Renowned keyboardist and SAPPA founder Billy Mitchell is not just a tall man with a big voice he puts his mouth where his intelligence is. Creating SAPPA (Scholarship Audition Preparatory Academy) was no easy task and the name alone should show that the man can level up. Musicians as we all know or can safely assume use timing and feeling the rhythm of the beat to create and that it is most important. It is that same understanding that gave Mitchell the desire to work and share his knowledge of music theory and his skills as a working musician with local community at-risk youth. As he noted at-risk means those who are not afforded the same exposure to opportunity. Mitchell has received many awards in the ten-year period of developing SAPPA from organizations like the Kiwanis Club, NAACP Orange County Branch, Pasadena Preparatory Center, LA Center Spotlight Award of Recognition and the International Jazz Educators Award and has been recognized by the California State Assembly, the California Senate and the Los Angeles Office of the Mayor, to name a few. After receiving a video from a woman from Venezuela that sat on his desk for at least six months. One bright day out of curiosity he opened the package then popped in the video. Much to his surprise, the video showed a young boy walking through a torn and poverty-stricken community playing a Tuba. He was brought to tears. The video highlighted a successful music program in Caracas, Venezuela called, El Sistema. Thinking out loud Billy realized the program in Venezuela matched exactly what he wanted to do with SAPPA. If Jose Antonio could do it then certainly, we could start a music program here in Watts, he thought.
According to Google’s Wikipedia, the program, El Sistema, is a publicly financed, volunteer sector music-education program. It is a non-profit organization founded in Caracas, Venezuela in 1975 by musician, educator and social activist, Jose Antonio Abreu. Quickly gaining widespread recognition, the program’s motto changed to, “Music for Social Change”.
Around the same time, “Mitch” as some close friends call him got an invitation from the Watts Boys Club to come over and talk to other educators. For those who don’t know Watts became an international haven for over the top news during the 1960’s Watts Riots and a focal point for change in that area. Although the historical event positioned Watts in the international news interest market a lot of the conditions from that time have never been addressed and have not changed, Mitchell says.
Mitchell then went on to mention how some areas like Watts that have been left unattended cause pollution and can become a beat-down to the spiritual physical and mental development of young people. Air pollution, water pollution, pollution from chemicals used on animals and vegetation. Alarming noises, such as airplanes police helicopters and trains that run through the area, all play a part of a child’s daily development. We do not think about how these daily activities and circumstances physically affect our youth. It doesn’t mean that they cannot keep up at a certain level and be equal in performance but sometime it does take a little more and when you put that together with the cultural disadvantages it becomes a lot to endure.
The SAPPA program does not focus on any one genre of music but basic music theory says Mitchell and a lot of the symphonics of that is classical music. One reason is that there is not a lot of music written on pop and jazz for classical instruments. It has to be written by people and one has to secure certain things to do so. There is an abundance of classical music out there but our youth and after 10 years its only in the last two or three years that the kids have switched over to playing traditional music. The mix of funk, jazz and other types of music is fun for them.
When asked about the use of the music composed by the man who is called the Dean of African American Composers, William Grant Still, Mitchell responded saying some of the SAPPA youth although not as familiar with historical musicians and composers have performed with the Inner-City Youth Orchestra. The goal is to make our youth at SAPPA ready to become a part of and get to the level that they can perform with Charles Dickinson, the director of the Inner-City Youth Orchestra.
The Inner-City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (ICYOLA), is the largest majority of African Americans in an orchestra in the country. ICYOLA is a member of the League of American Orchestras and is a national leader in the effort to assure diversity in the arts.
The Watts area houses SAPPA and the Willowbrook is 90% Latina and we give service to the predominance of that culture he said. A prime example of how unique it is to mix various cultures and help them to make sense of how each one can help to define what the cultural influences are if each ethnicity Mitchell said that the Latinos have a way of expressing themselves, the blacks have a way of expressing themselves, the Asians have a way of expressing themselves and sometimes those different expressions can get a little confused he said, laughingly.
The importance of the SAPPA program is so that all can learn and grow together.
We talked we laughed and finally got around to asking about Billy who is a keyboardist and singer who made some progression on the R&B charts during the 90’s. For four or five years now, Mitchell has been playing with a group of influential musicians and music makers called “The Circle of Friends which involves playing with a classic jazz legend and favorite, the illustrious Kenny Burrell. Mitchell mentioned that he had learned quite a bit by playing with Burrell and the big band and how kind they were to him as he learned more about playing music with a big band.
The Circle of Friends group are rather eclectic and come together when they need to Mitchell said and most recently played at Vibratos this past holiday season. They have been invited back to play there again on Easter Sunday.
Additionally, Mitchell is producing pianist, Yuko Mabuchi who just returned from playing at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. She is an extraordinary player who has inspired Mitchell to return to playing and performing,
For more information on Billy Mitchell, SAPPA and Yuko Mabuchi visit Watts Willowbrook Conservatory across all social media platforms.www.SAPPA.net and www.billy-mitchell.com