Anyone who knows me knows I work for the Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Stax Music Academy. That said, my editor said it was okay for me to be little self-serving this week and write about something very special — the Stax Music Academy's 10th Anniversary, which we'll celebrate this year. And no, this is not a promo spot or a plea for funding. I just want to tell you about some of our kids and how things have played out over the past 10 years.
We started on June 1, 2000, with 125 kids in the lunchroom of an elementary school near the corner of McLemore Avenue and College Street. Rufus and Carla Thomas were among the many musicians who conducted workshops, and the kids "graduated" at the end of six weeks at LeMoyne-Owen College. (I was outside in the bushes, so no one would see me crying.) They had a big grand finale concert at the U of M. (And I was in the bathroom, so no one would see me crying.) We carried on this way until the beautiful Stax Music Academy building opened in 2002, followed by the Stax Museum next door in 2003. We opened the school first, because we weren't going to build anything at the original site of Stax Records unless it did something for the young people in Soulsville, USA. From that time until now, it has been a little piece of magic on earth.
I've watched young people come in so shy that they slumped in the corner, speechless for days. Two weeks later, you couldn't bend their smile out of shape with a pair of pliers and you certainly couldn't get them to stop talking — mostly about music. They performed concerts at the Orpheum, with guest artists such as Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers — Stax royalty. They gave concerts at the Cannon Center, the U of M's Mike Rose Theater, and other venues. You could see their self-confidence building before your eyes.
As time went by, we switched from serving very young children and started concentrating on high school students who showed musical talent. They played for the likes of Bill Clinton, Bono (who jumped from his seat and gave them a standing ovation), Oprah Winfrey, Isaac Hayes, Bootsy Collins, the Memphis Grizzlies and their fans (during games on the court at halftime), and a host of others. They began playing every year at the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and they opened for B.B. King in Indianola. They opened the festivities at the famed Porretta Soul Festival in Rufus Thomas Park in Porretta Terme, Italy. They played the Rock and Roll Fall of Fame in Cleveland and the Kennedy Center on July 4, 2007.
They traveled to Australia in 2008, playing a huge outdoor concert in Melbourne, a command performance for the United States ambassador in the capital of Canberra (where they also had tea at the embassy), and at the U.S. consulate general's private July 4th gala, where the crowd demanded an encore. And they played at several Australian Royal Children's Hospitals along the way, and those were some of their favorite gigs, because they felt a sense of giving back. They also performed there on national television to an audience of millions. This all sounds pretty glamorous, but this entailed getting up and at it at 5:30 every morning and working pretty much all day, while also learning a lot about that country's culture. They worked very hard.
In 2009 and 2010, every single one of our Stax Music Academy high school seniors was accepted to a college or university, some on full scholarships and some with special grants. Some got accepted to prestigious colleges but had to settle for something more within their families' budget. This summer five of them will attend the Berklee College of Music Summer Music Program on full scholarships. They are all working as hard as they can to raise money to have pocket money while they are there. One academy graduate, who I have watched grow up for 10 years, is touring with the current incarnation of Con Funk Shun and just returned from a gig in the Cayman Islands. That's a long way from his home in 38106 Memphis, one of the most economically depressed zips in the country.
Don't think for a minute that these young people haven't had obstacles along the way. Sometimes, their circumstances have been incredibly frustrating to them and to us. We can't solve every problem. But, if I do say so myself, we have made a historic amount of progress.
Next time someone asks how you can live in a city like Memphis, tell them about the Stax Music Academy. I can only imagine what the next 10 years have in store. I'm sure I'll be doing plenty more hiding, so no one will see me crying.