By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Flea's stepfather, Walter Urban Jr., was a bass player, too. "My mother would make big all-day barbecue-type things," he recalls, "and all the jazz guys would hang out and just blow. I was, like, 7 years old when that started happening, and I would roll around the floor in laughter, I would get the greatest feeling I'd ever had listening to them, just being amazed by the whole mystery of how the hell that could happen." His own flight into that mystery began in the L.A. public school system, learning trumpet and playing in orchestra and band in the days before the Proposition 13 "tax revolt" put an effective end to arts programs, back when a student who couldn't afford to buy or rent an instrument would be provided one. "It was the one discipline that I had when I was a kid -- definitely the most stablepart of my life. I loved going to music class; I had I guess kind of an emotionally tumultuous upbringing, and that and playing basketball were the two things that were really good and happy for me." He was aiming to be a jazz trumpeter, but he picked up the bass and became a rock star instead.
It makes sense that Flea would use his clout and cash to open a music school, but it isn't an everyday affair, and it took a series of shocks and reminders to get from idle chat to first step. To begin with, there was his return to Fairfax High a couple of years back to play for the kids and to let them know that "being a musician is a very valuable thing and as worth studying for as any other profession." But when he got there, the cupboard was bare -- there was no more band, no more orchestra, the music program was effectively kaput. (It is now being reinstated.) Not long after that, he found himself in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, guest-conducting the Junior Philharmonic Orchestra of California, in which he had himself once played. He stood on his hands and led them through "Seventy-Six Trombones" with his feet, and afterward, in accepting the Golden Baton award, "started talking about how public education needed to have music programs, and I got kind of hyped up about it. And that was another thing, like, 'Okay, I'm starting the school.'" Finally, on a trip to Mexico, he read Horace Tapscott's autobiography, Songs of the Unsung, which related how the late jazz pianist had "formed an organization in South-Central Los Angeles, sort of a cross between a music school and a community center for art and poetry -- he wanted to do something for his community that he came up in. And when I read that book I was, like, 'Fuck it! I'm doing it, no matter what!'"
The school, which is run on a not-for-profit basis, is soon to become truly nonprofit -- a regular tax-deductible charitable enterprise that will provide scholarships and free instruments so that any child who wants to play can. Clara, says Flea, "goes to a fancy private school, where they have pretty much everything -- great arts program and music program -- and it kind of saddens me sometimes, because we've been lucky to make money, and obviously I want my kid to get the best education she can get, but it's just fucking not fair."
Appropriately, Flea played Santa Claus at the conservatory's first recital, last December. The candle-lit main room was filled to capacity, with the crowd pouring out onto the street. "It was seriously It's a Wonderful Lifein here," Pete Weiss remembers. "It was Bedford Falls hardcore, there was just so much love in the room." There were flowers and a Christmas tree, and holiday insignia painted on the front window. Speakers were set up on the sidewalk so that everyone could hear. "It was organizationally kind of crazy," Flea recalls, "and my stomach was falling out of my Santa suit and I was all sweaty and my beard was coming off. We had only been open for two months, and a lot of the students had just started playing, and it was really great to see kids having courage to go up there -- it reaffirmed my belief that music is allabout the intent with which it's played, whether you're Jascha Heifetz or Sid Vicious. It's just as enjoyable to me to see some kid earnestly play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb' as it is to hear Charlie Parker."
WHEN KEITH BARRY WAS 13, LONG before he was Tree, he read the names Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman in the liner notes to an album belonging to his father's girlfriend, and he took his allowance and bought one record by each of them. "I put the first one on just in chronological order, which was Bird at the Roost, and the first cut was 'Scrapple From the Apple.' And not only did I not open either of the other two records, I didn't listen to any of the other cuts on thatrecord, I just listened to 'Scrapple From the Apple' probably a hundred times a day, trying to play it on my viola." After a while, he took his viola down to a "place that no longer exists called Pippi's, which was next to another place that no longer exists called Schwab's. "[Bassist] Henry Franklin and [pianist] Dwight Dickerson, and it was a really good drummer, too, could have been Sherman Ferguson, had this Sunday-afternoon jam session, and, you know, I was 13, and all I had was the melody to 'Scrapple From the Apple' on the viola. I think I said something like, 'You guys know how to play any bebop?' And I played 'Scrapple From the Apple' with my completely-unrelated-to-the-form solo. And the next tune they played was 'Blue Bossa' -- Kenny Dorham -- and I went to the record store and bought the record and I learned the melody to that, and I kept on going back and doing it like that, for the longest time."
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