch the music go by as I followed along with the score.
That’s my education. That’s why I’m a composer. That was fun for me. I miss that shit because you can see the music going up and down, you see the whole thing. I do have a head for the entire game, and if I went back to school, I would go back for conducting.
articulator: What opportunities does community education create that public schools currently can’t provide?
Harley White Jr.: Nothing. I shouldn’t need to even be doing this shit. They should just have proper music education in public school and respect what it does for the kids. I’ve spent 30 years as a musician, trying to be as good as I was in high school, which is a reflection of what my teachers and mentors taught me during that time.
As a community educator, all I’m doing is limping along with no budgets, like Don Quixote. It should be what I had when I was in public school. I went to an exceptional high school, and I’m not confused about that, I just think we need to make music education a priority.
John Philip Sousa petitioned Woodrow Wilson after WWI saying, “listen, fool, you just got out of this war, we’re Americans, there should be a band in every damn school,” and Woodrow Wilson said, “you know what? You’re right.”
Where did we go wrong?
articulator: What makes it so important?
Harley White Jr.: Music can be such an individualistic thing, and people have all kinds of different talents and abilities. You get interested in it for all sorts of reasons, but at some point, if you want to do something great, you need teammates. You need to buy into a bigger system.
You’re going to have to check your ego and do something for the greater cause, the team. That’s what I learned from Mr. Anguilo (Mr. A). That’s why I get so emotional because I don’t see that often. I don’t see people rolling like that now.
I appreciate how he took my abilities to help me find my path. “You’re great, White,” he called you by your last name, “you’re great, you’re wonderful, but we’re not doing it your way. If you don’t agree, there’s the door.” I had to make a choice, and I made the right choice. I stayed in the band, I shut my mouth and did my job.
While kids today might consider that draconian or authoritarian, it wasn’t. It was what we needed to do to win competitions, it’s what we needed to be excellent. Every kid should have that kind of education. I don’t care if it comes from the football team or debate team—anywhere they’re pushed to do their thing at the highest level, but as a team—and that’s hard to do.
articulator: You’re talking about discipline?
Harley White Jr.: Yes, definitely. Mr. A, and my dad, too, have this way about them. They’re both no-nonsense guys and also the most charming guys you’ll ever meet. Charming. Funny. But don’t horse around when it’s time to go, because it’s just time to go. I’ve always marveled at that, and that’s something I don’t think a lot of art forms embrace.
articulator: You call yourself a music advocate, not a teacher, but you do teach music to kids. What is different in the way you do that versus the way, say, your dad or Mr. A did?
Harley White Jr.: When I first started community teaching, Justin DeHart and I co-founded a place called Joe’s Style Shop. It was then that I had my epiphany, I had already been a recording artist, and I realized I didn’t really want to make pop music anymore.
I also realized that my peers didn’t know shit about music—I’m talking about my peers, not little kids. Guys my age didn’t know shit about music. I’m not a person to bring up problems without solutions, and one thing I realized was that very few black parents were getting their kids involved in jazz.
I decided that we needed a space where there was no alcohol, a place where kids can have access to good music. What if there was a spot where kids didn’t have to sneak in to listen to music? I was aware of the youth programs that were just for rich white kids, but nothing in our community.
I’m just one guy, I’m not going to save the planet, but I wanted to find out who’s like-minded. Who’s seeing how this game is going, and who wants to do something to make it better.
articulator: It’s as much music appreciation as it is training…
Harley White Jr.: Well, here’s the thing, once I started Joe’s Style Shop, a couple of wealthy white parents were like, “hey, my kids are in the traditional jazz society and they don’t offer reggae, they don’t offer funk, let alone blues. Can you help?”
That’s real. So, I had all these
I wouldn’t teach kids jazz and leave out funk—James Brown, Louis Jordan, they’re all tied together, they’re not separate things. Who thinks like that?
My method of teaching embraces everyone, and the existing public-school model does not.
articulator: So, you actually created an inclusive curriculum?
Harley White Jr.: Yes, and we’re performing. I’m also coaching my little jazzy juniors on getting their setlist together, to wear a suit and tie, and understand that they’ll get the chance to do it their way eventually, but since I’m in charge of them at age 14, we’re just going to make it spit and shine. So be a pro, thank the people for coming, and introduce the band.
That’s the thing, the jazz world once had people like Art Blakely, Charles Mingus, and even Miles Davis, who would find young proteges and bring them along.
Like the New Orleans culture, where you have the professors, the one guy in the neighborhood that just kind of knew everything. I don’t think I’m that, although I carry the same kind of spirit.
articulator: Where do these classes happen?
Harley White Jr.: At first, in the homes of the kids. These are affluent white people who have music rooms and the means to pay for instruction. But now I’m working out of the Martin Luther King library in south Sacramento, we’re called the Sojourner Truth Jazz Ensemble. My friend Shona McDaniels of the Sojourner Truth Multicultural Art Museum, who is a very important muralist and community activist, found the funds to start a music program. But that’s only part of it—yes, she found the money, and she also found the parents. This is the program I’m teaching now, which is probably why I’m so emotional today because I get so much juice from this experience.
I’m just having a ball, the parents are involved, and once you have the parents bought in, you can do so much. So for the first time, I feel like I AM a music teacher. I wear that hat now. I’m okay because of the support I get from the parents.
It’s one thing to disseminate information to kids during a music lesson, but when you have the parents engaged, that’s team building, that’s going somewhere. This is what Mr. A and my dad had going on.
Today’s music is shitty, and it’s because of the lack of good music education. No one can sing anymore. It’s just a bunch of guys talking about champagne and making “twerp, twerp” sounds. And these parents are old enough to remember what it was like before the cuts to music education.
I want to empower kids. The goal is not to make professional musicians or pop stars, I have no interest in that at all. What I wish for them is to be savvy consumers and music appreciators, and there’s no better way to do that than develop the musician side of them. When my kids listen to a singer they can tell, “hey, he’s out of tune, does that guy ever sing without auto-tune?” They start making their own decisions about it because they actually have some knowledge, that’s it.
It’s also about being around great people and just being happy, and the recognition of not letting your ego define you. Yeah, I was in a band with a whole bunch of talented kids, I wasn’t the most talented, and it was okay. We had a bigger job to do than me worrying about getting my feelings hurt.
Looking back at those days, when we approached the field during competitions, we were at attention, all 168 of us, we did our show and came off the playing field, still at attention. We didn’t talk to each other for the last 45 minutes, but when we got back to the bus, and they finally said, “at ease,” we collectively knew whether the show was good or bad. I don’t know how we knew it, but we were like, “oh, that was so-so,” or, “at ease,” and we erupted in celebration. Huh? I didn’t talk to you guys in 45 minutes, but we all somehow knew, and the competition scores reflected our emotions.
For me, it was about the responsibility, the teamwork, being cold, hungry, all that stuff. I was so into it that I forgot about how hard it was. It was hard, and I wouldn’t change a damn thing for a million bucks.
articulator: Is receiving recognition for the work the band put into the competitions part of the payoff?
Harley White Jr.: Oh, definitely. Without a doubt, you can’t put a price on that.
articulator: The band became a community.
Harley White Jr.: Yes.
articulator: Can you talk about what that means?
Harley White Jr.: I think my most ideal sense of community is not unlike Mr. A and the marching band, where there’s the recognition that not everyone can be the drum major. It was about discovering your talent and owning it. If you’re the cymbal player, you need to be proud of it because you’re going to be the best goddamn cymbal player in the world, this shit doesn’t work without you too.
You’re just as important as the drum major. Just as important as the third flute player, and if you’re not or you don’t act like it, there’s the door. We’re about this because it only takes one kid to be off, right? Only takes one kid on the B flat, and we’re all playing C, it doesn’t sound right. Don’t be the kid on the b flat. Okay?
Do we treat people like that? Do we recognize them for their true selves? Oh, you’re black, you’re homeless, you’re disabled. See him for what he is instead of trying to make him what you think he should be. But we don’t roll like that. We’re always putting square pegs in round holes.
articulator: So, part of being a community educator is to respect people for their ability and encourage them to be their best.
Harley White Jr.: And to show them that there’s a place in the world for them to play.
I want an educational system that helps kids figure out what they’re good at. You’re good with motors, you should be a mechanic. Encourage that kid to read and learn to become the best mechanic he can be.
If it’s apparent that he’s good with his hands, maybe we can get him to really trust that, and possibly books might become more interesting for him. Give him a chance. See him for who he is and what he really can bring to the community.
So, when I say community, it means that everybody’s valuable, and we are helping people find their value and provide them with the opportunity to succeed.
I think that sense of community revolves around humanity. My utopian idea is to have arts be in the base curriculum, along with english and the hard subjects. It shouldn’t be extracurricular because we’re all affected by music; it’s all around us. We’re all influenced by art, it’s all around us, and so we should be informed about it.
Our system is built to create consumers. The dumber they are, the more they can sell them stupid shit. For example, people think Kanye West is a genius—Kanye is a very successful artist, but put on Mozart, listen to Bach, and you’ll hear genius. Kanye is a famous rapper, and he’s got very cool beats, but he’s not a genius.
articulator: Do people confuse success with genius?
Harley White Jr.: Yes, yes, yes. Again, education will help you to understand the difference.
We also have to recognize Duke Ellington in this conversation. Again, he is the first African American entertainer that would never be dehumanized, he never had to play a butler in a movie, like Louis Armstrong or when Billie Holiday played a maid, and that was because of his manager Irving Mills. Irving’s like, “dude, we’re selling you as the new Mozart, we’re selling to you as the top of the top. You can’t have any negro character cartoony shit.”
They spent a lot of money in trade papers and sued a lot of people to make sure that Duke’s image was always 100%. Now to be a black kid in the 30’s and every time you see this guy, he looks like a million bucks. Did that change any minds? Did that help any kids develop a sense of self? He’s the only black man in media in 1930 that doesn’t look like a fucking clown.
So, when we’re building community, those images, and use of iconism is big. When these kids now see Lil Wayne, he’s drugged out or whatever, those images could lead to low self-esteem and over self-involvement, isn’t that what he’s projecting?
Duke was careful, he knew what he was projecting, he was representing the Harlem Renaissance. I think he even knew there were going to be eons of musicians talking about how great he was because he looked like a million bucks in every photo and they wanted to look like that, they wanted to feel like that.
I want that for every kid. Oh, definitely. Every kid. I really do.
What I see today is that we’re dealing with depression. Today, our kid’s self-worth is derived from the gram (Instagram), watching all these other kids living a life that they’re not living. We need to help them understand that you’re cooler than that, and that’s all made up anyway, it’s all make-believe.
You got your homies and you should go play music together, play in a rock band, and really make something. Know that you have the power to quit giving everybody else the power, and that starts with art.
articulator: Aside from education, you’re also involved with advocacy for arts education, where did that start?
Harley White Jr.: My advocacy began with Joe’s Style Shop, and it’s one of the things that I’m still proud of. It was the beginning for so many artists that are doing good things now, like Shaun Burner. His first show was at Joe’s Style Shop.
I was really heavily involved from 1995 to 2000, and, after I left, they rolled for a couple more years as it grew into a broader community.
Those folks are still my friends. As a matter of fact, Art Street was the continuation of Joe’s Style Shop. As Sean grew up and became an ass-kicker, he brings that whole family vibe to this community. He always reaches out and connects, he’ll come to me with, “I need you to do the jazz thing” for things like Art Street.
That’s the world I want to live in. Like when there’s a big event, and someone asks, “who’s gonna do the jazz? Call Harley.” I have a vast umbrella of friends and like-minded people in different disciplines who can support each other through collaboration.
articulator: So, it’s like the gathering of the tribes, where various creative communities overlap and find ways to collaborate and support each other?
Harley White Jr.: Boom. Yeah. And I can be in the lead position or a background player, depending on the need.
The best thing about Art Street was that I got to wear all my hats. For something like music, I’m the lead. But if they just needed someone to move things, pick up trash, I did that as well. It was about everyone lifting hands and working together to make something memorable. That was one of the best shows on every level. The music was terrific. Art Hotel was cool, but Art Street was one of the best music events I’ve been to in a long time. My favorite was the West End club, where we did a lot of jazz in the context of what a jazz club was like in the 30s, and people loved it.
They also put my orchestra on the big stage. With all the electronica kids, hip-hop kids, the noise bands, and DJs. No segregation at all, just like art should be. The fact that city officials came and saw that, and we still don’t have a music festival without some building going down, is criminal. It proved to me that we have a bunch of squares in power, and they need to get the fuck out of the way.
articulator: The city just funded $300,000 in creative economy grants. If you had $300,000 what would you do with it?
Harley White Jr.: If I had $300,000, I’d bring the Sacramento Dixieland Jubilee back, but I’d be culturally sensitive and make it economically viable. Create a music festival that would put Sacramento on the map. We have better food and weather than Austin, why are they getting all the glory? We’re close to Silicon Valley, the Bay Area, and the Sierras. Why are we losing this one?
articulator: Describe what you mean by culturally sensitive and economically viable.
Harley White Jr.: One: it’d be a jazz festival in the real sense of the word. I would take Mayor Steinberg’s tourist committee to Europe and get them outside of this small mid-western mindset because while jazz festivals in Europe have folks like Lenny Kravitz as the headliner, they also have a stage where the kids go. They have the Herbie Hancock stage, where us old heads go, those festivals program that shit and put asses in the seats. All in the name of jazz.
Who’s segregated? The Rolling Stones headlining the New Orleans jazz festival? No, they’re not jazz, but they’re still there. You go catch the Stones, and I’ll hit the Ron Carter stage. So, who are these squares? Who are the people that don’t sit with the people of this culture but want to dictate to us what it should be? I say, ride along. It’s like, “what’s wrong with white kids today?” well, they don’t have any cool black kids to copy.
It’s all related, bro. It’s all connected. So, get the black kid into music cause you’re going to steal their style anyway. I got receipts on that, from Louis Armstrong to Little Richard and James Brown. They start something new, white kids come and get paid more to do it.
We’ve got to stop that, when you throw a festival, don’t be segregated, let me repeat it, Beethoven, next to Berry in the B section, As Bill Graham said, let the people decide for themselves. They’re not stupid.
articulator: Bill Graham programming Miles Davis to open for the Grateful Dead, for example?
Harley White Jr.: Yeah. Frank Zappa breaks it down perfectly, talking about Woodstock. He proposes that rock music was better during the sixties when there was a bunch of old white dudes chomping on cigars and asking, “well, whaddya think, will it sell?”
After Woodstock, those same guys were like, oh shit, I need to go hire professional hipsters to find more of this shit, Woodstock was like 500,000 kids. So now we got the A and R guy, the middleman, the “professionals” making culture, replacing organic creativity. We don’t need that person. Let the people decide for themselves. It was better when a bunch of old dudes reacted to the culture instead of trying to create it. They were like, “oh, it sold, make some more.”
Just do something hip. Just have a cool music festival. Music that people want to see without segregating genres. Get the most significant artist you can get to perform at Raley’s Field and create smaller stages down the Capitol Mall and have a real festival, celebrating all cultures in Sacramento.
Just bring back the Dixieland Jubilee. Don’t even change the name, but this time add the black people, especially kids, cause they’re going to show you the future. They’ll make this shit worth going into the future. Disconnect from them, and you’re going to die on a vine. And that’s precisely what happened.
articulator: if you think about it, if schools did have a music program that feeds into the jazz festival as a city-wide annual school competition, some of the proceeds can be earmarked to pay for the high school jazz bands.
Harley White Jr.: Oh, I love that, that’s a good idea, and then in 10, 15, 30, or more years, the kids who played in this festival become patrons. I played this festival, I’ve been here for 43 years, I started when I was seven, and now my grandson plays trumpet, that’s the circle of life thing, right?
articulator: Let’s say you only had $3,000, not $300,000.
Harley White Jr.: I would do a battle of the bands. Whatever happened to the battle of the bands? They stopped having them! Here’s how it would work: one, I would have the metal kids going against the hip-hop kids, going against the old dudes with the bluegrass band. Who wins? The judge comes out, puts his hand over each group, and whoever gets the most screams wins. It’s not deep.
There are no panels, no experts. I’m trying to take the experts out. You don’t need them, let people judge for themselves what they like. But here’s something you have to understand going in, the boy band is going to win. We already know that, all right? Because this is about girls, and the girls are going to scream loudest for the boy band.
But here’s the positive, the guy who’s into reggae, his favorite band got fourth place, still had his favorite band represented. If there was no battle of the bands, or it was segregated to only metal bands, there’s nothing there for him. By being more inclusive, instead of 20 or 30 people at the show, you build attendance by representing all communities within the city.
The band that took second place, well, they like the drummer from another group. We need the drummer from band five, and then they get him and become the Beatles. If you don’t have these things happening, and people aren’t taking chances, you can’t really make these valuable connections.
Here’s the thing, society is segregated, the bluegrass band is going to get the gig at the brewery, and that’s okay, that’s their community. Just let it happen. Don’t be the expert. No, we don’t need some A and R man, trying to find the next cool thing and label it. That’s where Sac News and Review went wrong with the SAMMIES. 14 categories, there’s alt-rock, hard rock, punk rock, rock emo. Now they have r&b cover bands. They’re doing too much and trying too hard.
That’s the thing, the middleman is trying to make it seem like he’s doing something industrious. He’s not, can we get rid of these people? In this age of social media, do we need a cultural gatekeeper anymore? We don’t need Dick Clark or Don Cornelius to tell us which records are hits, just put the talent on and let people decide. It’ll go viral if it’s good or for whatever reason.
articulator: People like what they like?
Harley White Jr.: Miles Davis said, “people like shit.” I mean, that’s real, “people like shit.” I mean, that’s a hard thing for me to believe because I’ve worked really hard to make music as beautiful as I can, and Miles did too.
I guess I’m speaking as someone who, like Miles Davis, is classically trained, but still, despite jazz and classical training, knows a lot of different musicians and still has an ear to the ground. Miles was a big fan of Prince, as well as hip hop records and other genres.
He wasn’t bagging on any type of journey or genre, per se, but the need for instant gratification, the lack of education and understanding of the humanities. All of this adds up to people enjoying shit if they were more educated, more exposed. I’m not saying that some pop music would not still be shitty, but people would be able to understand the difference.
articulator: What is the city doing right?
Harley White Jr.: The things I like about Sacramento don’t have anything to do with the government. The weather is beautiful, the farmer’s market—yeah, I guess I like the fact that they’ve gotten behind the food culture—though the Farm to Fork thing went too far when they took down the city’s slogan, City of Trees. I do like the fact that the restaurants are getting cheers and the farmers are getting a little shine. I do like that.
So, while I do like that we’re promoting our food culture, I don’t like the fact that it’s $18 for a hamburger now. I love the creativity that’s happening in the food scene. There is a very artful food movement, and while a lot of it is hype, I have friends doing some good work, and I’m a little envious, you know because the city really took it upon itself to shine a light on the Sacramento food scene.
Now, what we need is a horn to mouth festival, because unfortunately, in contrast, our musicians are more popular and well known than Sacramento’s chefs. You can go to Arizona and mention Randy Paragary, and the mother fuckers say “who?” but the Def Tones they know. How does that work?
I remember when my artist friends could afford to live in Midtown. It was a golden era that’s gone. So that’s why it took me a second to think about the question, it’s because none of my artist friends live in Midtown anymore.
And I’m talking about successful artists, these are not broke people, they just can’t afford it anymore. We’re all getting displaced.
articulator: Where are those folks going?
Harley White Jr.: Moving to houses in the suburbs, where people are renting and subletting rooms, we scattered everywhere, Natomas, Tahoe Park, Citrus Heights…
articulator: I hear that question a lot, “do I need to move to Elk Grove? Do I have to move to Lodi?”
Harley White Jr.: Yes. You do. Yes, we do. We have the city promoting that it’s all happening downtown! We’re all like, what the fuck’s happening downtown? The people that were downtown for the last 20 years have left. What’s there now?
But you know what? I was at Luna’s last night. There are 30 people there, straight jazz junkies, it was so good. They did a tribute to Monk; usually, they do free jazz, but they stayed inside. They did Monk and just killed it, on a Monday night! He gets no support from the city, and that place is an institution.
But, oh, the Sacramento Kings got a new house, and they’re not playing above .500 still, after 20 years. But no cash in the kitty for Luna.
articulator: Talking about the people who made Midtown cool and are being priced out, are there new cool folks coming in to fill that void?
Harley White Jr.: Kids with money. I’m sorry. I mean, look at R street, how many African American artists live there? Yeah, yeah. All these kids, I mean, stop lying about the application process. I know how SMAC works; I’ve been in meetings where they declare, “oh, we have this equity initiative.” No, you don’t, everybody didn’t get a chance to hear about this. I can’t even get mad about it more.
articulator: With that in mind, what advice do you have for people, who are feeling squeezed out—to help them utilize their own ambition, and whatever discipline and creativity they have to figure out how to succeed on their own?
Harley White Jr.: You have to make your choices, don’t you? And that’s what every artist has gone through from Michelangelo to Dali to Duke. The question you have to answer is, “do you love this game?”
You have to decide if you really want to do this because who told you it was going to be sunshine and roses, and art openings? Well, you probably shouldn’t have listened to them. Yes. Cut the lies and do it for yourself.
You have to stay true to yourself and believe in what you’re doing. If you’re bending your vision to get your art to fit in some lame program, you’re doing a disservice to yourself for that $2,500 check. You end up creating some mediocre shit.
A lot of people in the arts don’t have the commitment to do the repetition. Again, lip service. They know the shortcuts, but when it’s gritty time, meaning when it’s not fun, and no one’s looking, the folks that don’t have the discipline or focus on doing the work won’t succeed.
articulator: Are you able to make ends meet with your music career?
Harley White Jr.: I learned how to hustle from my grandma, and I’ve had all kinds of odd jobs. I like that about myself, I’ve never generated a lot of money, but I’ve never been really broke. I’ve been able to help others and be the person who just does what needs to be done. Just pick that up. Bro.
That’s a skill. Oh, do you want me to do that job? I’ll get it done. Thanks. Where’s the money? Thank you. Currently, I’m doing odd jobs like cleaning Bed and Breakfasts, and I have some house painting gigs. I love that shit. I’m good. I’m employable. It’s good to know that other than music, I actually am employable. It’s kind of how I fell into teaching.
Myrtle Stephens was a community activist par excellence. She’s the one that got me my first teaching gig with kids. I had no interest in teaching kids, and she’s like, “hey man, you need to come and do this.” But seeing what my dad went through, and for all the reasons I already mentioned, I wasn’t planning to be a music teacher. She said, well, I got this program, and these kids need a music program and you’re eloquent and I think you’ll be good at it.
I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be a community guy because she’s the one that helped me see it.
articulator: How old were you?
Harley White, Jr: 25 years old. The music industry was changing. I had a record deal, and I was trying to be a big pop star. My record didn’t hit, and we got dropped from the label. Now I was just an excellent musician. Should I go to LA and try to get another deal? I didn’t really dig that, so I had to figure out, okay, you want to stay in music, you’ve got to do something else.
My friend Randy Stark called me to go and teach at a Waldorf School. They needed a music teacher, and they had a budget. The Waldorf program is not super intense, the music schooling starts in kindergarten, so if you enter the school late, like 3rd grade, you were left out, which meant that I had a bunch of kids and no musical talent.
They wanted me to teach that class, so I decided to make it a guitar class. By the time I left Waldorf, I was conducting the orchestra, as well as coaching the basketball team.
I was teaching in the hood with the black kids, and I was at SAC Waldorf with rich kids. So, I had this educational immersion crisis, but Margaret Preston, another mentor, like Myrtle, saw something in me and said, “no, dude, you got this, do it!” and gave me a crash course on Waldorf music.
Yeah, Margaret and Myrtle Stephens. They saw something in me that I wasn’t seeing.
articulator: Do you have a motto?
Harley White Jr.: Oh, one that I got from Prince, it’s something I tell my youth group, “respect the music.”
That’s why we’re here. It’s not about how great you are or whatever. Before you come to this, you need to know that we’re going to respect the music ALL THE TIME. So that’s my motto, respect the music! That goes for my kids, and for the professionals I work with, and for the audience.
It’s simple. The music is asking us to be excellent. Beethoven wasn’t messing around, dah, dah, dah dum. We’re going to play the shit out of that. Respect the music.
That’s how we’re going to go forward.
articulator: Is music colorblind?
Harley White Jr.: Um, no, I see colors. I just don’t believe in colors because the American experiment is hybrids of hybrids of hybrids.
There is no uniquely American music. It’s an amalgamation of all the people that were here and all the things that people brought to it. That’s why we have this enjoyable experience. That’s why when you have a jazz festival you don’t leave anyone out, everybody fits.
When you really respect the music, you don’t find yourself leaving people out. There is a ton of shitty pop music that I like. I don’t have to apologize for it. You don’t have to apologize for the shitty music you love. If you have a Kanye song that you like, that’s none of my business. We live in a place where you can listen to Beethoven and you can listen to Kanye. Yeah, why not? I mean, I’m not going to do it, but if you do, more power to you.
Getting back to this idea about community, it’s about helping people figure out their lane and then helping them fill it up as big as possible. My dad said something to me that’s really interesting about why band uniforms are so important. He said, “you know, even though my drum major was 5’2”, when he put on that shako, he became 6 feet tall.” Mr. A was always saying, “fill up the uniform, stand up straight, shoulders strong.”
When you get kids of different sizes doing that, there’s a uniformity, but you can only have that if everybody’s filling out their uniform, so you’ve got to help them fill it out so they can play their role.
That’s what’s at the crux of all this. Let people be who they are and find their lane, and then encourage that and let them know that it’s going to be bumpy because finding who you are is never easy.
Allow people to make mistakes. That’s one thing that’s great about teaching jazz to kids. I already know it’s going to be chaotic. It’s going to be a fucking mess. It’s developing an understanding of whether that kid is really wrong, or is he looking for something?
Let’s step back and let him figure it out.
If you’re on him all the time, you’re stifling him. Let the kid make some mistakes and let him find it on his own. People are just so fascinating and capable of different stuff. I tell my students to imagine a sphere, now think about the middle of the sphere as being ultimate mastery.
Where’s your point of entry? We’re all trying to get to the center. Well, some kids like rhythm, some kids like melody. Some kids like harmony. When you find whether the kid is rhythm or melody, then hit that. Once you get his confidence and once he hits in real taste, all of a sudden, you realize they just want to get to the center, so you must meet them at their point of entry. When he gets it, you have to get the fuck out the way. That’s what you do. I don’t remember my dad making me practice. I don’t remember Mr. A ever asking, “how’s the practice going?” He already knew.
There’s a lot of room for error when you encourage individuality. Yeah, problem solving and teamwork, that’s really the crux of music education, not star-making. Try to get people to be responsible for each other and listen to each other on the most basic level. It’s not deep. You have a voice, it’s time to use it, so use it in the context of this more significant thing.
articulator: Any final remarks?
Harley White Jr.: I love this game. I’m 55, I don’t have too many regrets. I really do see music being the peacekeeper. I see a society of people who play music and appreciate music who are not involved in a war, have way more empathy and have compassion for the homeless.
I don’t necessarily think music will save the world, I’ll leave that to religion, but it definitely soothes so many disjointed things in our personal lives. It’s not deep.