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[published in the Washington Blues Society's Bluesletter, April 2000]


A Pacific Northwest Blues in the Schools Report

by Lisa McKitrick

Late November 1999 brought dark times to the usually tranquil Pacific Northwest. The controversy generated by the World Trade Organization?s weeklong conference in Seattle had sparked surprisingly violent protests, and suddenly "The Most Livable City in America" was looking more like riot-torn Jakarta than the quasi-cosmopolitan seat of civilized coffee culture.

Meanwhile, thirty miles west of the downtown clashes between protesters and law enforcement, a more peaceful and productive encounter was taking place in an equally unlikely setting. Pacific Northwest Blues in the Schools, supported by funding from Rainier Investments and the King County Arts Commission, had set up shop for a three-week music education program at Echo Glen Children?s Center in Snoqualmie, and positive things were starting to happen.

Pacific Northwest Blues in the Schools (PNWBS) is a local nonprofit organization modeled after successful "Blues in the Schools" programs being conducted elsewhere around the country. The mission of PNWBS is to design and deliver interdisciplinary educational experiences for young students (K-12) that will teach American history and heritage through the indigenous African/American art form we call the Blues. Under the tutelage of a team of professional performers and instructors, student participants gain a basic understanding of the role of Blues in the history and development of American culture, and are also given the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to create and perform Blues music.

Following the completion of a one-week program at Seattle?s Central Area Youth Association (CAYA) and a seven-week program at Zion Prep School, PNWBS arrived at Echo Glen Children?s Center with a seemingly formidable goal ahead of them: to teach the Blues to a group of maximum-security residents at a juvenile rehabilitation facility. Echo Glen houses approximately 200 youthful offenders between the ages of 12 and 20, and is the only facility in Washington State that accommodates both males and females. Perpetrators of the most violent offenses ? murder, sexual assault, child molestation, etc. ? live in the tightly secured Toutle Cottage, and it was these residents who were selected to participate in the curriculum.

The program kicked off with an introductory concert by the core team of PNWBS instructors: guitarist and PNWBS founder James "Curley" Cooke, harmonica and keyboard wiz Dick Powell, bass monster Albritton McClain, and drummer extraordinaire Chris Leighton. Joining in as special guests were B.B. Award-winning vocalist Patti Allen, "human body dancer" Christian Swenson and, with a nod to Toutle Cottage?s collective interest in juggling, juggler Thomas Arthur. The virtuosity displayed by the instructors in this initial performance succeeded in grabbing the attention of the kids, but the teaching team still found themselves confronted with ?why-would-we-want-to-learn-the-blues? skepticism.

In the immortal words of Muddy Waters, "the Blues had a baby and they called it rock ?n roll," and fortunately the oldies rock station the kids usually listened to in Toutle Cottage provided a common musical ground from which to launch a study of the Blues. According to Chris Leighton, "Curley [Cooke] made a smooth transition from that early confrontation into ?Yeah, but a lot of the music that you like has the Blues in it, has a lot of the same notes.? And then that?s where we went. One afternoon turned into a game of ?Stump the Band,? and when the kids requested "Dock of the Bay" and "Mustang Sally" and Buddy Holly stuff we were able to pull it off."

After a brief introduction to basic music theory, the kids ? none of whom had any musical experience to speak of ? were quickly acquainted with the instruments, which were provided with assistance from American Music and Hohner Harmonicas. Each afternoon session began with a short performance by the instructors of new practice songs, followed by rehearsals in smaller groups according to instrument. Some of the participants elected to concentrate on only one instrument, while others switched around to get a taste of everything.

The first week of the program was a period of adjustment for both the students and the instructors, and adapting to the logistics of the rehearsal space was a major hurdle. The guitar group practiced in one large room, the bass and drum groups rehearsed in another large room, and the harmonica group studied in a small office area stuck between the two large rooms and connected to them by sliding glass doors. The inability to isolate the noise from each instrument group often made it hard to concentrate on the task at hand.

Members of the teaching team also found themselves a bit unnerved, at least at first, by the sight of their pupils arriving at and departing the rehearsal hall in shackles and chains. As maximum-security residents of Echo Glen, these children ? and being mostly between the ages of 14 and 16, they were indeed children ? were never permitted outdoors without being fully restrained, and some were heavily medicated to control behavior. To their own credit and their students? benefit, however, the instructors deliberately chose to remain ignorant of the actual crimes committed by the participants, preferring instead to be able to interact with everyone at face value.

"We didn?t try and tell them what was right or wrong," says Dick Powell. "Our attitude was, ?We don?t care what you did. We?re just here for this time, for this music. Nothing else means anything to us.? We didn?t preach to them or anything. We tried not to be judgmental and just give them facts of what we were trying to get across musically. And I?m sure they appreciated that."

The nonjudgmental demeanor of the teaching team created an atmosphere conducive to trust on the part of the students (undoubtedly a rarity in their troubled lives), and by Week 2 of the program a real camaraderie had started to develop. Kids who had previously tried to minimize their participation were picking up tambourines and harmonicas, and small instrumental successes were inspiring budding musicians to attempt more difficult musical challenges. Patti Allen dropped by again as a guest instructor and immediately raised the level of enthusiasm. "Patti is such a spark plug when she comes out to work with these kids," raves Curley Cooke. "She just turns them on, period. She?s got such tremendous positive energy. It?s a bonus to have her onboard serving."

As nicely as things had come together over the course of three weeks, and in part because of the changing cast of participants (14 students started the program, and due to resident transfers into and out of Toutle Cottage, only 6 original participants remained in the final group of 11), no one was truly prepared for the outstanding performance the students gave during the final concert. Dressed in their usual orange maximum-security outfits and aptly calling themselves "Maximum Blues," the kids (3 bass players, 3 guitar players, 1 drummer, and assorted percussionists, harpists, and vocalists) commandeered the stage and played five songs, some of which had new student-written lyrics: "Baby, What You Want Me to Do" and "Bright Lights, Big City" by Jimmy Reed; "Hoochie Coochie Man"; "Bo Diddley"; and a ?kick-ass version? of that Northwest classic, "Louie Louie." The instructors and one harmonica-playing counselor pitched in with some accompaniment, but the show ultimately belonged to the kids.

The audience members -- on- and off-duty counselors, a group of fellow residents, program sponsors, and friends of PNWBS -- were so uplifted and moved by the performance that by the end of the show there were very few dry eyes in the house. Needless to say, the members of the teaching team were also ecstatic over the triumphs of their pupils, not to mention enormously gratified by seeing even the most "hardcore frowners" enjoy the satisfaction of personal accomplishment. At the farewell party following the final concert, the instructors were rewarded with multiple hugs and thank-you?s from very happy children.

Cooke finds it impossible to overemphasize the achievements of the residents of Toutle Cottage. "These kids had never played instruments before," he stresses. "In three weeks, or realistically two-and-a-half weeks? time, they went out and performed five songs. It wasn?t the level of expertise they put up that mattered, it was the very fact that they got out there and did it together?. It was incredibly much more than I could accomplish in my first year of playing music."

Pacific Northwest Blues in the Schools will be conducting another three-week program at Echo Glen Children?s Center from April 17 through May 5 thanks to financial support from Rainier Investments and the Lucky 7 Foundation, and plans are underway for another visit over the summer. While involving these juvenile offenders in the positive pursuit of knowledge about music, history and culture is itself admirable, perhaps the real strength of the PNWBS curriculum lies in the opportunity to introduce troubled youth to the "healing" experience that Blues can be. As Albritton McClain articulated so wonderfully:

"They can realize, I think, through the music, that if you make mistakes in life, just like if you make mistakes in music, it can all be corrected, all can come out in the wash?. You don?t have to be sterling in order to be a good person. You can make mistakes and still be good."

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