Encounter between Cecil Lytle,
Jean-Charles François and Nicolas Sidoroff
Lyon, August 3, 2019
The pianist Cecil Lytle came to Lyon in August 2019 for a friendly and touristic visit. Cecil Lytle was Jean-Charles François’ colleague in the Department of Music at the University of California San Diego during the 1970s and 1980s. For the past few years, as part of a program organized by the University of California, Cecil Lytle taught a course on jazz history in Paris every summer. A visit to Cefedem AuRA took place on August 3, 2019 in the company of two members of PaaLabRes: Nicolas Sidoroff who teaches at this institution and Jean-Charles François who was its director from 1990 to 2007. We discussed the history of Cefedem, the nature of its project focused on the development of unique curricula, and also the constant institutional difficulties that this institution had to face since its creation. Following this guided visit, the three musicians met with a view to publishing the transcript (based on the recording of this session) in the third edition of paalabres.org, « Break down the walls ». Throughout his musical career, Cecil Lytle has refused to limit himself to a single aesthetic. He has been very insistent on combining several traditions in his practice. Moreover, his important influence in the functioning of the university has allowed him to develop actions in the field of education for the social promotion of minorities in the United States from disadvantaged neighborhoods. The beginning of the interview focuses on a meeting between Cecil Lytle and Nicolas Sidoroff to get to know each other. The latter’s artistic practice is discussed, before aspects more specifically related to our guest in the field of arts and politics.
2. Cecil Lytle, musician at the conjunction of several traditions
3. University and the Preuss School
4. A Secondary Education School in a Neighborhood
5. The Walls and Pedagogical Methods
6. The Walls and Musical Practices
Before we start, it might be good to for you [Nicolas] to say few words about yourself. Nicolas was just in New York last month. So now he knows perfect English. [laugh]
No… is it my accent [laughs]? I went there with French students, who did not speak English, so I always had to go from English to French and French to English.
That’s how we are in Paris. We start to say something in French and they switch to English.
I had already been once in Boston and New York, and that time I spoke a lot in English for two weeks. My English had significantly improved. Last month, for one week, it was mostly French!
So you went there to do what?
I am a doctoral student at the Paris VIII University and I work on music and the division of labor in music, in an Educational Sciences laboratory. We have formed a collective of students from this university, to stick together, to be collective in our research and to try to shape the university according to our experiences and ideas. And we made a proposal for a symposium on the idea of re-imagining higher education in a critical way. It was held at the New School in New York. Sandrine Desmurs who works at Cefedem AuRA also came with us to present the mechanisms that we have put in place at Cefedem. I also attended a lot of concerts, and I took the opportunity to meet as many musicians as possible, like George Lewis, William Parker and Dave Douglas for example. I also work part-time at Cefedem with the students of the professional development diploma program for already on-the-job music teachers. And in the other part of my time, I play music, I conduct research, notably with the PaaLabRes collective, and I’m also a PhD student in Education Sciences.
So you make music, you are a performer?
Yes, I play mainly in two collectives: one I call post-improvisation, a type of music called downtown – Downtown II – do you know this term?
I know the expression. It comes from George Lewis?
Yes. The expression has its origin in New York, but a lot of people play this downtown music and don’t live in New York.
I bet you.
And it’s the second generation of downtown music, which is called Downtown II, of which John Zorn is one of the important figures and also Fred Frith, to take the most famous ones. That’s just one of the two streams of music that I do. The other one comes from Réunion Island, an island in the east of Africa, south of Madagascar. In the small islands in that part of the Indian Ocean there’s specific music called maloya and sega. And I’ve been playing this music with Réunionese people for about twenty years now, mostly on trumpet.
Now, is that what is called in France ethnomusicology?
No, it is a practice that we call traditional music, but it is above all a live culture, it is not a music of the past, but of today.
And maloya is quite specific, because it’s a music that’s been banned for an extremely long time.
By the colonials?
Yes. By the French colonials.
The French are still there. [laughs]
This music came to the forefront in the 1970s thanks to the communists and the independentists. It was at the same time that reggae also made an international breakthrough. And that’s when what’s known as malogué or maloggae (a mix of maloya and reggae) developed and seggae (sega and reggae) It has become a kind of very contemporary mix of traditional music, popular music and modern music. So I play with a family who came to France thirty years ago. I was playing this malogué, séga and seggae music with notably the father who sang, played bass and led the ensemble, and his son who sang and played drums. He was not yet 18 when I met him. And he was about ten years old when the malogué was created, he couldn’t reach the bass drum pedal! [Laughs] Today, the group has reconfigured itself on a roots reggae basis, it’s called Mawaar. It means « I’ll see » in Réunionnese and a good part of it is sung in Creole. And we’re still working on the music from Réunion Island, even though we don’t play it live on stage any more. The father I was talking about is on bass, and it’s the son who is very active. He plays guitar and drums, he sings, he’s one of those who contributes the most to the music.
Do the people on that island speak French?
Yes, and Creole. A very nice Creole.
You have been to that island?
Yes, but only for a week, because the Cefedem has developed a music teachers’ training program in Réunion Island. And I was able to observe the three different Creole languages: the first one, the French in Metropolitan France can understand it, even if some expressions are not French, they are still understandable; the second one is mixed, the French understand some words but not everything; and the third one, the French understand nothing.
[laugh] You just play the music. [laugh] Yes. So how did you get interested in that island, that one place?
Because of the people I met.
Here? They live in France?
That’s because I met this family, and very soon I enjoyed talking and playing this music. I have to say that I make music in situation: I met people who are very interesting and know a lot of things about this island, its history, its music and about their origins, etc. So, I’ve shared their life, spent time with them, especially by playing music.
It is very important meet people where and how they are, to stay with this people, to eat their food, to hear their stories, how do they cry, how they are happy, how they are sad. There is a pianist living in Paris, Alan Jean-Marie from Guadeloupe. He plays jazz, regular straight-ahead traditional jazz. His jazz playing is so infused with the songs and sounds from Guadeloupe, traditional folk songs in jazz version. That’s what people do with jazz worldwide – – they make it their own. He sings in Creole, very interesting. He is not a great singer, but he is very soulful, very spiritual. Let me ask, how often do you go to the island?
Just this time, and only for one week.
Oh! It is not enough.
Quite insufficient! Besides, it was really special in this story. I went alone, without this family and the current band, with very little time at hand. It became like a joke between us: yes, I was going to discover music played there right now, meet musicians who live on that island… They weren’t happy that I could do it without their presence. That’s the way life is. But now I can see that I’ll have to go back. So we’re working more intensively on the project of going there to play music together and discover this island with them.
It is very courageous. I mean, it is courageous to study something that the West has not heard before so much.
It’s a practice that comes from the streets, outside the walls of the university. We can look at it in terms of the epistemologies of the South, starting with the work of Boaventura de Sousa Santos. He is Portuguese and is involved in the adventure of the World Social Forum. He has worked in South America, studying subordinate and dominated communities, how they organize themselves and how they use and produce knowledge not recognized or considered by the colonizers and Westerners. And he coined the expression « epistemologies of the South ». And it’s very interesting to observe how, now, more and more work at the university is asking these kinds of questions: the domination is still that of the objectivity of whites, of the North, of the West…
There is some interesting work being done in literature – some of our old colleagues in critical studies… Sara Johnson, who is on the faculty of the Literature department at the University of California San Diego, has been writing about cultural transitions from Caribbean and New Orleans. And in fact, I have my music students reading chapters from her book about island tastes and cultural practices–not music so much, not about the music. But some of the class distinctions persisted when the French left, when the colony ceased to exist. Black classes emerged from the indigenous culture, the middle class, the military, and they started behaving like the French [laugh], very aristocratic and the core people fled to New Orleans, to Charleston or to Atlanta, to the Southern States. And then, she has just been writing from socio-literary point of view. Truly, Sara’s point is not about written literature, but oral literature. And there is obviously more and more written literature emerging since independence, but she is tracking the stories, the legends, the tales. So her work tracks cultural progressions taking place that measures closely with trans-cultural effects in music. And, all of these stories are set to music, they don’t talk about it, they sing about it, they dance it.
2. Cecil Lytle, musician at the conjunction of several traditions
Should we start the formal interview?
So, maybe to begin with, can you explain a little about who you are, what were your adventures in the past?
I am Cecil Lytle, I am pleased to be here to talk with friends who make music and make friend with people who talk about music. My initial music… How I got involve in music? My father was a church organist, Baptist church organist, he played gospel music. Also, I am the last of ten children, I have nine brothers and sisters. So all of us were in the church all the time, Pentecostal Baptist Church, five days a week, nights a week.
Where was that, in New York?
In Harlem. So it was not religion as much as it was the music that influenced me – – maybe they are the same. I don’t think that my father and mother were very fundamentalists. They just thought it was something useful for the children to do. For there were lot of bad things for children to do. We were all in the church, in the choir, we did all that. My father played the Hammond B3 organ, and right next to him was a broken down Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano. So, I am told that, when I was five years old or so, I used to sit at the piano. What is that? I think it was the happiest music I ever made [bangs his hands on the table] with the palms of my hands, and the choir… These were not professional musicians, these were women who cleaned the streets and men who worked as postal workers, so they were not trained musicians. But the power of hearing a gospel choir right in your face! You had to appreciate the mingling of their song, sweat, and dancing while praying for salvation here and in Heaven. I was too young to fully appreciate the power of imagination of African Americans, but I knew that something magical was occurring three feet away from me, and I wanted desperately to be a part of it. they sang about misery and happiness in the same breath. So it was… That every Sunday was a magical moment when these people could feel their pain, power and agency. When they left the church they were back to the real world, but it was a very special few hours when a hundred people, hundred and fifty people, could share power. Now they all knew what happens when you leave the church, when you go back home, to go back to work, they knew that world still existed. So I always remember that joy, the power of this moment – those three hours together one day a week. And I always wanted to create that more, everyday more. The challenge for me was how to do that wherever I might be in the future.
I had proper piano lessons by the time I was eight or ten years old. My father got money – enough money together to send me downtown to a piano teacher. I don’t know how my father found out about this fellow, but he was a recent Russian immigrant to New York, a Russian Jewish. He spoke no English, I spoke no Russian. So for one year he had me play on the lid of the piano, to begin with the finger stroke. I guess that’s how they do it in Russia. Just finger strokes, may be for six months, I just played on the lid of the piano. It made no sense to me, but I understand now what he was after…, now [laugh]. I thought that my father should pay him half as much. But it gradually started to make sense. About the same time, I think I also started hearing classical music. My father used to take me to Carnegie Hall, different kinds of places around New York to hear pianists. I remember he took me to hear Wilhelm Kempff, the German pianist, he played the Hammerklavier Sonata and I could remember the power of that piece, this crazy piece, it went on forever, the Fugue! I just thought it was fascinating. Everyone thinks it is fascinating. So I started to mix my gospel jazz music with trying to play Beethoven’s sonatas – -imagine that! And I think I tried to do both ever since, traditional, classical music and improvised music at the same time. Years later at Oberlin Conservatory, I think my most important musical experience was early years in the church, and it was because of the authority and the legitimacy of those untrained Gospel singers – their sound, legitimacy.
I imagine that you experienced something like that on the Réunion Island. People had no training in music or the arts, but it was powerful. They would communicate and said what they had to say. I think that what came out of all my music to say that. To feel that way. Then I met Jean-Charles François and other very interesting people who improvise in different ways, who improvise with a very different language. The goal was the same, but the language, the vocabulary was different. And I found that fascinating to enter the realm of someone else’s musical legitimacy – – to appreciate what was important to them… Music that was out of reach.
It was a very short step from gospel music, to jazz- – it is the same music, it changes the words, it changes its limitations, but all the chords are identical. There is this new movie about Aretha Franklin – I think it’s called Amazing Grace, it just came up this year – it follows her from church, gospel music to her career in Soul. It is all the same sound, and the same authority, same power.
By the time I was fifteen, my older brother Henry played drums, jazz drums, so we had a jazz trio and played around New York, a bit. It’s kind of odd, but the more I moved in the jazz world, the more I felt uneasy – -I didn’t want to spend a life as a jazz musician. I saw the life of the jazz people I met. There was one incident that turned my head around. I was once playing at the Savoy Ballroom with a large dance band backing up Arthur Prysock. While we were playing, this guy kept coming up to me at the piano saying, “Hey, man, let me play the piano, let me play the piano”. He wanted to sit in. I told him to talk to the band leader. So I’d play another number, he comes back: “Hey man!” – I was fifteen years old or so- and he was an older guy – “you can’t play that stuff, let me play the piano, let me play the piano.” So, anyway, when we took a break, I went to the band leader and said: “Who is this guy? He is bugging me, you know!”, and the band leader said: “Oh man! Don’t worry about him, he’s a junkie, that’s just Bish.” It was Walter Bishop J., a great pianist, a famous jazz pianist. I had his records at home. But he was strung out on heroin, he was all messed up in his head and body, and it hits me: “do I want to round up doing that?” A fifty year-old guy asking a fifteen year-old for a job. I did not sour on jazz, but I did not want to be dependent on a jazz life. And I wanted to play other music too. So I think the church experience and at least early jazz gigs that gave me more questions than answers. I knew from the church experience that I wanted to play music that had authority and meaning, but at the same time I wanted to do a lot of different things, not just gospel music, not just jazz, not just be-bop, and not just one thing.
So when I met Jean-Charles, I was directing the University Gospel Choir (at the Univesity of California San Diego), and we were playing New Music concerts together. I think the university gave me an opportunity to do all the things I wanted to do. If I was just playing night clubs, I would get bored. So just playing Beethoven’s Sonatas, I’d get bored… We did Stockhausen’s Kontakte, which was fun… So that’s kind of how I think about music, I don’t think that my expectations from those early experiences has really changed much, I don’t think. The authority of the music I heard as a child, the variety of music I was introduced early on, they sort of stuck with me.
3. University and the Preuss School
You were recruited by the University of California San Diego to conduct the Gospel Choir and to develop a jazz program, but later you also became the pianist of the department beyond the different aesthetics?
I thought I was hired for the Black Music, and we did just concerts and lectures. I don’t really remember what specific job title was. But then we played the concerts and it was fun, we leave a rehearsal and we talked, and I went upstairs and I do the Gospel Choir, and there is Carol Plantamura, we would rehearse lieder, there was plenty of variety. I guess my history isn’t a straight line – – my history is a mystery, I like that! But that was during the old Third College days at UCSD, when Third College was considered to be the “revolutionary” part of the University. And in many ways, it was. It was the “third” of what became six colleges. And the Third College was founded in 1965 with the original concept to be a college dedicated to Greek Antiquity. And then, Martin Luther King was assassinated, Bob Kennedy was assassinated, riots, protests and anti-Vietnam protests. Students became aroused and asked, “Why are we studying Greek antiquity when history was being made in the streets of America now?” So, the students changed the direction of the college to be more progressive – I try not to say left wing because I don’t know what that means anymore – but to be more politically active. And the leaders of were one professor, Herbert Marcuse, and his doctoral student, Angela Davis who was finishing her PhD in anthropology. She has written about this period in her life and in the life of the new University of California campus in La Jolla. She was sort of the spoke person for the students, and Marcuse the spoke person for the faculty, both moving the College in a more progressive direction. The name that the students gave for the College was “Lumumba-Zapata” College. Do you remember the name Patrice Lumumba, the assassinated President of the Congo? And Emilio Zapata the Mexican revolutionary? It was never named that formally, but some older alumni still called it Lumumba-Zapata College.
And because nobody in the administration wanted to name this college that way, it was named “Third College”, just because it was the third one in existence.
Hell, the faculty didn’t want Lumumba-Zapata. Parents couldn’t imagine sending their precious son and, especially, daughter to Lumumba-Zapata College. They were rightly afraid that we were going to make them political revolutionaries… That was not going to work. So the University said: “No bullshit! No Lumumba-Zapata! We will call it ‘Third College” and used that official name for the next 20 years.
In 1988, 52 of USCD’s performers and composers went to Darmstadt. I became Provost of Third College the week after we returned from the Darmstadt Music Festival. This post was very meaningful for me, because it gave me a platform to do things that I thought were in the interest of justice, working on opening the walls of the university. So, the first issue I tackled was finding a meaningful name for the College, not leave it with a number. What I wanted to avoid was that, when someone would ask “Where do you go to school?”, one would not answer “I go to number three!” We tried “Third World College”, not really… So we did finally give the college a meaningful name, again. Thurgood Marshall College was rebirthed in 1991. A name clearly associated with social justice and progressive attitudes about race and class relations, and until it changes again, it is still Thurgood Marshall College.
Can you tell us who is Thurgood Marshall?
He was the first African-American Supreme Court justice. But before that, he overturned a number of a number of racist laws from the time of slavery. He also defended inmates on death row and African-American troops who were accused of cowardice during the war – the Korean war. Later, he married a Philippino women and he helped write the Philippines constitution with these principles of fairness and justice. His name is certainly not as recognizable as Martin Luther King, Jr. So, I am not surprise that his name is not as well-known abroad. But he was central in the Civil Rights Movement along with Martin Luther King. Interestingly, they didn’t always agree in terms of strategy. Thurgood Marshall criticized King’s plan to put children on the streets to confront the police – – putting children at risk to dramatize the effects of racism. Thurgood Marshall point of view was that this approach was too dangerous, people could be killed, and he felt that his important task was to overturn the laws that were racist and holding people back. Through their disagreement, however, they actually worked well together on a two-point strategy: King in the streets and Marshall in the courts. So I thought that it was appropriate to – perhaps, because his name is not as well-known as Martin Luther King Jr – to put his name on the table, to name the College after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. And it inspired me and inspired students and the faculty involved to think about those issues. We had to ask ourselves everyday: “are you teaching social justice? Are you doing social justice in the community, in your classroom? Are you participating in a meaningful way?” I think that the name change had that effect, I believe it had that effect. Later, we redesigned the curriculum to emphasize many voices in literature, many voices in sociology, to re-emphasize the study of the Third World – this was 1988.
Then California did something very negative: during the 1990 Presidential campaign, California passed a law that condemned Affirmative Action. Namely the University of California would no longer be allowed to use race as a determining factor in its student admissions. California had decided that people who are black or brown would get additional considerations because of historical discriminations in the country. California citizens said “no, that’s wrong, you are discriminating against white people,” which kind of doesn’t make sense, but that was the outcome of the new law, Proposition 209. Oddly, California voted overwhelmingly for Bill Clinton and at the same time did away with racial preferences. Actually, I felt a bit trapped. If I am the Provost of a college named for Thurgood Marshall, then I have to speak, do something to counter this new law. So, a group of us, faculty and few students started talking about the idea of building a k-12 school for black and brown children, low income black and brown children. It would be a public charter school, grades 6-12 and the University would run it. Knowing that there would be opposition, we wanted to align the effort with an older tradition in American universities to have a secondary school on campus. Unfortunately, many of these “Lab Schools” were for very brightest and affluent students; kids who were doing algebra in the third grade, and reading Salman Rushdie on the week-end- -very bright students. This is a long accepted tradition for high-end American universities. So, I wanted to take advantage of that idea, but build a college preparatory school for poor children in order to get them ready to go to the most selective universities. This school would be a model for other schools in the community showing how to design a curriculum, a pedagogy, and to use college students as tutors to the classroom. Frankly, I wanted to not only reform public schools, but reform the university as well. I was trying to educate two types of students, the students from the poor neighborhoods who were involved in school, and the university students who never met these kids before.
I think my subversive idea was to change the university and have our university students receive academic credit for tutoring in class. Just like we give academic credit for taking Physics, History, Engineering, we would give academic credit for tutoring in school- -for being a decent citizen. And it seems to be working, the k-12 students are doing very well, they received admittance the prestigious universities. Our k-12 school is name after the principal donor, Peter Preuss. Preuss School doesn’t have a lot of dropouts. 850 young people start at Preuss School in the 6th grade and graduate from the 12th grade. I took a lot of criticism from friends on the Left because we also took millions from some pretty Right-Wing donors who were feeling guilty about how they were mistreating Black people and Mexican people. I took their money to build Preuss School because I figured that I’d do more for social justice with their money than they ever would.
So, a lot of good people got mad at me because I took “blood money”… There were good Liberals who gave money, too. Anyway, we built the Preuss School.
The building was built to accommodate 850 students?
Eight, zero, zero; eight, five, zero. That’s right! We knew the school would be successful. It is on the university campus under our control, it is right near the university hospital, the School of Engineering is right next to it, so there is this an environment of learning free from roving gangs. Students absorb the culture of learning from the university environment. The trick is, how do you translate more broadly back into the community? How do you go to a school that is in the neighborhood, the ghetto, and try to build that kind of environment. That’s a tricky proposition.
Bud Mehan, from the Sociology Department at UCSD, was a partner in this endeavor. He studies education reform. Bud was sort of the intellectual part of this initiative; I was the… – what do you say? – the “politician.”
4. A Secondary Education School in a Neighborhood
After a few years of operation, we discovered that many Preuss School parents had a child at Preuss School and another attending their local neighborhood school. About 40 families came to us at a board meeting and asked quite vigorously, “Can you help us start a Preuss School in our own neighborhood so that our children don’t have to go on the bus for one hour and half to go to the university.” We started meeting with the parents every Thursday night in the library at the local school for about a year and a half. Grand mothers would bring tamales for endurance during the long meetings. We’d start at 7 o’clock, 7h.30 until 11 o’clock just talking about how to do this. Very exciting! It was like a revolution was brewing for the parents, mostly Mexican-American parents and African-American mix, plus some others. And it was just exciting that these were parents who were seeing what was possible in one child and wanted that effect distributed to all the children in the neighborhood. And, they lead it, they pushed it. We would meet and write letters to the San Diego Unified School District, asking for permission to change things at that local school. The District was so annoyed that they fired the principal who welcomed the revolution. They fired him to get rid of him, and they said that we could not continue to meet with the parents on school property. So through the good graces of the neighborhood priest, we began meeting at the Catholic church across the street every Thursday night. The entire community got behind this: the Church, the parents, the barbershops, people in the neighborhood. And for a year and a half we wrote the charter document to ask the School District for the money to run the school, our own school, based on the Preuss School model. It was approved and in 2004 at a raucous meeting at the school board. We opened Gompers Charter School the next year after a crowded year of planning.
In a way, I think Gompers Charter School is more important than Preuss School. Preuss School has a lot of protections: gangs do not come on the University campus. These young people come to the university with a different expectation – they plan to study. But in the community, there is lot of pressure not to study, there are intimidations, and at that school campus, gangs came on campus all the time. We also discovered something interesting: if there was a riot in a California prison, (San Quentin or Chino State Prison) two or three days later, we would have a riot at the high school. If person “A” beats up person “B” in the prison, his family and friends would retaliate against relatives at the local high school. It was like clockwork: if there was a Monday riot at Chino prison, Mexicans against Blacks, for instance, and the Blacks lost, they got the worse of it, by Thursday we would have a retaliation riot at the high school. The connection between school and prison is very strong, and we had to figure a way how to fix that, because you can’t educate kids who are constantly looking over their shoulders. So, we had to work with the police and the district attorney to get an injunction, a legal document, that 200 known gang members could not come within three blocks of the school during school hours. A few of them tried and they were arrested, and they finally got the message and left Gompers Charter School alone. This is why I say that Gompers is the real test of the Preuss School model. It is in the ghetto, in the neighborhood, and it’s exposed physically to all the detriment of the community. Us university types gave advice, helped to write the letters and spoke at the meetings, but we let the mothers and grandmothers do the pushing on this. The university was not coming to tell them how to do it. But we certainly “had their back.” A lot of long hours went into the effort to open Gompers Charter School. I’d like to think both Marshall and King approved of the effort.
5. The Walls and Pedagogical Methods
You mentioned pedagogical methods that were used, and could you say a few words about that?
Yes. Well, we recognize – I mean it is common knowledge – that poor families can’t always provide a college-going environment. Both the youngster and the parents foster good study habits and success aimed at going to college. Even if the youngster chooses not to go to college, they are going to be great plumbers, because they are educated, they know technology, they are creative actors in their community, they can build for the future. But I have a bias: I want them to go to college to be doctors and lawyers.
And… pedagogy: we learned a couple of things, we learned this from parents. In American high school, there is something called “home room” where students start the day in a class with a teacher reviewing school traditions. In most secondary schools, students change “home room” class from year to year with a different teacher, different students. One major innovation we implemented something called, “looped advisory” where the same group of teacher/students stay together throughout all the grades until graduation. For of all, the teacher gets to know the biography of every student, what is happening in the neighborhood, what is happening with the parents and siblings. Our teachers love “looped advisory” because they fulfill more than the mission of teaching but caring about those that they teach. A number of schools in San Diego, Los Angeles, and around the country have adopted this model. So there’s one pedagogic difference.
The other pedagogic innovation is to have university students in the classroom with the teacher and the students. So typically in a mathematics class, there will be a teacher, may be an assistant teacher and up to twenty university student tutors in the classroom sitting right next to the youngster helping with the mathematics or reading. About 65% of the students are Mexican, from Mexico, so not all of them speak English with fluency when they arrive in the 6th grade. So that the idea is to accelerate their language, and also accelerate good learning habits. The university tutors meet with the teacher one day a week to prepare for the lesson plan in the following week. That is very successful and very expensive. Small classes are expensive. Tutors are not paid but they receive academic credit. They are taking a class to learn how to teach, so we have to hire a teacher to instruct them adding more costs – but it is worth it. Although it costs about one-quarter more to educate disadvantaged youngsters for college, it is an expense much worth the effort. Just remember, it is economically cheaper and wiser to develop a child in school than it is to repair an adult in prison.
Although these sound like major innovations, they are common knowledge reforms every one will confirm as necessary for quality education to take place.
During my visit to Preuss School, I was able to observe a computer class where students were working in small groups of four to develop a project for a small four-wheeled cart driven by one person for a regional competition. The idea was to take the cart downhill and whoever made it the furthest down the hill on the way up won. Each group had to work with a computer to find the most efficient way to build the cart to win the competition.
Yes, you know kids like games, and so use games as instructional tools. I don’t mean, you know, video games, but the computer lab inside Preuss School is state of the art and accessible to students. I don’t remember this project, that’s sound about right, I don’t know, but that’s special. What I do remember, they were in competition with other schools to build a machine about this big [Lytle hand motion] to move eggs from here to there without breaking them. So you have to design a machine that scoops the eggs, and you have to design all the electronics, and the wheels and gears to build the device and complete the task. And they fail, I mean, sometime, that’s why you practice. Like many of my colleagues in biomed labs, they often fail or fall short. Therein is another lesson: endurance and creativity. Repeat it until you get it right.
And did the arts and music played a role in the school?
Not so much. That’s my disappointment. Everyone thought that Cecil Lytle was building a music school. I didn’t want to influence that, because the children are so far behind in basic skills. We started with 6th grade and students come and roughly reading at the 3rd grade level. So, Preuss School spends a lot of time in 6th grade and 7th grade bringing their skills up to what is the expected level, so by the 8th grade they are usually sailing through course work. That doesn’t leave much time for music or athletics, unfortunately. There is a choir, there is a small orchestra, but not individual lessons. No, I didn’t emphasize the arts in the curriculum although everyone thought at first I wanted to build a music school but… I wanted to build to acquire the basic academic skills so that they could decide what they want to do with their future. And a number of students have their own bands, they rehearse after school, but we don’t have a big fancy music program. And I think the pedagogical big idea was to individualize education as much as possible – -delivering education on a one-on-one relationship, that someone gets to know the student strengths. A great many of our 850 students are from Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Spanish is the home language, however the youngsters are, essentially, illiterate in both Spanish and English; theirs is not academic Spanish. It tends to be a highly expressive, but crude, use of languages. Consequently, many classes in the early years are bilingual hoping to bring the youngster forward in their skills. It can be done, I think, with great determination on the past of the student, the teacher, and the family.
I know someone who teaches kindergarten and first grade in California, in a neighborhood with a lot of emigrants from Mexico. Many years ago, he began teaching in a bilingual format, Spanish in the morning and English in the afternoon. But this program stopped because of regulations from the authorities who claimed it was a bad formula for the children. So everything is done in English now.
And he was very disappointed by this decision.
He should be. I heard that they are saving money. You have to have bi-lingual education in these situations in Southern California and many parts of the United States.
It was not a question of saving money, as I understand, it was a question of imposing the English.
Yes. So there was two parts benefit for Right Wing ideology.
You only talk about the successes achieved, were there any failures or more problematic aspects that you may have been able to solve?
How do you learn from that, yes. There is a very subtle point to be made in terms of possible regret. I think there is a subtle regret– and this happened to me, and I did not handle it very well. I remember one incident when I was about 16 year-old in high school. My mother asked, “Oh, aren’t you going to play your Debussy for the church women’s club?” And I said something like: “Oh, I don’t want to play for those people.” I thought I was pretty slick! By then, I was taking piano lessons from a Julliard teacher and fully ensconced in high art and I forgot where I came from. She slapped me, I was seventeen, she slapped me. She sternly said: “I am one of those people.” My mother was a poor women from Florida with very little education, but she always knew the value of education. We were at that moment both learning about the class distance such education can create if you’re not careful. It was years later before I figured out the crime I had committed. I realized what I’d done, and I was becoming for her an enemy, I was becoming an aristocrat, I was becoming elite, I was becoming one of people always trying to evict us from housing.
So I think one of my regrets or fears about these schools is that we may be making them the enemy of their families if we are not careful. How do you do that? In many cases, their grandmothers only speak Spanish poorly, and this youngster is reading Shakespeare and planning to go to Harvard. This collision may be handled carefully and individually. Each family has to be warned about the turmoil associated with class distinctions and behaviors; and, how to avoid them. Teachers and counselors talk with families about what may be coming, but we cannot go home with them and explain to the grandmother why the granddaughter wants to vote Republican [laugh] or something. We don’t give them as much transitional support as we wish we could. This is especially concerning with young Latinas. The family (usually the father) wants his daughter to be successful in America. But after receiving good grades and scoring high on standardized tests, he doesn’t want the girl to go away to college. We have had a number of examples of very successful students who were admitted to schools like Harvard with full scholarship, and dad says “no, you stay home, you go to school closer to home.” It kind of breaks your heart, but I understand that this is too much of a change. And many of these families have three generations, four generations living in the house: grandma, the parents the child, and may be a baby. So this clash of traditions, of generations, and values, change is real. If Preuss School is successful, we run the risk of helping to create the enemy of the family, we are creating the future landlords that will evict people in their same circumstance, we may be creating the future police chief, the future lawyer. So, I don’t know if this is a failure, but something we need to pay attention to in the evolving life of the child and family. It was my lesson, I had to learn on a cold wintry day in our kitchen. So, I don’t know if this qualify exactly as a failure, but something, for sure. In one generation, changing the trajectory of the family, a family that is poor for at least 6 generations within subsistence living on the dredge. And suddenly in one generation the kid is going to UCLA, UC San Diego, and the child is under stress, taking care of grandmother in Spanish, and to read Shakespeare. Or playing Debussy. And so that’s something we never fully address, and may be cannot be addressed fully.
I also have a question about the construction of the Preuss School building, did you have the opportunity to choose the location of the spaces, the walls, the architecture, etc.? Did you make a special effort to change the standard format – in France schools are often referred to as army barracks?
Oh! Army barracks! Well, may be! Preuss School is quite beautiful with plenty of open spaces. We told the architect, education is going to happen in the classroom. But because we live in Southern California, a great deal of education will happen outside the classroom, because in California it is warm weather. So they were told to give us a plan that has classrooms and give us a plan that there can be space outside where the tutors and the students can meet under the supervision of nearby teachers. What they came up with was pretty clever, actually. Preuss School is designed on a 5-finger patter, with a central administration building here (hand gestures) and in between each building are courtyards with little tables so that tutors can meet their student to go over the class assignments together. Consequently, supervised education happens inside and outside the classroom, and even on the sports fields.
The first Saturday of every months is for parents’ meeting – we have 300 parents attend. That number is unheard in American schools – may be you get four parents, five parents, but 300! Now Gompers, we inherited a school that has been in the ghetto for nearly half a century. Once we were able to secure the campus, we took down most of the interior courtyard walls, and created quiet rooms for tutors and students. But we cannot tear buildings down and start anew. Gompers has added a new family counseling building and a gymnasium for sports. And the gymnasium is open to the community in the evening, so that families can come do sports in a fitness center. We’ve tried to make Gompers Charter School a part of the community, not close it up nights and weekends. There are still security issues. We have armed policeman on the campus. Unlike Preuss School, Gompers survives in a pretty tough neighborhood.
And public police provides security guards?
We hire our own private police and train them properly about how to react. We have an agreement with the City police to not come on campus, unless they are called. This works pretty well. It is the case, unfortunately, when public police arrive, they quell the problem and sometime make it worst. So we stopped that, and now security works with the city police. No one likes to see the police come. The security guards are from the community, they know these people, they go to church with them, it is a little more friendly. Two or three of them are armed, the others are just walking around. But their purpose is to keep people out, that’s it. Because the students are not making trouble. I’ve talked a lot about the schools, I know if it is music or what you want to talk about?
6. The Walls and Musical Practices
Well, may be, a last question will be – to go back to music – what walls do you see today in the field of practicing music?
You mentioned John Zorn and George Lewis. People like that have been at the front of what music is going to become, it is not big yet. People who have lots of taste, attitudes, ways of doing things, the too serious pianist, the athlete who plays Chopin Etudes like nobody’s business, I think it is about over. Do you feel that way? People lament the dying orchestra, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea. Why should there be a dozen orchestras in New York? One pretty good one is OK. The writing is on the wall already: audiences are getting older. People hate me if I say that but if it is dying out of disinterest, it is kind of a fossil, prehistoric fossil. So, will orchestras be around 100 years – there will be a few of them– they are very expensive and the repertoire they play is very limited, about 25 different works played all year all around the country. I mean these are wonderful pieces, I love them, I play them, but is that institution viable? I don’t think it is, and I don’t think its death is a terrible…
I agree completely.
What is going to linger around, I think, are the problems you were telling me about starting this school. More evidence that powerful people are oriented towards the traditions and if you do something new, or have a different way of doing something old, they are not going to support you, they are going to give you a hard time. So when you were telling me about your fight to start this school, I know what you are talking about. But you have to enjoy the fight or else they will overwhelm you and your efforts. So, I don’t think it is a terrible idea. I think people like you, George Lewis in particular, are really exciting and challenging to watch. I’m especially excited about trumpeter/improvisor, Stephanie Richards, new to the music faculty at UCSD – really exciting. It is going to be difficult, but what I hope is that, if the institutions consolidate, the money that goes into supporting the 20 orchestras in New York, get redistributed somehow. I think that one of the unintended benefits of personalized technology in the past quarter of a century is that individual artists are finding ways around the music industry and can represent and present themselves at low cost. Subsidize yourself is the motto. And I don’t think that this is purely an American phenomenon. Artists in Europe and elsewhere are becoming known without the heavy packaging of agents or concert halls. I continue to think, however, that we cannot abandon the “institutions” to the lowest artistic denominator. So there is a tension to what I profess. In time, I hope, the individualized promotion approach will sufficiently coerce the pillars of arts and culture in society to rethink the public. The La Jolla Symphony, for instance is doing some interesting stuff: commissioning new works for large ensemble. The pieces are not always successful, but neither were the 700,000 sonatas printed between 1700-1900.
Well, thank you very much.
Thanks. It gives me chance to think about stuff.
1. Cefedem AuRA [Centre de Formation des Enseignants de la Musique Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes] is a Center created in 1990 by the Ministry of Culture devoted to music teachers training (for music schools). It is a center for professional ressources and artistic higher education in music. See https://www.cefedem-aura.org
3. See for example the groups Naessayé and the recording Oté la sere in 1991, or Cyclon of the recording Maloggae in 1993. And for the seggae (séga and reggae), See for example, Kaya et Ras Natty Baby and the Natty Rebels.
5. See Sara Johnson, The Fear of French Negroes: Transcolonial Collaboration in the Revolutionary Americas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012). This book is an interdisciplinary study that explores how peoples responded to the collapse and reconsolidation of colonial life following the Haitian Revolution (1791-1845). The book is based on expressions related to the trans-colonial political situation of blacks, both aesthetically and experientially, in countries such as Hispaniola, Louisiana, Jamaica and Cuba.