By Stan Walens
Six years ago, a young scholarship student by the name of Joshua White came to the UC San Diego Jazz Camp and showed such enormous talent as a jazz musician that we were simply blown away. We have been keeping in touch with him since his first year at Jazz Camp, and are happy to report that he placed second in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. Joshua was recently interviewed by the San Diego Union-Tribune, and he said something that struck a bell with me.
Q: What was the bigger thrill, meeting President Obama or getting praised face to face by Herbie [Hancock]?
A: Even though I love President Obama and I loved speaking to Herbie and getting that kind of encouragement and validation, the highlight for me was taking the stage and having everyone listen while I painted musical pictures over the silence… Being able to take this artistic journey was the biggest thrill.
It’s learning the love of performing that makes music such a central part of someone’s life. Joshua’s comment made me think back to how I got started on a lifelong music-making career myself. Back longer ago than I care to reveal, when I was 5-years-old, my father took me to a concert given by the great jazz drummer, Gene Krupa, who was a longtime friend of his. At the time, Krupa was staging “drum duels” with jazz drumming legend, Buddy Rich. I can remember sitting in a darkly-lit nightclub, surrounded by a miasma of cigarette smoke and the pervasive smell of scotch, watching those two amazing musicians, mesmerized by just how much fun they were having playing. To me, no one conveyed the sheer love, the unending thrill, of being a drummer more than Krupa.
After the performance, my dad took me up to meet his longtime friend, and Krupa, seeing how intensely I was staring at his drum kit handed me his sticks and said, “Here, kid. Go wild.” I sat down at his drum kit and made what must have been a truly horrible cacophony. Krupa picked up another pair of sticks and started playing one of the side drums, setting a rhythm for me to follow. There I was having a drum duel with Gene Krupa! I think the smile on my face must have been a hundred miles wide. After we finished, Krupa looked at my father and said, “He’s a natural,” patted me on the head, then turned to his left and said, smiling, “You’d better watch out, Buddy!”
Simple gestures of encouragement can change our lives when it comes to expressing ourselves. Because of Gene Krupa’s kind words, I started taking drum lessons as soon as I could after that; and then eagerly began learning other instruments as well. But what Krupa passed on to me was one of the greatest gifts a musician can bestow: he showed me the sheer joy of performing, of painting over the silences with sound, of connecting to oneself and others through music. And that’s the primary thing I look for in all of our Performing Arts instructors. Whether it’s Music, Acting or Dance, our Performing Arts instructors are themselves dedicated performers who love what they do, and the core of their teaching is passing on that feeling to others. They have an intense love of their art that is infectious and life-affirming.
Please join us in one of our upcoming acting, dance, singing, piano or guitar courses here at UC San Diego Extension, and take some time to get in tune with your inner performer.
Stan Walens is Program Representative for Humanities and Performing Arts at UC San Diego Extension. He holds a Ph.D. in Psychological Anthropology, and specialized in the relationship between art, religion, and family dynamics in both Native American and contemporary American cultures. He plays nearly two dozen instruments, lectures and writes program notes for many San Diego music organizations, and has avid interests in history, politics and culture, biology, performance studies, theatre, film and dance. He is a compulsive birder.