Ethnomusicologist Billy McCoy discusses the weekly music workshops in Leimert Park.
By Amir Medina
When you visit Leimert Park, you can always find the best of African-American culture at your fingertips. I had the honor to visit The World Stage, located at 5321 Degnan Blvd. This educational and performance art space provides, among other things, weekly workshops in music and literary arts.
On Saturday, June 24, I visited the Jazz Workshop that is held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. I interviewed Billy McCoy, who is the workshop coordinator and an ethnomusicologist, who had a lot of valuable information to share about this program.
Amir Medina: What would you say to someone who knows nothing about this organization and would want them to know?
Billy McCoy: These workshops concentrate on performance, original compositions, and improvisational techniques. I teach and write for some of the ensembles and have members of the band who write original material. We like to support composers who write; this is difficult because it is hard to find composers who really know how to write.
AM: How long has this group been together?
BM: This has been going on for at least 25 years or more. It was started by Billy Higgins. He was a jazz drummer who worked with everyone from Coltrane to Ornett Coleman to so many others with so many other recordings. In 1989, he cofounded this cultural center to promote younger jazz musicians.
AM: For jazz enthusiasts who are interested, how do they join?
BM: This workshop is strictly for instrumentalists. So, you have to have the ability to read music and know some basics about improvisation (and if they don’t know, we take care of that in the workshops). Primarily, you have to have the ability read some music.
AM: Is this workshop free?
BM: We have a donation of five dollars. Some other workshops around the city ask for much, much more. But we only ask for a donation of five dollars. If you want to donate more, that’s great because it helps keeps the lights and the gas operating. If you can’t come up with five dollars but can play, you are welcomed too. Some, who can’t afford it, may have extreme circumstances but we won’t turn them away. As long as they can read and play-they are welcomed.
AM: Do you guys perform?
BM: Not really. Performance here has been done during the summer for cancer victims. We get all kinds of people here. We have retired teachers, doctors, professional. We don’t get as many young performers because the of the lack of music programs in the schools. So, we miss the young people. But at the same time, we encourage all people, no matter what age bracket they are, to come in and learn improvisation. What I want to support is a community, something like an African Village type of thing. We want to support one another, whether it’s emotionally, spiritually, technically. My philosophy is, like an African Village, we all come together and pitch in. We have some people who can’t play two or three notes in tune, but I always try to get people to understand what jazz is all about and give them the tools they need. I want to start workshops that will be for beginners who can come and get his feet wet.
AM: I play guitar, mostly metal and rock stuff, would that still work?
BM: If you know three chords, you can play with us. I just say don’t be shy about that. One of the best things about playing music is to play with musicians. There is something easy about playing with younger musicians because they are not plagued with an ego, they just want to play. Older musicians have background that sometimes can inhibit the fun.
AM: So, is youth needed in this workshop or in jazz in general?
BM: Jazz in general. We would like to have younger players. Of course, we would have to have the infrastructure to provide that; which means the schools are going to have music program. Schools will need a program that has music teachers, instruments, and music. You know a lot of that is gone. When I was coming up, every school had a high school band. There’s inspiration, information, incubation, and there’s realization. All of those four things are not mutually exclusive from one another. They can go in flux. Jazz is like “I dare you.” It’s a difficult art to master because you can’t hide. Personal expression is paramount. It has freedom in it. We stand on the shoulders of giants who have, through experimentations and patience, invented a language which is so universal. Under oppressive circumstances, anyone else would not have been able to “push through it”.
I am an ethnomusicologist, which means, I am a musical anthropologist. I went to UCLA, but I have also played with a lot of famous musicians. I went back to school at the age of 50. I had one foot in the grave and the other foot on a banana. So it goes to show you can do anything if you really set your mind to it.
AM: What was the phrase you used about incubation? Inspiration? What was that?
BM: This is a phrase that is my philosophy. This is how it comes to me:
First, it’s inspirational. When I hear somebody I go, “wow, that’s inspiring!” Next, it’s informational. How is it that this person is doing this thing that they are doing, which is inspiring me. Then there’s incubation. Anything that you really want to do is going to take time. So there is incubation. To become a butterfly you are going to have to go into a cocoon. You have to change yourself in order to morph (or turn into something else). When I play, I don’t think about anything. I wait to hear what happens next. All the things I’ve practiced, I can spontaneously do any of the choices. Just like that… because I’ve practiced to be in the moment. Finally, realization occurs.
I walked away with a new perspective. I see how music brings people together and there are life lessons in music. To learn more about this program, visit www.theworldstage.org
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