“Bring Two Pairs of Shoes” – Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural of Buckwheat Zydeco (1947-2016)

This article originally appeared as a cover story for Where Y’at magazine in 2009 and reprinted here on the day of Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural’s passing.

buckwheatzydecodNow that zydeco music is established with the Recording Academy as an official GRAMMY category, it is only fitting to reflect back on one of its master practitioners and foremost international ambassadors. Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural, Jr. and his band Buckwheat Zydeco celebrate their 30th year as one of the most renowned artists of the genre with a new CD, Lay Your Burden Down.

Once considered a regional musical phenomenon, zydeco music has garnered international attention, thanks in large part to Buckwheat Zydeco’s ambitious schedule. The band was formed in 1979, and began touring Europe in the early 80’s.

Thirty years later, the band boasts a list of accomplishments would have been difficult to envision at the outset. Presidential inaugurations, Olympic ceremonies, national television commercial and motion picture recordings, talk show appearances, and GRAMMY nominations top the exhaustive resume. Not bad for a band leader who was reluctant to embrace the music early in his career.

Throughout his childhood, Buck was inspired by Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis. “There was so much energy. It was very inspirational.”

“When I first played music, there was nothing like it,” recalled Buck. “I just knew that this was what I wanted to do. I knew that from an early age.”

Buck was always very appreciative of the opportunity to play music, and getting paid to do so was simply lagniappe.

“I’d make four or five dollars, and I thought I was the richest guy on my block,” he laughed. “A little kid making that kind of money! Just to see people dancing. It still touches me now.”

Buck’s father had an affinity for zydeco music, and encouraged him to explore the music of Clifton Chenier, one of the iconic performers of the genre. Buck remained steadfastly opposed to that notion, preferring to stay true to his early R&B influences and his Hammond B-3 organ.

“Clifton Chenier and my father were best of friends,” Buck explained. “My dad would always tell me that I needed to play accordion like Clifton Chenier. I was invited to one of his gigs to perform as an organist.”

He approached that gig convinced that he would remain stubbornly opposed to opening his eyes to the music.

“I stayed over two years with Clifton,” Buck admitted. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he added. “I had never seen a washboard like that (played by Clifton’s brother Cleveland). At the house, my dad would always play with the same washboard that we washed clothes with – the one with the wooden frame. This cat had that thing strapped around his shoulders like a bullet-proof vest. He played with bottle caps on all fingers.”

It was Chenier’s command of the accordion, his vitality, and his ability to integrate other influences that really hooked Buck on the potential of zydeco music.

“The music was of his own invention,” said Buck. “We played four hours non-stop. That’s how you play with Clifton. That was inspirational to me.”

After his run with Chenier, Buck knew that he wanted to learn to play the accordion. That transition took about nine months and was not without its challenges.

“It gave me the blues,” said Buck of the learning curve that came with his newfound instrument. “You’ve got to inhale, exhale, pull and push, pull and push – The coordination with the left hand and the 140 buttons. I flipped it over, turned it around, put it down, and got so upset.” On the verge of quitting, Buck issued an ultimatum to that accordion and threw down the gauntlet. “It’s you or me,” he said, and eventually he conquered the beast.

Buck continued to bring both instruments to his gigs but found it too easy to revert back to the Hammond B-3 organ as somewhat of a security blanket. It wasn’t until he eventually “parked” the Hammond B-3 that he began to really embrace the accordion.

The band’s commitment to tour internationally exposed their music to a broader audience. Doors began to open up for Buckwheat Zydeco, most notably a major record label deal that was a breakthrough for both the band and for the genre.

“You always keep your fingers crossed and you hope and pray that good things will happen,” said Buck. “My manager Ted Fox called and said, ‘How would you like to record for Island Records?’ I dropped the phone. I said, ‘What do you think? Man, that is great.’”

Buck was aware that Bob Marley had been discovered by Chris Blackwell of Island Records, and knew of the label’s commitment to roots music.

Buckwheat Zydeco is also known for their affinity for allowing kids to join the band on stage during live performances, a trait that only enhances their reputation for appealing to a broad audience.

“We have to give something to our children,” said Buck. “There’s so much corruption and destruction leading them the wrong way. When I [bring kids on stage], these kids always remember. My music is for all generations. Mom and dad don’t have to leave kids home. They can take their kids with them.”

While numerous generations and artists contributed to the lobbying efforts to have zydeco music recognized as a GRAMMY category, it is understandable that it’s a source of pride for Buck.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I’d like to think that I had something to do with it – Taking my inspiration from Clifton Chenier and all of the older generation guys that played before me. I’ll just hand it down to the younger generation.”

The band tries to maintain a healthy balance by integrating multiple influences into a synthesis that is uniquely their own. “Everybody likes different things,” Buck explained. “That’s why I put so many different things in my repertoire. But I’m never going to get away from the roots of my music. It’s like a gumbo. You have to put all of your ingredients in.”

The band’s new album is a perfect representation. “I’m doing some cover tunes and some of the Buckwheat Zydeco repertoire,” he said. “I like to take that challenge to arrange and make sure that I do a good job with anybody’s music that I cover. Whatever you do, you can’t just be a copycat.”

Lay Your Burden Down is produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos fame, with guest appearances by Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, JJ Grey, Trombone Shorty, and Berlin himself.

Buck had only one thought for those coming to see the band live at Jazz Fest. “When you come to a Buckwheat Zydeco concert, bring two pairs of shoes, because you might burn one pair out.”

As for the irony that he has accomplished so much in his career by playing music that he was particularly reluctant to embrace, he closed with a universal lesson.

“I knew that I should have listened to my dad a long time ago. I’m very stubborn. I learned what you don’t understand, you don’t criticize.”

Pete Fountain (1930 – 2016): Every Note Has a Smile

In 2008 I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Fountain for the cover story of Where Y’at magazine. One of the most accomplished musicians in the history of New Orleans, Pete passed away this morning at the age of 86 (Photo credits Carlton Mickle Photography).

fj2-2008_Pete-FountainIt was the mid-1970’s, and the applause from the audience was electrifying. The band members’ smiles hinted of both joy and respect for their dazzling colleague. What I remember most was the reaction of the host, iconic Tonight Show legend Johnny Carson. For the 30 years that the show ran, Carson had a distinct affinity for great comedians and great musicians. His reaction to this performance, one of roughly 60 Tonight Show invitations that Pete Fountain would ultimately oblige, was genuine. Johnny Carson, a man who you would think had seen it all, was quite simply blown away.

For more than a half century, Pete Fountain has been the face and the sound of traditional New Orleans jazz, though he has taken that genre to another level. His alluring demeanor and engaging smile give audiences an uncanny sense that Fountain is amenable and approachable, and his music has that same endearing quality. As clarinetist Tim Laughlin states it, the first time he heard Pete Fountain play, “It was like every note had a smile on it.”

I sat down with Pete Fountain and his agent/son-in-law Benny Harrell recently to reflect upon an extraordinary career, one cultivated at the “Conservatory of Bourbon Street,” as Fountain describes his music education. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of what he owned and heart bypass surgery sidelined him shortly thereafter, Fountain is living proof that the greatest fuel for resilience is the satisfaction of a life spent in the pursuit of that which you love.

Pete Fountain 0005Fountain recalled with fondness his memories of the Broad Street Carnival Club from the age of 8 or 9. The group marched every Mardi Gras and planted the seed that would inspire him to form his own Mardi Gras marching group years later, the Half-Fast Marching Club.

Fountain’s father played drums and a little violin, but leaned more toward country music. His love for music was infectious however, and he took satisfaction in Pete’s progression as a student of music. “He never did push me, but he enjoyed me playing,” said Fountain.

A testament to his rapid progression in music, Fountain was invited to play in the Warren Easton High School Band even before he was old enough to attend the school.

Fountain describes his style as a cross between New Orleanian Irving Fazola and Benny Goodman. One of his earliest breaks was his stint with Lawrence Welk’s band from 1957-59, a move that granted him the recognition that would pay dividends for years to come, especially in terms of album sales. “It was a good thing for me,” he said. “From then on it just blossomed.”

After two years in North Hollywood, however, the pull of the Big Easy began to overwhelm Fountain and his family. He had three small children, he and his wife Beverly were homesick, and the inevitable return to New Orleans followed.

Pete Fountain 0009

(L-R) Pete’s Son-in-Law/Manager Benny Harrell, Craig Cortello, Pete Fountain, and former Where Y’at editor Chris Thacker

Fountain had a live music club at 800 Bourbon St. throughout most of the ‘60s, and he played a frenzied schedule of three shows a night, six days a week. He later moved to 231 Bourbon St., a club that held nearly 300 people, allowing him to pull back to a more manageable two shows a night.

Harrell added that Fountain and trumpet player Al Hirt had a great mutual respect for each other’s talents. If Fountain finished his set first, he would often head down to Hirt’s club to join him on stage, and vice-versa.

“If they [musicians] could keep up with Al Hirt, they could keep up with anybody, because he was a player. He was a gorilla,” Fountain said with a laugh.

It was a magical time for jazz on Bourbon Street, an era of “good feelin’,” as Fountain recalled.

In 1978, Fountain moved to his club at the Hilton Hotel, a venue that seated 500 people. Throughout that era, Fountain’s guest appearances on the aforementioned Tonight Show helped increase Fountain’s visibility and drive album sales. Fountain has released an astounding 96 recordings during his career.

Now semi-retired, he plays Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, MS.

Harrell is a first hand witness to the love and admiration that Fountain’s fans share with him after each show, as he accompanies Pete.

People come up to him afterwards and say, “You brought me back to another time,” said Harrell of Fountain’s fans. “People are so gracious with their memories and what Pete’s music has meant to them.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is simply a nostalgic encounter, however. Fellow musicians affirm that Fountain still has the magic in his clarinet.

Laughlin is one of those musicians, and perhaps the person best qualified to articulate Fountain’s musical impact. Laughlin was invited to join Fountain’s band at Jazz Fest a couple of years ago, an invitation that he was honored to accept. In the same manner that Fazola influenced Fountain, jazz historians might view that Jazz Fest performance as a symbolic “passing of the torch” to Laughlin.

“There’s no better clarinet player in the country now,” said Fountain of Laughlin. “He’s all New Orleans. Whenever I have the opportunity, I like to bring Tim on stage. They love to hear both of us playing.”

Laughlin’s first encounter with Pete left a lasting impression on him. “The first time I heard Pete (age 9), I knew he didn’t belong in any category like traditional jazz or any other category for that matter,” said Laughlin. “He wasn’t trying to be a ‘throw-back.’ It was such a great, unique, and swingin’ sound, but I knew he was from New Orleans.”

“The thing I do try to copy is his professionalism and class,” he added. “He comes to play… not to tell jokes and stories between songs. His charm onstage is his clarinet and the things he does with it. I simply loved hearing one great tune after another. That’s really respecting your audience. It’s what they came to hear.”

“Once you get to know him, you get the feeling it’s not all about him,” said Laughlin. “It’s about the music. Anybody that knows him feels lucky to know a legend and such a good and decent man.”

Fountain’s Half-Fast Marching Club is approaching 48 years together, with 200 members and a 17 piece band. “He lives for Mardi Gras,” said Harrell, adding that passing up this Fat Tuesday ritual is one bit of doctor’s advice with which Fountain simply can’t comply.

Fountain was also recently inducted into the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, LA, which focuses on the history and culture of the Louisiana-Mississippi Delta region’s music. He was honored with an exhibit dedication and a star on the museum’s “Walk of Fame,” with the induction taking place at the Seventh Annual Delta Music Festival on April 5th.

As for the upcoming Jazz Fest performance, Fountain said that Laughlin will likely join him again. In terms of what the audience can expect, the answer was simply, “A great band and happy music.”

Every note with a smile.

To the Class of 2016…Advice From a Parent

$RumGrad002

Archbishop Rummel Class of 2016

For both students and parents, High School graduation is a time of remembrance and of celebration – A backward glance at accomplishments, friendships, and a measure of innocence lost. A reflection of joy, love, and sometimes pain and sorrow, amidst the realization of a journey ahead that will leave friends and mentors behind.

$Rum057It is also a time of anticipation – of endless possibilities, of hope, and of uncertainty. The apprehension that comes when discarding the comfort of that which is familiar eventually succumbs to the promise of potential fulfilled and the discovery of new horizons.

To the Class of 2016, a few words of advice…

Follow that which provides fuel for your soul and provides a service to others. There will be a time in your life for compromises, but those moments can wait. Be relentless in pursuit of a life that yields no regrets. Your future depends upon it.

Your energy, enthusiasm, and optimism not yet diminished by life’s disappointments and the shortcomings of the human race, work diligently to resist the temptation to turn cynical and lose faith in the goodness of others. Our future depends upon it.

$RumSrProm029Think big and remember that greatness has been achieved time and time again by those who simply outwork those with more talent, intelligence, and skill. Failure is a given, but merely a speed bump on the road to success. Quitting is optional.

Yet in your pursuit of greatness, never forget that the measure of a life well lived is simply the sum of tens of thousands of small moments that might seem inconsequential in isolation, yet are monumental in aggregate. Every smile, gesture, compliment, word of advice or encouragement, and sacrifice for others has a ripple effect that becomes a wave.

In the end, the quality of your relationships will provide your most lasting satisfaction.

Know that you alo$RumGrad012ne are responsible for your happiness. Don’t live a life based on the expectations of others, even your parents. Forgive us for wanting to guide your steps. We’d like to keep you from disappointment, heartache, and harm, but we can’t. Life’s most meaningful lessons must be lived to be learned. Besides, we don’t have all of the answers. Life at any age is a work in progress.

When you take your final breath, you’ll have to answer to yourself and your creator. Simply live a life that leads to the conclusion at that moment merely one simple thought, “Well done.”
$RumSrProm009And know that you are not alone in your journey. Everyone who has achieved success owes a measure of gratitude to those who took an interest in their development along the way. We hope that we’ve lived up to your expectations and haven’t disappointed you with regard to our duty as role models. As you develop your own sense of identity you will travel your own path, but we will take pride in your footsteps.

To Michael and to the entire graduating Class of 2016 from your greatest cheerleaders, your parents – We wish you success and love, and all of the above.

Onward and upward.

 

Jimmy Fallon: The King of Late Night Music

I grew up as David Letterman’s career was ascending. When he began his run as a talk show host, it was a great source of pride for fans like me who had followed his career and connected with his unique brand of humor. It was as though he was poking fun at the genre, with quirky, offbeat guests and bizarre comedy skits. It was like one big inside joke that only Dave and his fans were in on. His irreverence self-deprecating approach to a TV show genre that was built on Vegas-like glitz and celebrity worship truly changed the landscape for those who followed.

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0187 -- Pictured: (l-r) Singer Harry Connick, Jr. during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on January 5, 2015 -- (Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC)

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON — Episode 0187 — Pictured: (l-r) Singer Harry Connick, Jr. during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on January 5, 2015 — (Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC)

As Dave’s career winded down, Jimmy Fallon was a worthy newcomer to the late night talk show turf, having proven himself and honed his craft at SNL as a performer, writer, and Weekend Update desk jockey. Fallon’s affinity for music was apparent early on at SNL, as he used his guitar to deliver parody songs and impressions.

I recall watching Fallon’s first show in the “Late, Late” time slot when he first transitioned from SNL. He was clearly feeling his way and exploring the space, still looking slightly self-conscious and uneasy, though the elements of future success were clearly there. Like Letterman before him, he used that time slot where expectations are lower and experimentation is acceptable to find his groove.

As he moved into the “Early Late” time slot, taking over at NBC for Jay Leno, he came in as a confident performer with a clear vision of the format and tools he would use to conquer the new challenge.

And the key to his formula for success? MUSIC.

From the outset, Fallon chose a band that was worthy of the late night talk show platform, as Carson (Doc Severinsen Big Band), Letterman (Paul Shaffer), and Leno (Branford Marsalis and later Kevin Eubanks) had done before him. The Roots, led by Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson, were an astute choice for the times. The band has hip-hop sensitivities, but with jazz undertones and the musicianship to cross genres and back performers of any style. Their versatility is critical in backing the music-based hijinks of a host who amazingly seems to straddle music generations very adeptly.

Fallon migrates seamlessly from spot-on impressions of 60’s and 70’s classic performers like Neil Young, Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” and Jim Morrison to a “history of rap” medley with Justin Timberlake. And somehow Fallon seems natural and authentic in both settings, a feat that few performers could pull off. He comes across as fun and hip, with a sparkle in his eye that seems to indicate that he can’t believe he’s getting away with it all.

Like the Rat Pack shows in Vegas in the late 50’s and early 60’s, the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is the coolest, modern-day party that everyone wants to attend. It’s the one that they’ll be talking about the next day.

Fallon recently challenged Ellen DeGeneres to a lip-synch battle judged by Justin Timberlake, another recurring skit on the show. And the fun of music participation lures celebrities who might otherwise foster an aversion to letting their hair down to join in the silliness (see “I Got My Tight Pants On” featuring Jennifer Lopez and Fallon).

But in the context of this blog that espouses the benefits of music education, I’m particularly fond of the skits where Fallon invites a musician with a hit song to join him and his band to create a rendition of the song using only classroom toy musical instruments.

We’ve discussed in this forum the fact that so many music students abandon music when they leave school because excessive marching and drilling associated with band programs leaves them burnt out. We live in an era where the tools for illustrating joy in music have never been greater – loop pedals, vocal harmonizers, multi-track recording software (I have an app with an 8-track digital recorder on my phone) are accessible and inexpensive (or free).

Fallon understands that the importance of music is that it simply provides a universal platform for fun.

And Jimmy Fallon has become the King of late night music.

Remembrances of a New Orleans Music Community

I wrote this piece for the New Orleans Publication Where Y’at magazine 18 months after Hurricane Katrina, interviewing 3 musicians who were still displaced from the city.

Eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina devastated our community, many of our city’s musicians remain scattered around the world. Three of those performers reflected on the New Orleans music scene and their collective affinity for the community of artists for whom they now have an even greater appreciation.

Henry Butler

Like so many New Orleanians, Henry Butler (Basin Street Records) is monitoring the recovery from afar, hoping that if the Road Home program and insurance issues are resolved, he can be home in a matter of 1-2 years. His frustration with the lack of progress and leadership is clear.

Butler 001Butler spent ten days in Northern Louisiana as the Katrina drama unfolded, left to go on tour to stay busy, and eventually settled in Colorado. He admits that he, like so many others, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, causing him to immerse himself in his work for therapeutic purposes.

Perhaps the diversion that music offered was only a temporary respite from the emotion of the events that destroyed his lower ninth ward home, as evidenced by a story he candidly shared. “I did a New Year’s broadcast in Boston at Berklee School of Music. We were on National Public Radio, and the guy asked me a question about my piano. I guess it was the way he asked it, and all of a sudden I just broke into tears,” he recalled. “I turned myself around so that most of the audience couldn’t see it. The guy was smart enough to realize that it was time for us to play some more music.”

In terms of the brotherhood of New Orleans musicians, Butler adds, “New Orleans musicians are in touch with each other a lot. When [musicians] are in touch with each they know what these people offer musically. They know how they want to work with each other.”

Butler noted that camaraderie can quickly turn to competition when musicians venture outside of the Big Easy. “In the bigger cities, people are concerned that the people who replace them might keep the gigs,” he concluded. “That’s why it’s getting harder and harder for new people to break into places like New York, Los Angeles – maybe a little easier in Nashville.”

As a well-traveled performer and a New Orleans native, Butler provides a broad perspective and a qualified voice on the New Orleans music community and the lack of structure with respect to the business side of music. “You’ve got a whole poor class of people who have spent their whole lives just loving music and just loving art and not really caring much about whether they make money or not,” notes Butler. “You’ve got people in other cities who do care about making money because the cost of living is higher and they don’t have a lot of people who would want to feed them if they showed up on their doorstep. It’s a different culture. It’s a different ball game.”

Butler adds, “There’s no place like New Orleans – The passion, the enthusiasm of the musicians, the true love that the musicians have for what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s to their own detriment.”

Like so many New Orleanians, Butler is hopeful for a better city after the rebirth. “I love the city, I love what I’ve gotten from that city, and I love my foundation. It’s my hope that we’ll find a way to build a new and more resourceful New Orleans for everybody.”

Pete Alba

Pete Alba is a jazz and blues guitarist residing in Seattle post-Katrina who came to New Orleans (1993-2005) to nurture his craft. Like so many who have spent time here, the city has become a part of his musical soul. “I came to New Orleans from Pennsylvania in the early ‘90’s to find myself musically, and N.O. is a great place to do that, like no other city I’ve ever been to,” says Alba. “Music is important to some people here, but in general, I don’t think that music pours out of the veins of Seattle like it does in New Orleans.”

musicians-village 001Alba performs with his own jazz trio, and also recently joined the blues-oriented Groove Messengers. He’s starting to find his way into the music scene, but it’s been challenging.

“People are a little bit more protective of their gigs,” Alba said, echoing Butler’s sentiments. “There’s no real unity in the music scene. There’s a lot of work here, and generally the pay is more than I made in New Orleans which is a plus, it’s just getting into the inner circle is a lot more difficult. Even if you’re a player, there’s just a very protective attitude.”

Pete noted the friendship of the late Tim Guarisco, guitarist of the 1990’s funk bank Smilin’ Myron, as a shining example of the openness of the network of New Orleans musicians. “He was the person who helped me bridge the gap and really got me inside of New Orleans,” said Alba. “He knew all of the local places, all the cool music joints. He was a huge influence on me. He ran a late night jam at the Maple Leaf, and I got to meet some really cool people.”

Although Alba has established new roots in Seattle, it’s clear that he misses the opportunity to visit the city that endeared itself to him. “I’m torn. I definitely feel the call sometimes and it’s tough.”

Within his new circle of friends, he finds comfort in occasionally meeting musicians in Seattle who’ve lived in or visited New Orleans, because it’s difficult to articulate that experience to others. Beyond music, the appeal is found in “The food and just the general demeanor of the people – the vibe. You can’t explain it.”

Evan Christopher

Because he has spent so much time in airports and on airplanes post-Katrina, it’s now hard to define where is home for jazz clarinetist Evan Christopher (STR Digital Records). He completed a 12-week residency in Paris in early 2006 for a French Foundation based in New York, the French American Cultural Exchange (FACE). He’s formed a band there, and he’ll be bringing that combo to New Orleans in the spring. I spoke to him during a brief stop in New Orleans before he hit the road with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

Christopher 001Christopher is from California, but lived in New Orleans in the mid-90’s, and relocated here again in 2001 until he was displaced by the storm. “The first time I had been to New Orleans was on a bus tour with a singer-songwriter from California,” he recalled. “I’d never been to this part of the country, and I thought I was in another world. I told the band leader that I was going to move there when the tour was over, and I did.”

Christopher recalled his time in New Orleans, and particularly his regular Thursday night gig at Donna’s with great affection.

“The thing that I think I miss the most is the way the audience engages the music in New Orleans in terms of the interaction – being able to enter a musical experience on a lot of different levels,” he said. “There are people that come from Europe that are only looking at it from a historical perspective, there are some people that are coming because of their knowledge of the history of the instrument, there are some people that are just coming to have a party, there are some people that are coming because they’re looking for a cultural experience – they can enter it on any different level.

“I don’t find that in very many other places. I don’t find a willingness to engage the music as socially as the audiences do in New Orleans,” he added. “As a performer, there’s a whole new set of freedoms in what you’re able to do musically when you have a lot of different people coming to relate to the music from their different perspectives.”

“Music’s just been such a big part of the way people grow up here, musical families that go back generations, coming up through some of the schools together,” he said. “I came as an outsider. The community that I found was musicians that shared a similar set of values about how we creatively use the language of tradition, to create something new and have it be very open creatively and still have that same set of musical values. That level of community resonates internationally.”

The Future

A musician can take an instrument and a performance on the road, but you can’t just mobilize a musical community, especially one as unique as New Orleans. Music is undoubtedly our city’s greatest asset, and unless we do whatever it takes to give our musicians a fighting chance, we’ll never get back our city’s heart and soul.

Butler believes that the key is a unified voice of the people of our city demanding that we make it happen. “It would be nice for all New Orleanians to realize that there is strength in numbers. One person’s light is good, two peoples’ lights automatically give more strength, and the more you can merge other people’s lights and bring them together, the more listening power you will have. And the more you’re going to find that people in government are going to be interested.”

Music Education: The Gateway to Career Success

WGN Chicago Interview

WGN Chicago Interview

When my book Everything We Needed to Know About Business, We Learned Playing Music was published in 2009, I believed that as the pace of change in the business world continued to accelerate, the concept of Music & Arts education as prerequisites for success would become more mainstream. Innovation and creativity are skills that must be practiced, developed, and refined. While we’re not there yet, it seems that the instances of testimony and observation regarding that connection are becoming more and more frequent.

Here are a few from news sources around the web:

(FORBES) “These Business Leaders Do Their Jobs Better by Applying Lessons from the Performing Arts”

(HARRIS POLL) “More Americans Believe Music Education Contributes to Career Readiness”

(NY TIMES) “Is Music the Key to Success”

(WORDPRESS:  BUSINESS MUSICIAN) “From the Band Room to the Boardroom…9 Lessons of Music Education that Translate into Success”

(CTV NEWS OTTAWA) “Canadian Astronaut Touts Benefits of Learning Music”

(MAKING MUSIC MAGAZINE) “A Law Office with a Musical Side”

(CNN) “Everything I Need to Know, I Learned in Music Class” (Hey, that sounds familiar!!!)

(THE GUARDIAN) “Music Graduates are More Employable than You Might Think”

Our Music Education Advocacy army is growing. Stay tuned…

Dr. Michael E. Guillot In Memoriam (1953-2015): 10 Lessons of a Teacher’s Life Well Lived

(Note:  An education fund has been established to ensure the future education of Dr. Guillot’s 10-yr-old son, Spencer. For more information and to make a contribution, please visit:  GoFundMe.com/SpencerGuillotFund)

Thirty five years ago I wrote a dozen or so essays for my high school English teacher during my Junior year. Tonight for my friend and mentor, I’ll write one more.

Dr. Michael Guillot was a man of extraordinary talents, and the loss to the education community of New Orleans with his passing is incalculable. Educator, guidance counselor, education administrator, certified fund-raising executive, organizational development expert, non-profit advisor, education reformer, visionary, husband, father, NCAA hoops enthusiast, and friend only begin to scratch the surface.

IMG_2676What made Mike so uniquely special was that he took on all of those roles with infectious enthusiasm. The difficulty in eulogizing someone like Mike Guillot is that a simple list of accomplishments, of which he had many, doesn’t begin to convey the sense of how the people in his presence were made to feel. When you spoke to him about an organization, an idea, or you as an individual, you always walked away feeling as though greatness was not only possible – it was probable – if we were willing to push the limits of our talents. He knew that we were better and capable of more than we believed. He saw potential.

I first came to know Mike in 1980 as a junior at Archbishop Rummel High School in New Orleans, LA when he taught English composition. He was a demanding teacher. His 8 golden rules of composition were to be followed precisely, and even one violation garnered an automatic failing grade. As I recall, half of those compositions were written at home, but half were completed in class under the pressure of time constraints. I must say honestly that many a student mumbled the name Guillot under their breath in frustration when grades were distributed.

But Mike’s passion for quality of the written word and his genial demeanor helped ease the bite of his demanding approach. Also, it’s funny how the passing of time brings with it a greater appreciation in life for those who expected and demanded our best – those who understood that there were no shortcuts on a journey to excellence – and trying to convince ourselves otherwise was a terrible disservice to our higher selves, and to our creator.

A year later when Mike served as my Senior year homeroom teacher, I recall an intramural volleyball game. While other teachers sat casually in the stands and observed, I remember Mike standing by the net, clapping his hands exuberantly, urging us on, trying to rally his homeroom boys to victory. We went ahead and won game 1, lost momentum and lost game 2 in a close one, and got clobbered in game 3. I remembered thinking, “He sure does seem excited about this. It’s just an intramural volleyball game.” But for Mike, there were no mundane events, and no moments in life that didn’t matter. He was always present and engaged when he was in your presence. He always helped you understand that in life there were no dress rehearsals. Every day was the real deal.

Mike Guillot wore many hats during his career. He served as teacher, guidance counselor, and administrator at several schools in the New Orleans area. He began to develop expertise in assisting educational institutions and nonprofits in setting up their fundraising programs. In 1989 he founded Virtual Development Group, taking on the practice of fundraising consulting as a full-time endeavor. Over that 16 year period, he assisted so many education and nonprofit organizations in refining their mission, structuring their fundraising programs, and in providing guidance on board selection and management. For a time after relocating to North Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he worked for nonprofit organizations there, including a stint as V.P. of Patron Services for the North Carolina Symphony. He also developed and taught a series of Nonprofit Management Program courses for Duke University’s Nonprofit CertiWk. 12 - Art class posters (1)ficate Program. He would return to New Orleans education in 2010, while continuing his work toward a Ph.D from Antioch University, work that he completed in the fall of 2014. After a brief tenure at Holy Cross High School, he accepted the position as President of De La Salle High School in New Orleans in 2012, a position he held until his death.

Mike’s impact on De La Salle H.S. in three short years was impressive, where all of the skills that he had amassed during his career came together. With an eye for innovation and excellence, he began to build classrooms of the future centered around the 4 C’s of 21st century education:  Creativity, Communication, Collaboration, and Critical Thinking, serving as a model for education reform efforts. He was a rare visionary talent inWk. 12 - C pd (1) education – someone with not only the understanding of the necessary changes needed in the classroom as the antiquated “repository of information model” of education gives way to skills and project-based learning – but also one with the skills, understanding, and drive to secure the resources and buy-in to turn ideas into reality.

It was in 1981-82 during my senior year at Rummel when Mike served as my homeroom teacher that we found the common joy that would serve as the link connecting our friendship through the years. When Mike played the annual Rummel teachers’ March Madness NCAA basketball pool in 1982, he shared his predictions and the daily standings with his students. I showed him my bracket as well, though he made it clear that the “official contest” was open only to teachers and alumni. I would later learn that some of the current students had coerced their teachers into allowing them to enter, but Mike held firm in his adherence to the rules, and I never let him forget that he was the cause of all of my office pool futility for years to come. In what I would later refer to as my March Madness “Guillot curse,” I became the “unofficial” winner of the 1982 Rummel teachers’ March Madness competition. After Michael Jordan’s game-winning jumper that gave the NC Tar Heels the championship and a comparison of my bracket to the winner, Mike sheepishly proclaimed, “Wow, you would have won our pool.” I was doomed.

I joined the pool officially in 1983, my first year as an alum, but I had no chance. But each year in March, Mike and I would find one another, catch up on our careers, lives, and families, and join in whomever’s company or organization had an open competition. Some years we’d play my office pool, some years we’d play his, and some years when neither organization we were affiliated with held a March Madness competition, we’d just compete against each other for an oyster po-boy and a Barq’s root beer. One year it was me, his son Ted, and Mike – $5 bucks a head – winner take all.

But it really was just an excuse to reconnect.

I have been fortunate enough to have had a front row seat for Mike’s wonderful journey of excellence for more than 3 decades. As our friendship grew, I came to think of Mike as my compass. Whenever I came to a crossroads in life, I turned to him for guidance, encouragement, and support. Like any great guidance counselor, he didn’t give direct advice, only asked the right questions that made the choice of the appropriate path seem obvious. I have been successful in life by often choosing the more difficult path that would help challenge me and grow my skills, a “lifetime of continuous learning” model that Mike exemplified and that I tried to emulate. I will always view this brief social media exchange that Mike and I had during teacher appreciation week with great pride:

It would have been easy to lose touch after Hurricane Katrina rolled through New Orleans, but thankfully we serendipitously bumped into each other at a local bookstore shortly thereafter. We gave each other a hug, exchanged our stories, and updated contact info so that we could stay in touch.

Once when I had reached one of those crossroads in my professional career, I turned to Mike for counsel. I dropped out of corporate America for a time to pursue my passion for writing, public speaking, and consulting. And when I began to conduct research for a book espousing the life benefits of music education, I knew that I would want to get Mike’s perspective and thoughts and include them in the content for the book. You see, Mike was a great proponent of the arts in education, his own life shaped by his participation in choir as a youngster. Secondly, Mike was of a generation whose experiences were profoundly shaped by the music of their time, a “golden period” as Mike described it, where the arts provided a conduit for social change. I knew that Mike would express those thoughts in an articulate and clear manner.

When the book was completed, I sent him a note to thank him for his contribution. I confided that although I was proud of the work professionally and felt as though I was making a difference, I wasn’t sure if I could make a living. His response:

“As for making a living…I’m pretty sure that’s not the point, right? Our job is to make a life, or as you say, make a difference. The money will take care of itself. You are putting yourself out there and establishing clearly your unique contribution to the world. It is working and it will continue to work…and counting dollars is not – repeat – is not a measure of success. 

Talk to you soon,

Michael”

It was comforting to hear Mike’s words and they gave me a sense of great clarity. I knew my mission at that point. Mike made it clear that when you had a calling to make a unique contribution to the world and challenge yourself, you should trust your intuition and not let fear rule the day. And things did work out. I would return to the corporate world a much more polished, skillful, and valuable employee years later, and I owe a great deal of that success to the lessons learned from my association with Mike.

As Mike migrated back to education and began to implement his own vision for education reform, I took great pride in his accomplishments. We shared a belief that sweeping changes were needed in 21st century education. I would later invite Mike to join a panel of New Orleans professionals whose success was influenced by music education that included Sheriff Newell Normand and U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. Again, Mike so eloquently shared his thoughts and experiences, as well as his vision for 21st century education:

I was privileged to serve on a peer review group near the end of his Ph.D. work, just prior to his dissertation defense. I know that even when there were professional sacrifices in the pursuit of his degree, he persevered because he believed in the work and the need for a practical model for non-profit leadership.

I once spoke to Mike about his career as a non-profit and organizational development consultant. He said, “Craig, essentially I still consider myself a teacher.”

That was his life, inside or outside of the classroom.

When we experience a death that seems so untimely, we point to our understanding of God and the fact that we don’t always understand our higher power’s plan. I would like to believe that the impact of the life well lived by a great teacher can be measured by the students who were impacted. So what lessons do we take away from Mike’s exemplary example of life? Here are a few:

1.  Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, and Critical Thinking – become the model of education that Mike envisioned – live those concepts and integrate them into your work every day. It would be a shame if the reforms that are so necessary in 21st century education that Mike had envisioned and begun to implement at De La Salle High School in New Orleans lost momentum with Mike’s death. I just saw anrainbow_081110 article in TIME magazine recently citing a survey of CEOs and once again it’s these so-called soft skills that students lack coming to the workplace. In my own experience I can say that I echo his sentiments, and we shared our like-minded thoughts on the subject often. I would implore not just the administration and teachers of De La Salle High School, but all of the educators in this city to explore 21st century skills and education reform models and to make meaningful changes to both the environment and curriculum to better prepare our young men and women for the future.

2.  Read Mike’s dissertation and share with your colleagues in the non-profit world. It’s available for download at Antioch University’s website, and Mike was uniquely qualified to complete this work. The One Less Traveled By:  A New Model for the Nonprofit Leadership outlines 10 building blocks for Nonprofit leadership, but there are life lessons for us all in this work, with Mike’s distinct voice evident throughout. He gave his heart and soul, his time, and he sacrificed in many ways to see this work through to the finish. When I think of how unfortunate it is that we lost Mike only months after he achieved this esteemed honor of education, I take solace in the fact that he DID complete the work prior to his death and that we can share his research.

Mike was intent on conducting practical research. Whether you’re involved in nonprofit leadership or not, read this work. The document is filled with great lessons of society, community, purpose, and life.

3.  Emulate Mike’s model of a commitment to a lifetime of continuous learning. If we can all become ambassadors of learning, pursuing a cycle of an insatiable thirst for education followed by a burning desire to share our knowledge and experience for the good of others, we’ll honor his memory appropriately.

school girl 3 x 4Mike’s approach to social media was an indicator of his thirst for knowledge. I had a conversation once with a mutual colleague regarding how frequently we enjoyed the material that Mike posted on his social media feeds. Thoughtful essays, music and art reflections, productivity tips, education ideas, leadership doctrines, and business case studies were commonplace if you connected with Dr. Guillot (@meguillot on Twitter). Social media like most anything, can be good or bad – a great resource of enlightenment or a breeding ground for negativity, criticism, and even hatred.

For someone with such an insatiable appetite for learning as Mike Guillot, social media and the web were simply tools for more efficiently accumulating and organizing knowledge based on your interests and professional needs (He once informed me of the newsfeed tool Zite with the enthusiasm of a child with a new Christmas toy).

Make social media an extension of the values, goals, aspirations, interests, and beliefs you hold dear in your offline existence.

4.  Live every moment with enthusiasm for the task at hand and for the people who share those experiences with you. Mike contacted me once to let me know that one of the children of the members of the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary had contacted him to discuss his sentiments regarding Music and Social Change that she’d seen in excerpts from my book. He wanted me to know that sometimes our actions can have very unexpected ripple effects in ways that we could never have envisioned, and provide affirmation for the validity of the work I’d completed.

Such is the nature of every interaction of every day. The manner in which we inspire and support each other’s efforts, ideas, and passions can have a multiplier effect on those whom they impact, and so it goes. Don’t ever lose sight of effect you can have, both positively and negatively, on those around you.

5.  Make a commitment to the arts – in education and in life. 

Mike Guillot was a believer in the importance of the arts, both for the critical role that they will play in 21st century learning and preparing our students for the creative economy for the future, but also for the role that they play in the quality of life. He shared his thoughts on both.

(I’ve included excerpts of Mike’s interview in the text below. Here’s the audio interview in its entirety:)

“I would sit in front of the stereo listening to Beatles songs, trying to figure out what they were playing. I still listen to their music and think they are as powerful an influence on art in general as anything that’s happened in the last 50 or 60 years,” he said.

Beatles Abbey RdBeing a part of that generation also opened his eyes to the power of music in terms of its potential for providing a conduit for social change.

“Art reflects life,” said Michael. “It was expressing that era of heightened change, of personal discontent, of grappling with core issues, of looking around you and not making a connection between what you saw and what you felt. Some of that had to do with justice issues, of race. Some of it had to do with equity issues – how come so and so has this and other people don’t? We claim to be the land of opportunity. Part of what we were striving for to identify in those days was how equitable was that opportunity.

“And of course, we were pressed on by a war,” he added.

“That war for me and many other Americans was not just an abstract exercise. We knew people who had lost their lives in that war and their families who had been affected. And of course I was at the age where I was eligible for the draft, so it was not an academic exercise. So to find any art form, but particularly one as accessible and as present as popular music to begin to tussle with those issues [was important]. 

“At the same time you had the Beatles; Bob Dylan; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and Pete Seeger. You had the emergence of folk music becoming protest music, and popular music sort of echoing those themes. So Rock and Roll goes from just a mere expression of youthfulness to an expression of serious political and sociological issues,” he observed. “It was a profound time. Many researchers call these periods golden periods, where a convergence of things happens.

“You look at Athens, you look at Rome, you look at the Renaissance, periods where art and civic and commerce and all these things come together. The 60s and all that it meant represented that time in the world. The first time the world had to stop and look at itself since WWII, and not necessarily liking what it found. You had a lot of art trying to tussle with that.”

6.  Commit to excellence in all that you do. Don’t settle for less than your best.

Mike took an important lesson from his own experience in music that would shape his life and career. When I asked Michael to articulate the takeaways of his experience with and observations of music that he now applies to business, his thoughts first returned to the vocal ensemble and of the lessons of his influential vocal instructor, Mr. Malcolm Breda.

Seagull and sun1“In high school I got involved in a superior vocal ensemble,” he recalled. “We had a wonderful director who taught me how to read music, Malcolm Breda. He saw what we were doing, even though we were a small high school, as being at the highest level. He wanted us to see this as a pursuit of excellence.

“We rehearsed all day long, and it really became an important organization in my small school. He taught us how to read music and how to understand what the intent of the composer was. He introduced us not only to the fun music to sing, but also some challenging pieces. I really enjoyed the four years that I spent there. He saw that excellence and joy could be part of the same pursuit,” he said. “That you could work hard, demand the best of yourself and the others you were with, and that would not diminish, it only enhanced your joy.

“That was an important lesson for me to learn. And I think it is [an important lesson] for young people where they tend to associate hard work with pain. I was taught that hard work meant that you could stand in front of a group of people and perform, and they would love you.”

Having the opportunity to observe world-class musicians up close has given him a greater understanding of and appreciation for their dedication to the little details that are considerable in aggregate.

“When you look at professional musicians or artists at any level, what you rarely see is the amount of time and energy it takes to get to that level of virtuosity. As a business person you begin to appreciate that. How many scales does Leo Kottke have to perfect to get to that level of excellence on the guitar? It’s unthinkable.

“Yet that’s indeed the journey in front of you. Every day you have to be willing to do a whole compendium of little things that all add up to greatness.”

7.  Believe in the goodness of mankind. Every conversation that I can recall with Mike seemed to have a tone that would best be described as hopeful. When we spoke of the workplace of the future, he spoke of the humanity of the workplace and the idea that the workforce of the future would be driven not by technology, but by people. When we discussed education reform, he didn’t speak in cynical tones regarding the resistance to change that he might encounter, but rather about the excitement that could be created by the innovations that he envisioned.

It’s much easier to go through life with a positive attitude when you’re an optimist rather than a pessimist. And you’re more likely to inspire those around you.

8.  Enjoy life’s simple pleasures. I once wrote in this forum that if you can’t find joy in the simple thinStL-Cath-8x10gs in life, the joy you find in fancy, expensive things won’t last. Mike’s life exemplified those sentiments. His sharp, sarcastic yet playful wit, his love of college basketball and sports in general, his joy in strumming the guitar or singing a favorite song, and the beauty of stroll through the streets of New Orleans were some of Mike’s favorite things that I knew from our friendship. His family and friends echoed those themes in my conversations with them and in their written thoughts as well.

9.  Courage is a virtue. In the best-selling book Good to Great, author Jim Collins discusses a principle that great companies exhibit known as the Stockdale paradox. The concept was derived from his conversations with Admiral James Stockdale, a prisoner of war of the POW camp known as the “Hanoi Hilton” during the Vietnam War.

Quoting Admiral Stockdale, Collins writes, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

While Mike was an optimist with a wonderful attitude and great enthusiasm for his work, he understood that leadership carried with it a responsibility to confront and acknowledge realities of your situation and organization, and to make difficult decisions. Great leaders and great organizations understand that problems ignored and not addressed head on don’t simply fix themselves. They have the potential to drain your organization (or yourself) of its resources and sap employee or stakeholder morale.

10.  Live a life of purpose. And finally, I’ll go back to the words that Mike shared at a time when I needed them most on mission and purpose:  “As for making a living…I’m pretty sure that’s not the point, right? Our job is to make a life, or as you say, make a difference. The money will take care of itself. You are putting yourself out there and establishing clearly your unique contribution to the world. It is working and it will continue to work…and counting dollars is not – repeat – is not a measure of success.”

Similarly, Mike referenced this quote in his dissertation work:

Purpose.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to
be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and
lived well.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Threnody

In his nonprofit consulting work, Mike guided his clients toward focusing on a mission that would inspire their team, their current and future board members, and that donors would enthusiastically get behind and support. Once again, focus on purpose, resources will follow.

In the book Man in the Mirror:  Solving the 24 Problems Men Face, author Patrick Morley discusses the difference between goals and purpose:

“Goals are what we do, purposes are why we do what we do…One of the most perplexing problems men face is that met goals tend to become an unrelated string of hollow victories…you have to keep setting new ones, because achieving them doesn’t provide any lasting satisfaction.

Silhouette father & sonTo be satisfying, our goals need to reflect our examination of life’s larger meaning. The plain truth is that most men either don’t know their purpose in life, or their purpose is too small. A man can do nothing more important than to wrestle with the purpose of his life.”

So my final suggestion is to encourage our youth to follow the pursuits that feed their soul and have an impact on others. We are great at celebrating those who exit the doors of our educational institutions and become well paid engineers and lawyers, and no harm in that. But let’s celebrate those who pursue educating impoverished children in 3rd world countries or inner cities. The struggling artist who believes they have a gift to share with the world and perseveres in the face of commercial obstacles. Or the social worker who helps victims of domestic abuse for only a shade above minimum wage. Let’s celebrate the honor in those pursuits with equal fervor.

Pursue a life well lived, in honor of the teacher who showed us how.

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