Billy Mitchell’s Inner City Music Crusade

Image courtesy Flickr Creative Commons and A. Vivaldi

Jazz pianist Billy Mitchell, founder of the Watts-Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club Conservatory, wasn’t sure at first if a classical music program in South Los Angeles would do any good.

The community of Watts faced a host of challenges then, and still does: perennially underserved, claimed by gangs, in transition from African American to Latino, and hopelessly buried in inner city stereotypes. But an encounter with the Venezuelan music education model El Sistema nearly three years ago made Mitchell consider the possibility that maybe, classical music could reshape society.

“I concluded that if [El Sistema] can change the fabric of a whole culture and a country, we could at least establish a viable music program in the inner city,” Mitchell says.

Watts-Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club Director Les Jones had the same vision of creating a classically-based music education program, a departure from the hip hop programs initiated by other inner city organizations. Having pursued a career as a professional musician himself, Mitchell was willing to put stock in the value of a program that teaches violin, cello, and important life skills to area schoolchildren. The conservatory was born in the hope of cultivating a different musical sensibility.

“I think we are stereotyped many times into only accepting one music type or another,” Mitchell says. “The reality is, classical music has traditionally been rather snobbish, and I think the minority community has not felt as welcome in the classical genre as they should. It’s more like ‘music for them,’ and then you have commercialism that has pushed certain types of music on the young people, hip hop in particular.”

“Classical music is a type of art form that engages the mind and makes you think. It makes you work. It’s not music in its lowest denominator, and its what our young people need. They need the arts that make them think, that challenges them to create. And classical music does that.”

Classical music is but one element in the design, however, and probably the easiest of all to wrangle. Mitchell has made it a point to foster another, separate conservatory body with even greater influence over the Watts-Willowbrook students. Parents, Mitchell argues, are too often left out of the communication lines that initiate students into music education, and not enough is done to prepare and orient them into an unfamiliar arts world. Mitchell installed certain rules into the program, required parent presence at lessons and regular home practice, curriculum to reinforce the strong family and community relationships that keep students in the program.

Expressing contempt for a public school administration that has struggled to sustain arts education —  “They’ve already proven that they don’t care”  —  Mitchell looks just beyond the Watts-Willowbrook Boys and Girls Club for the support necessary to keep his own program running and growing.
“I’ve been on every radio talk show discussing this program except [local radio station] KJLH. That is a tool that we need to let the community know that we’re hear.  I’ve been on Time Warner, but my parents out here may not see Time Warner. They may not listen to Clear Channel. If our own people would invest in these problems, they would move a lot faster,” he says. “I am more interested in what the Black community does for its black children, and what the Latino community does, than I am anything else.”
Watch the video below for more excerpts of the LyricalLA interview with Billy Mitchell.

  • I enjoyed your comments on classical music, it is music that should never be forgotten. Parents should introduce their children to this type of music like my parents did with me so they will be well-rounded and learn all styles of music.

    June 20 2012
    • Maxine Bates

      Billy, Great interview and excellent work for the Black community. What you said that sticks with me is “Music softens the soul of a child”. Classical music training is a wonderful opportunity for children, especially those in the Black community.

      June 20 2012
      • Sherry Roberson

        I really enjoyed the interview. You’re so right!
        Music Can Change The World!

        June 19 2012
        • Dorothy


          I really appreciate your comments on classical music: “engages the mind and makes them think, challanges them to be creative…”
          Keep up the good work. Every child can be a genius!

          June 19 2012
          • Jtbwriter

            Billy, you hit the nail on the head! Parents have to be involved for music education and programs to work!

            June 18 2012
            • Sasha Anawalt

              Good interview and camera work. Interesting. He’s some teacher. Wise.

              May 02 2012