Otis gray, a 1988 graduate of Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, remembers his senior year as if it were yesterday. “I’d walk in the back door before school began,” says Gray, who now teaches music there, “and there’d be no teachers around, but there would be Roy leading a trumpet section on his own. Wynton Marsalis came here around then to lead a master class, and during one song, he stepped up to take a solo. Roy hauls off and plays a solo from the back of the stage, and Wynton turns around with a look on his face like, ‘Who are you?’”
Roy is, of course, Roy Hargrove, and Marsalis no longer has to wonder who he is. Hargrove has parlayed his trumpet lyricism into a position in good—make that great—standing in the young classicist jazz movement that Marsalis spawned and still leads. Today the two men often share a stage, for Marsalis may be at the top of the totem pole, but Hargrove is not far behind. And, in large part, he has Booker T. to thank.
Hargrove is but one of the biggest success stories, especially in popular music, of the four-year arts magnet school. Once all black, Booker T. was one of several Dallas magnet schools, and the only one for the arts, that evolved out of a 1976 court mandate requiring that schools be integrated with certain percentages of various ethnic and racial groups. The student body of more than seven hundred is drawn, via auditions, from throughout the city and suburbs. Along with music, the departments, called clusters, include theater, visual arts, and dance, and they’ve all shaped their share of prodigies. Dancer Courtney Blackwell, who is currently enrolled at New York’s Juilliard School, was a Presidential Scholar while at Booker T. last year, one of twenty arts students in the nation recognized by the U.S. government for her academic and artistic excellence. Other dancers have joined the top troupes in the nation, and actors have gone on to Broadway and the movies while artists are now designing auto interiors in Detroit and painting murals on skyscrapers in downtown Dallas just blocks from the campus on Florida Street in the Arts District.
But it’s in the high-profile world of contemporary jazz and pop music that Booker T. is most visible. In addition to Hargrove (class of 1988), there’s Afrocentric diva Erykah Badu (’89) and about one third of the fifty-plus members of the powerhouse gospel-pop choir God’s Property (’86 through ’97); these alums won a total of four Grammy awards this year alone. Other prominent graduates include onetime pop chart topper Edie Brickell (’84), drummer Aaron Comess (’86) of neo-psychedelic rockers the Spin Doctors, and Patrice Pike (’88), the lead singer of the groove-rock band Sister 7. Still other musicians have gone on to take prestigious classical jobs, such as cellist John Koen (’84), who is now with the Philadelphia Orchestra. And more prodigies are right around the corner. Sixteen-year-old alto sax player Courtney Guyon was blowing at a Southern Methodist University clinic last year when Marsalis did a double take; he said she reminded him of Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck’s legendary sideman and the composer of “Take Five.”
Triumphs like those could be right out of the movies Fame or Flashdance. That’s what many students come to Booker T. expecting, and in some ways they’re not disappointed. But they must prove themselves academically as well as artistically to be admitted, and they spend mornings in conventional high school classes before going to their arts clusters for the afternoon. They keep up a demanding academic schedule no matter how exceptional they are in the arts, which even Hargrove learned when, as music cluster leader Doug Cornell puts it, “he loved his trumpet too much to pay attention to social studies.” (The dropout rate is remarkably low; only four students have failed to graduate in the past three years.) Indeed, the students are so enthusiastic that a teaching slot at Booker T. is considered one of the plum jobs of the Dallas Independent School District. Once there, the teachers stay. “If you want to teach at Booker T.,” goes a joke among DISD teachers, “you’ve got to watch the obits every day.”
Paul Baker, the Dallas educator and theatrical director who founded the school, created its curriculum and served as its first director. He fought to keep it downtown, where it could be more a part of the community, and he lobbied hard to get the DISD to allocate enough money to hire arts professionals as teachers. He also wanted teachers to be able to choose incoming students on the basis of potential as much as achievement. And he insisted that academics be given the same attention as art. “The magnet school is the most important institution within the Dallas Arts District,” Baker said at the school’s twentieth-anniversary program two years ago, “because we’re teaching kids how to find themselves through the creative process.” Which is another way of saying that Booker T.’s mission isn’t exclusively to turn out arts professionals. “Our students are high schoolers,” says current principal Andrae T. Rhyne, himself an organist, a pianist, and an opera singer. “They’re still trying to decide if they want art for recreation, art for art, or art for entertainment. We are creating audiences of the future here as well as artists.”
Cornell, who has degrees in piano and composition, is one of three cluster leaders who have been there since the beginning. “Nobody even knew what an arts high school really was,” he says with a laugh. “Our notion of an arts high school was based on what we knew from college, but narrowed down to a high school setting.” He always looks for students who are trained in their particular type of music, but not too trained; he wants them to be flexible. Though classes include pop, mariachi, and the business of music, the emphasis remains on jazz