Michael Stevens


As Interviewed by Baffour A, March 10, 2019

Michael Stevens: In His Own Words

Good afternoon. My name is Michael Stevens and Iím a professional musician bassist here in Austin, Texas.

My musical journey started when I was 8 or 9. We had moved to California and I had expressed interest to my mom that I wanted to learn the guitar. So she found a community center. They had guitar lessons for kids (grouped lessons) so then it was a matter of getting the guitar, and then starting the lessons. So I did that for many years, and then I put it down for a little bit to play more sports. I liked the sports. And then in 7th grade I joined band, because football didn't turn out the way that I wanted it to. I started band and I started playing saxophone. I played saxophone 7th grade to 9th grade, and then after that I took up the bass guitar in the jazz band in my high school. And then a few years later I took on the acoustic bass in the orchestra primarily. Of course I took that into university setting and studied music there.

Personally, jazz is important to me because it allows each person and musician to express themselves as their authentic self. There is a term called find your voice. In jazz you not only have an opportunity to find your voice but also use your voice. For example, I play the bass. Well I'm a little guy, but I play the bass which is a big instrument, and it's a very profound instrument inside a band. So I kinda have like a big personality, so I play a big instrument that has a big personality. I also play the bass because its a supportive instrument. I like to support whatever is going on. And historically jazz is important to me because jazz came up in the late 1800s and it was born in New Orleans with the right conditions. Jazz was maybe the only place that African Americans could express themselves without risk of retribution, persecution, or punishment. It was democracy in action No matter if you were black, white, short, tall, big, little, it didnít matter. If you were on the band stand, your voice matters and you have an opportunity at certain times to articulate your voice in a way of a solo, an improvisation. So there was no other place where they could really do that.

Can you tell me more about the Austin Jazz Workshop?

So the Austin jazz Workshop, Iíve been doing this now for about 19 or 20 years. Itís been in existence for 25 years, and what we do is we are a group of professional musicians, we go into the elementary schools in AISD, Round Rock ISD, Del Valle, and Manor. And we go into the 3rd, 4rth, and 5th grade classrooms individually to not only teach curriculum (because we have a different curriculum each year which basically highlights the history of jazz development via styles or people that were important in jazz, but we also demonstrate our instruments. So for example I would go into the classroom and Iíll go ďLet me introduce you to my little friend!Ē ďHere Iím gonna do the walking bass line, and I want you to tell me why you think itís a walking bass lineĒ And I go...

[Michael plays on his bass guitar]

So they are getting introduced to instruments, they are getting introduced to music in general, and jazz specifically. And also the history because it ties directly to American history. We also have a component where the 3rd and 4th Sundays of each month we have what's called a jam session which basically means musicians gather at a place to play music and they choose songs and we invite people to sit in. So in this case we invite the middle schoolers and high schoolers to sit in with us and play music. We have songs in jazz repertoire that we chose they come up and they get to apply what they learned and demonstrate what level they are at and that's how they grow and we grow. So the Jazz Workshop serves two components: to introduce the 3rd 4th 5th graders so that by the time they get to middle school they want to hopefully participate in band, orchestra, or choir. And by high school if they are learning jazz, they have the opportunity to participate with us as they develop. At this point weíve been in existence long enough that we've seen kids graduate from high school and actually go on to college and study music. Maybe they will do music education, or maybe they will do music performance or maybe even jazz studies or something like that. So it serves a very good purpose. One of the other things about the Austin Jazz Workshop is that, sometimes music is the only thing that helps a given child to feel the need to complete high school. It could be they are not motivated in other areas because maybe they have some learning challenges. Or it could be like in my case where I was just kind of bored with the education because I was one of those people that learned pretty quickly and I retained a lot of information pretty quickly so for me if I didnít have band high school would have been like really boring and I probably would have been like ďI'm over this but I have band so Iíll put up with this cause I get thisĒ. So that helped me complete high school and go on to college.

I read online that 53% of kids in Austin ISD are economically disadvantaged. What more do you think should be done to create more equality for kids in Austin?

I guess the simple answer is more things of what we do. What we do is an outreach. We go to these kids and we are demonstrating our instruments, we are talking about jazz, we are introducing them to history, different dimensions of music and when you plant a seed, some of the seeds will grow, and that's what we have to do as people. Anything that we can determine as good and useful, and beneficial not only for society, but for the individuals, then those are the things that we need to keep doing. Music is one of them. [Michael plays the Italian Conargo with the bow]. One of the things Iím looking forward to doing next is going in to read. Iíve chosen an elementary school in AISD that I want to go start reading to the kids. I love reading story books and bringing them to life. As Iím telling a story, here I am again using my voice as an instrument, creating an opportunity for young people to hear and maybe see themselves in it. So that's the next thing Iím looking forward to: volunteering at this school to read to kids.