A look at the city’s rich musical heritage is proof of its profound impact on world culture through the arts. Much of that impact comes from Memphis’ inner city, and the Memphis Music Initiative and Prizm Ensemble are just two of the organizations working to cultivate the city’s sweet sounds.
These organizations do that work through exposure to teaching and opportunities to create alongside world-class musicians.
Darren Isom is executive director of the Memphis Music Initiative. He first came to Memphis through his role with a consulting firm on a project for ArtsMemphis. The project looked at arts in general and its impact on the larger Memphis community. Through that Isom was asked how to develop a citywide music effort.
He ended up staying on to implement the strategy he created, the work today that is the mission of the Memphis Music Initiative.
“What attracted me to this work as a consultant you’re offered various projects at any given time. When this came up and was presented to me I thought it would be interesting,” he said. “I had never worked in the South. And then also I thought the idea of Memphis, given its huge cultural and arts legacy would be interesting to explore how to use arts to drive the city’s – not just branding – but overall development. How do you anchor a city’s development through the arts?”
Isom explains the city’s rich culture best through his father’s eyes. Isom is from New Orleans, where his father still resides. He said his dad wasn’t interested in his path through the years: Atlanta was too flashy and New York too loud.
“I told him I’m working in Memphis,” Isom said. “He paused. He said it’s one of the few cities I’d consider a cultural rival to New Orleans.
“I think it’s a city that struggles with how to embrace and celebrate that culture. It’s a city that has a lot going for it but is always looking to something else.”
To that point, the Memphis Music Initiative works to help the city embrace its culture. And in Memphis that is understanding, accepting and embracing community arts, which often means African-American art.
“Memphis is one of those cities more interested in supporting the orchestra than the smaller indigenous groups responsible for making that art,” Isom said. “If you’re a young person moving to a city you don’t do so for the orchestra. People move to cities because of the small independent scene. That’s something Memphis has without trying too hard. The city is well placed for a newer generation of arts engagement.”
The city’s arts heritage has a foundation built largely during the 1960s in South Memphis at Stax where a couple opened a studio with the intent of recording country music. They instead opened the doors to the neighborhood, and those talented individuals came together to help create what is today known as the Memphis Sound. It’s something that should be embraced today.
“When I think about our work we’re putting in place those various paths that made Memphis great during that period,” Isom said. “Those intersections are able to merge but naturally. We’re about supporting music programs in schools and making sure the city’s musicians have an opportunity to contribute as music fellows and by mentoring youth in the schools.”
The Memphis Music Initiative serves its mission through in-school, extended learning and innovation spaces.
The in-school effort brings musicians to neighborhoods to work in the schools. It has 30 fellows from musical backgrounds working with 33 schools. Their music background is varied, ranging from folk and gospel to jazz, R&B and hip-hop.
That’s not the rich soul sound of 1960s Memphis, but that’s the point. Isom said it’s important to recognize that Memphis music is different than it was in the 1960s.
A survey found that only 5 percent of Memphis children have access to music programming away from school. Isom said New Orleans is closer to 25 percent and Nashville as much as 20 percent.
Isom said the problem is that while children in the suburbs and more affluent parts of Memphis do have access to programming, the inner-city children don’t have many services.
“Those in the city no one is focusing on them, which is odd because they are the cultural producers,” he said. “The poor black people have been on the Avant Gard of everything culturally in this country’s history. How do you invest in them in a way that gives them the stage?”
The fellows are professional musicians. They work 20 hours a week or more and receive a health stipend. It gives them stable employment but also allows time to devote to playing.
What the fellowship actually looks like depends on the school. In one school it might be a fellow who works with a small group of students within a school’s music classroom to create a jazz band. Other schools might have a part-time music instructor and so the program provides additional instructor hours for that school.
The program targets schools that are low income and primarily are African-American and Latino communities.
In addition to its hands-on work with students, Memphis Music Initiative also works with organizations that are engaged in similar work. It identifies those organizations and helps them stabilize and grow their work.
That includes grants but it’s also providing support for marketing and board development.
“This work is about developing an ecosystem in this city,” Isom said. “How do we make sure those organizations in the communities we focus on can be the size they need to be? How do we create an environment where these people have support they need and not be underfunded?”
A third way Memphis Music Initiative fulfills its mission is developing programs that impact communities where there aren’t music programs. That includes arts internships for high school students, which helps others better understand the importance of engaging the youth in those inner-city communities.
“What’s interesting about the work is how we’re doing it,” Isom said. “How do we engage musicians? All this work around community engagement, it’s not just the what but the how.”
Isom mentioned that today’s Memphis music scene is much different than that of the 1960s. PRIZM Ensemble is proof of how different Memphis music is. The organization focuses on building diverse community through chamber music education, youth development and performance.
Lecolion Washington is executive director of PRIZM Ensemble and is founder and director of the PRIZM Chamber Music Festival. He actually created the fellows effort at Memphis Music Initiative, so to say he’s heavily involved in bringing music to the inner-city is an understatement.
He also is a classical bassoonist from Dallas. He eventually made his way to the University of Missouri where he taught bassoon. After a couple of years there he came to Memphis in 2004 to teach at the University of Memphis.
After going through the tenure process he decided he wanted an opportunity to be more engaged in community-based work. In 2009 that began as a summer program called Prizm Summer Chamber Festival. It had 19 students, and lots of faculty and musicians who helped out.
“It was great energy around that work,” Washington said. “Memphis is a great city that loves music no matter the genre. We felt we found our niche. We did that program for a few years but one thing we noticed was that in Memphis there is this inequity and we weren’t reaching students of color or from underserved communities.”
There were barriers such as transportation that kept many inner-city students from participating in the summer program. Prizm started to address that inequity with the creation of an in-school program that brought the music to the students.
“We figured if we worked with students in school they’d be much more likely to come to our summer program,” Washington said.
As the focus grew, the organization officially became a nonprofit in 2013. The board came together and created the organization’s core values of diversity, opportunity and access. Diversity drives everything, including the makeup of the board, students the organization reaches, faculty and staff.
The orchestra and all programs mirror the community’s population, meaning roughly 60 percent are African-Americans.
“We started to think about opportunities for areas of town that don’t have an opportunity to deeply engage with musicians,” Washington said. “My story as a black classical bassoonist is I didn’t come across a black bassoonist growing up. The first time I saw a professional black bassoonist I realized I didn’t have to be the first one I just had to be the next one. It’s a lot harder to be first. Now having experienced that myself the mission for Prizm and my personal mission is to help those students like myself who all they needed was to frame a future and opportunities and go get it.”
Today that means after-school programs in three schools in Hickory Hill, Cordova and Binghampton. The hope is to have even more schools next year.
Other ways to engage communities in classical music includes the effort this year to combine the Prizm Chamber Orchestra with Opera Memphis.
“Now we think about everything from how can we use classical music for some form of social justice,” Washington said. “That framing has been great for us.”
The idea is that the collective impact of Prizm has deep engagement that equates to more than one visit over a three- or four-week period. It’s important that students get that established relationship that lasts throughout the school year inste4ad of just for a month or two.
Beyond the school year, Prizm’s summer program is a concentrated period of time that allows students the opportunity to work closely with world-class faculty members from around the world. Students are placed in small groups and prepare for a performance at the end of the week. The program previously was one week but now it will last for two.
“The idea is to give them the opportunity to work with the best,” Washington said. “My perspective is that Memphis youth deserve the best. I don’t give them a graduate student.”
Washington said the organization is always looking for the community to get engaged, whether it’s supporting the scholarship fund for the summer program or sponsor a musician.
“The next phase for us is getting more corporate sponsorships,” he said. “We believe individuals want to support this work.”
The Prizm music festival kicks off June 5. More information can be found here.