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Class Acts

Where did jazz giant Roy Hargrove, R&B diva Erykah Badu, and pop star Edie Brickell get their start? At a Dallas high school that’s been a talent magnet.

By September 1998Comments

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 and classical, as well as on choral, symphonic, and opera singing. “With those, they can find their own way to their particular talent,” Cornell says. Since the arrival of Otis Gray, who had planned to be a concert pianist when he attended Booker T., there’s also a new emphasis on electronic keyboards, which provide the backbone for jingles and commercials and a growing amount of original pop and classical music. The result of such an eclectic approach has been the nurturing of both opera singer Bobby Scott (’97) and major-label jazz saxophonist Keith Anderson (’89), though Hargrove remains the department’s prize catch. “You knew he was going to be a jazz trumpet player because he had the gift of improvisation from day one,” says Cornell. “He was born with it.”

Then again, some of the most gifted musicians don’t even come out of the music cluster. Brickell, who popularized revisionist psychedelic music before marrying Paul Simon, was a visual arts student. And Badu—back when she used her birth name, Erica Wright—concentrated in dance. “She was just another student,” says Cornell of Badu’s performance in the few music classes she took, though dance cluster director Roseann Cox specifically remembers her as “this tall, wiry, beautiful woman with her coffee-with-cream skin and hazel-with-green eyes. She rapped on the spot. She would accommodate you, was really down to earth. She moved well and could have gone anywhere in dance.”

So how did she get from there to music? Teacher Nina Johnson, who’d been trained as an opera singer and performed as a jazz vocalist, was so impressed with Badu’s rhythmic flair, high energy, ability to pick up pointers quickly, and charismatic personality that she took the teenager under her wing. She started working with Badu on vocal projection, stage presence, and the mechanics of singing; Badu, in turn, got involved in music activities like the Entertainers, the song-and-dance group that Johnson directed. Soon the teacher was taking the student to her home after school so that they could talk art and play records. By the time Badu had finished high school as a dance major, she had insight into the music world. And surely at least some of her idiosyncratic sound—lean jazz, R&B, and hip-hop tracks under a brittle voice singing songs of black life—has its roots in her time at Booker T.

The kind of informal training Badu got, along with the more formal kind, proves an irresistible combination to the many music types who gather before or after school to jam. “That’s how God’s Property got started,” notes Rachella Searight (’97), a member of the group who studied music at Booker T. (two of her brothers also attended the school and sing with the group). “The choir started with just a few of us singing together there at night, and then it kept growing. Some of the chords for the songs on the first album were actually worked out there before there was a group.”

“I can remember getting up at seven in the morning and dashing down there in time for seven-thirty rehearsals,” says Patrice Pike, “then being in school all day and staying after school to rehearse again or to hang out and work on ideas with some of the other singers.” Pike even believes that her choral training helped her become a better pop singer. “Obviously, you can’t just apply classical technique to pop music,” she says, “but I did learn things like how to use and take care of my voice, and that’s helped on the road. I learned the importance of rehearsal; I learned discipline. It was totally different from what other schools can supply.”

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