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This Ain't No Juilliard!

Photos by Stacy Kranitz

How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

--ancient Zen riddle

IT'S HALF PAST FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON, AND THE big front room with the picture window and high ceiling and green walls, hung with pictures of John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan, is full of motion and noise. The 4 o'clock students give way to the 4:30: Ingoing tide meets outgoing, making eddies and whirlpools of teachers and parents and children of various sizes and colors and ages. (There's a dog present as well.) The practice rooms empty and fill up again; a muffled, accidental counterpoint of violin, piano, banjo, flute, whatever, played mostly with a beginner's deliberateness, colors the air. A new student, on scholarship, comes in for her first lesson; she's brought flowers. A young woman just arrived from New York drops off a résumé; the area, she says, reminds her of the East Village. Kids whose lessons haven't started and kids who haven't gone home yet do homework, twist into pretzels, fidget with their instruments, roughhouse, color, run next door for candy, argue with their parents; one negotiates himself a bribe of $4 per half-hour of practice. Mothers commiserate over Eminem. Everyone seems to know someone else from the world outside, through school, through kids, through work or just from the neighborhood.

"You painted your toenails," school manager Jennifer Bolger says to a little girl in pink Hello Kitty sandals. Tacked to a bulletin board behind Bolger are a certificate from the El Centro del Pueblo Family Development Network, "in recognition for your service to the children and their families in the Echo Park community," and a clutch of kids' drawings, one of which bears the legend, written in block letters: "NEWS FLASH: ALL THE TEACHERS WHO WORK HERE ROCK."

The Silverlake Conservatory of Music is located between the Carnicería San Antonio and a storefront of no immediately clear purpose in the little old Moroccan-style complex called Sunset Junction, on an especially groovy, funky, motley, hill-cradled block of Sunset Boulevard. The space had once been a thrift store, and then for a while an unoccupied empty box; but since last October it has been filled with a school -- which is to say, by an idea, and by people committed to the idea. The material facilities don't amount to more than a few pianos, some whiteboards and music stands, a couple of low-slung blue couches and some Eames-y wooden chairs, and assorted walls and doors. The rest is all atmosphere and possibility. It is not a conservatory in the Juilliard sense, having no educational prerequisites, age restrictions, curriculum, semesters, accreditation or degrees, but is technically, and legally, a "music store with lessons," and not much of a music store at that. It's simply a place where teachers -- 25, when last I asked -- may teach and students (close to 400, about half of them adults) may learn. There is no prejudice as to instruments or musical styles. The conservatory was designed to be accommodating; there being no faculty per se -- the instructors are all independent contractors, who kick back to the school a quarter of what they make, a better-than-usual arrangement -- it will try to find someone to show you how to play whatever you want to play, whether it be sitar, theremin or pennywhistle. "A whole variety of instruments, approaches, chemistries," says Keith Barry, the dean of education.


All atmosphere and possibility:
Cameron Johnson, left, and Fish


In the beginning there were three: Flea, Keith and Pete. Flea -- who also answers to the name of Michael Balzary, plays bass in the Red Hot Chili Peppers and sometimes acts in movies -- provided the means; Keith, who is also called Tree, and has known Flea since junior high school, brought the music-educational expertise, chose teachers, established procedures; and Pete Weiss, who as far as I know is only called Pete Weiss, put in the practical work that made the idea a physical reality.

It happened that the day I first visited the conservatory was the day Pete Weiss took his leave as its director. Not long after the school opened late last year, Keith Barry quit; not long after Weiss left, Barry returned. The principals are all circumspect regarding the particulars of this administrative do-si-do, but the old music-world term "creative differences" seems to apply, and each gives credit where credit is due. In any case, Weiss was ready to go. His job there, as they say in the moving pictures, was done; the school was permitted and outfitted and up and running, and there was no longer much for him to do. "I was starting to feel guilty about burdening the school with my salary," he said, as we sat in the front room, the big picture window giving a fine view of the Rough Trade emporium -- "Sex, Leather & Spurs" -- across the street. "Because the point is, we want to make a profit so that we can give free lessons." Leaving, said Weiss, "is only sad in the way that it's sad when a mom takes her kid to kindergarten and drops him off for the first day . . . It's just so nice to be in here in the afternoon when there's parents and kids and so many people just in the neighborhood, you know -- 'I've been meaning to take piano all these years.' We've always been looking for that kind of community where you walk down the street and see people you know, and you go to a store and everyone recognizes you -- and I think that's what's been created over here. And, see, there's Rodney walkin' by" -- and there was Rodney walking by -- "and we'll wave" -- they waved -- "and it's a small town now in this big metropolis."

 

It was just about a year and a half ago that Flea asked Weiss to help him start a music school, to be built around and run by Barry, Flea's oldest friend, "an amazing music teacher" who has a "gift with kids and for making people listen." Weiss, who has done a bit of this and a bit of that, including drumming for Thelonious Monster, had never helped build a school before, but as a true child of punk, it didn't occur to him that he couldn't. His own musical education was similarly DIY: "You sit in your basement apartment with a drum set, listen to Exile on Main Street, you play along with Charlie Watts, you start a band." But, he added, perhaps diplomatically, "Of course I realize that you have a much better chance of becoming a musician if you take lessons."

Sunset Junction was where Barry wanted the school to be from the start, but there was no room to let there at first. Then one day Weiss, across the street doing his laundry, "looked up and there was a For Lease sign. And me and Tree and Flea came here the next day and talked toä the landlord, and Flea was, like, 'We'll take it!' and I was going, 'Dude, I think you're supposed to, like, negotiate about rents.'" They signed the lease in June 2001. Weiss and designer Wade Robinson checked out other music schools and music departments to learn the particulars and proportions of practice rooms, and to "make it so when someone came here, it'd be, like, 'Wow, I'm going to a really cool place, and I have respect for it; I'm not just going to some little cardboard room in back of a music store.'" Entering the arcane world of Building and Safety, of contradictory officialdom and endless red tape, he marveled to find himself, "an old punk rocker, dealing with City Hall." But "I never lost my temper or got upset about anything in the entire process. I just [reached] a point where 'Things will work out, don't stress about anything, it'll work out' -- and you know, it works out. This place was really meant to be here."


They will show you how to
play anything, whether it be
sitar, theremin or pennywhistle:
Sitar teacher Gabby Lang


"IT'S SORT OF ONE OF THOSE THINGS that can't really go wrong, the idea is so good," says Flea. We're sitting in the Casbah Café, down the block from the conservatory. Though Flea is only occasionally on campus, as it were, he serves as the genial house spirit -- it is unavoidably, in the press and fan chat, "Flea's music school," and his connection to it, if not specifically a drawing card, does add an undeniable patina of cool -- and he is literally its benefactor. "Overseer and financial . . . guy," is how he describes his role. He paid to renovate the space and equip the school -- the Oriental carpet in the main room came right off his living-room floor -- and continues to make up the shortfall in operating expenses, rent and salaries, though he hopes that will not be permanently necessary; in fact, they are now close to breaking even.

"Ideally I would love to teach," he says, "but I've been so busy with my band." (The Chili Peppers have just released their eighth album, By the Way, and are off to tour the world.) "As much as I wanted to create a place for people to learn music, I really wanted to create a place for teachers to work, too. I mean, to me, that's an equally valuable service."

 

For an extremely recognizable international popfunk megastar with a reputation for clownish mayhem, Flea, who -- astonishingly -- turns 40 this month, is pretty life-sized: sweet, sincere. He lacks that halo of self-consciousness the famous sometimes assume, and can sound almost apologetic when referring to "the whole rock-star thing" fate has led him to. As is not uncommon among people born with a surplus of energy and the physical strength to do some harm, his manner is gentle, almost careful, scrupulously polite. He spends a moment in silent reflection before he tucks into his spinach salad. "You don't have to wait for me," he says. Tattooed across his knuckles are the words L-O-V-E and . . . L-O-V-E.

He is decorated also with dolphins, elephants, the head of Jimi Hendrix, and the name of his daughter, Clara, who is now 13 and has finally -- her father is quite relieved to say -- "made the transition from the worst boy-band, Spice Girl­type music to music that wasn't what was just being forced down her throat." Clara took some bass lessons at the conservatory, but then "she just kind of got out of the seriousness of it; and I'm not sure whether to force her to continue doing it or not. She was telling me, 'I don't want to go,' and I made her go -- 'You have to get a musical education, it's important' -- and once she started doing it she was, like, 'Listen what I learned how to do today,' coming home all excited. And then I'd play something -- 'Oh no, you're doing that all wrong' -- and she'd grab the bass from me."

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 stable part 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 Life in 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 all about 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 that record, 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."

At Bancroft Junior High, and then at Fairfax, Keith and Flea played together in the band and orchestra, and after graduation they shared an apartment with Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Keidis. Barry became Tree around this time, on a "ski trip where we were going to be real hoodlums. We were going to ski recklessly and had Mohawks, and we thought it would be a lark to not refer to each other by our real names. I think Flea had already been using Flea, and I don't know why particularly I came up with Tree. In retrospect, I think Flea and I have always had this quality of being diametrically opposed in so many ways, we had always been so tight and yet we had always been very, very different. You know, like, Flea: very capricious; me: very not capricious. And if you think of it that way, the nicknames really fit."ä

He does indeed seem treelike: solidly built, well-rooted, many-branched. His main instrument is the viola, but he plays and teaches "all the instruments in the orchestra," except for the concert harp. Right now he's learning the chromatic harmonica. He's performed with Ray Charles, trumpeter Woody Shaw and tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards, arranged for and recorded and toured with the Chili Peppers, and made an album of his own, Blew Year's Proposition (Saphu). A self-described "journeyman musician," he's also clearly born to teach. Even his way of speaking -- heavens!, boy!, jeez! and heck take the place of the usual Hollywood oaths -- reflects a lifetime of working with children, and a constant awareness that "the whole education thing never turns off, everything about the way that you act is kind of a rehearsal for being a grown-up."

 

Barry has taught for 20 years in "suburban places; it hasn't been where I've lived mostly, hasn't been Hollywood, hasn't been Silver Lake." At one point, he was bicycling four hours to El Toro to teach two afternoons a week, but since he is the sort of guy who will bike from Portland to Los Angeles for fun, this was not quite the trial it sounds. (He gave up cars years ago.) Now he can walk to work.

It's a little before noon when the school opens for the day. Piano music wafts from one of the practice rooms; someone is playing Bach. Bobby Matos, the well-known Latin percussionist and bandleader, who teaches at the conservatory, comes in from the street.

"Bobby is actually a colleague of mine from way, way back," says Barry, as Matos sits down next to him.

"I've got photos," says Matos. "When we were both skinny." He also lives in the neighborhood. "I'm from New York, and Silver Lake has an ambiente that's part Latino, and I like that; I like being able to go to the Cuban coffee shop and then being able to go next door to the rock & roll coffee shop. For years I was doing private classes at home, but I prefer being here, because there's no distractions, there's no coffee boiling over -- well, actually there's coffee, and it might be boiling over, but I don't have to worry about it. What gases me is being here in Silver Lake and seeing little kids traveling with trumpet cases and violin cases -- you expect guitar, everybody wants to be a guitar hero, it's rock & roll, you know -- but to see them with every instrument under the sun and they're all crossing the street with their mom, that's really cool."

"It seemed to me, moving into the neighborhood," says Barry, "that it was becoming more the kind of place where there were going to be families, and where parents were going to buy music lessons for their kids. And I have found that there's an endless venue for providing that service; I feel very strongly that every kid should have the chance to try this -- that's the most important thing, more important than performance, more important than results. You don't have to do anything about performance and results; kids that are going to be musicians, that's going to happen, you couldn't stop them."

Learning music, he continues, is "kind of an important anachronism. I think the world has become a place -- our little section of it -- where kids get immediate gratification, and there's no shortcut to this; there's no shortcut to playing a musical instrument. It's like a sport, it kind of blends the qualities educationally of language learning and sports -- it forces you to get with your body and do something in a way that computers don't."

On Barry's right calf is the tattoo of a "goat-man" riding a bicycle -- goat, he says, being "the bicycle code word for climbing specialist, which is my thing. And I didn't really intend it, but it's rather Sisyphean; the whole Sisyphus idea I find interesting. Basically, I'm the Dalai Lama's worst nightmare: somebody striving all the time." He laughs. "But I know it's wrong; I just can't help myself."

"It's just one way to do it," says Matos.

"But I think the Dalai Lama has a point, that it's all about balance. We've gotten into a heck of a lot of trouble 'cause we're just all striving all the time. Those guys are all about being like water -- you don't do anything, you just go where you're goin', right?"

"Yeah, but water is sometimes caught up in the current and keeps moving -- moving water is better than still water, 'cause still water stagnates."

"Water has to move," says Barry. "It evaporates if it sits around."

"You can be moving and not have to go against the tide; that's called being in harmony."

"But if you decide to pay your own bills instead of having the temple feed you, then you have to strive a little bit."

And if you want to learn an instrument, I suggest, you have to strive a little bit.

 

"Yeah," says Barry, "well, there you go."

I WALKED INTO THE CONSERVATORY as an inquiring reporter, and walked out as an incoming freshman -- not as any kind of George Plimptonesque journalistic strategy but because I owned a flute that I didn't know how to play properly, and the idea that I could learn to do something properly, for a change, suddenly seemed appealing. Did I see myself in that moment of decision as the next Eric Dolphy, Herbie Mann, Ian Anderson, Ron Hirsty (only a kid in my high school, but he could really play the flute), or was I just looking for somewhere to go? A bit of both, probably, and, in any case, $20 for a half-hour lesson felt like a relatively small price to pay for self-improvement -- measured against, say, the cost of psychoanalysis, or even lunch -- yet enough of an expense that I thought it might impose upon me the discipline I naturally lack.

James King (not the supermodel) is my flute teacher -- I'd say long-suffering flute teacher, but I haven't known him all that long. Like many Silverlake Conservatory teachers, James came out of CalArts, and a lot of the jobs he plays -- mostly Latin and straight-ahead jazz, though he also plays in the 50-piece hip-hop orchestra Dakah -- spring from that nexus. He impressed me mightily one day by playing the whole solo from Jethro Tull's "Bourée," including all the weird, growly bits, after I'd tentatively demonstrated the theme. I am not one of his prize pupils -- I made a little progress and then bumped up against my worser, lazier, less-disciplined self -- and worry that I am a disappointment, though of course he is only encouraging, and quick with new suggestions when the last ones don't work. I can't seem to make my lips do what they should. But mostly I can't seem to remember to practice trying to make my lips do what they should. But I am not giving up yet.

We are sitting in a practice room, talking about practice. "You want to take some of these kids and shake them," he says, "because if they only realized that that's all it takes, to be a professional, at their age -- if they sat down half an hour a day and consistently practiced, there'd be a lot of seriously good musicians around." Is he trying to tell me something?

"Most people have other things going on," James continues, "and it is something you can do on the side, but you can only expect certain rewards from that. This is a conservatory, and if someone comes to me, even if they're a working adult, and says, 'I just want to do this,' I'm going to treat them the same as a kid who's really bent on doing it; it doesn't take any less work." Is he talking about me?

On the other hand, he says, as if to cut me some slack, "It's fine if people just want to get a taste of this. More people should. The more people have an exposure to music, the better the world's going to be, really, the better the art's going to be -- not to mention all the scientific evidence of music being a calming thing, a spiritual healer. I've thought musically ever since I was a kid, and I know that's not normal, but to the extent that I can get people thinking like that, it's really rewarding."

IT'S THE FIRST ANNUAL SPRING Recital of the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, and there is an air of serious excitement as kids arrive carrying instrument cases, clutching sheet music. Girls with flowers in their hair, boys with spiky haircuts and punk rock T-shirts slalom through a forest of adult legs. There are cookies and punch. Video cameras whir, still cameras flash. The little boom box in the corner plays jazz. It's a hip crowd, but homey. Here and there one spots the odd rock babe or dude, who seem to have wandered in from Flea's other world -- though Flea, whose hair tonight is blue, seems at this moment to belong more to this one.

I will not be performing tonight.

In the space behind the school, a concrete service area cut into the hillside, a stage has been set up, behind which hangs a royal-blue velvety curtain. Many rows of folding chairs have been arranged before it, and they are full of people. In spite of the occasional waft of refuse from the open back door of the carnicería, and the intrusive rattle of its giant cooling unit, and the occasional helicopter overhead, the show is a success. Kids dare to be great, or good, or all right, concentrating mightily upon "Yankee Doodle," "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and "Old MacDonald Had To Rock." They play, they bow to loving applause. Keith Barry sits to the side of the stage with an expression compounding amusement, enjoyment and assessment. Flea proves a hands-on headmaster -- or ringmaster -- setting music stands, adjusting microphones, emceeing the program. As the evening progresses, his introductions grow increasingly fanciful:

 

". . . and now on piano, the enigmatic Ruby LaSalle."

". . . and now on piano, a young lady who's taking the town by storm . . ."

". . . and now, she just flew in from an exclusive appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York . . ."

". . . on bass guitar performing a piece by the Baroque Renaissance composers Led Zeppelin . . ."

And of one performer late for his spot: "You know these temperamental artists -- the rituals he's doing backstage."

It grows dark; the stage lights lend the proceedings a certain magical intensity. The audience joins in the "Mexican Hand-Clapping Song," without prompting. Kids who have already performed peel off to play; light sabers are drawn in the corridor between the practice rooms. A cat idles along the wall behind the stage; someone sets off a skyrocket. Flea chastises some early leavers, heading out the back: "I see you there walkin' out, I'm not going to forget you."

An 11-year-old flutist named Stefanie gets up to play Bach's Minuet in G. Her tone is way better than mine. James King catches my eye, points to himself and grins: She's his student. He played the same piece for his first judged competition, he later tells me, and suffered his first actual stage fright. "I saw her go through the same thing -- I just wanted to give her a hug, you know."

After everyone has performed -- including more than a few adults, almost all of them singers -- I return to the school's main room. I am amazed to find there are cookies left; it says something to me about the discipline of the younger generation. As I chew thoughtfully upon an Oreo, a father and son walk by on their way out, the boy carrying his music.

"Did you see your teacher?" asks the father.

"Uh-huh."

"What did he say?"

"He said I did very good."

"You did."

I will go and practice my flute now.


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