On 10th anniversary of South Memphis academy, Stax sows seeds for musical bounty

Kirk Whalum, president and CEO of Stax, prays with students before they go on stage at Lincoln Center in New York in July. Praying together is something they have always done, he said, even before he arrived.

Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht // Buy this photo

Kirk Whalum, president and CEO of Stax, prays with students before they go on stage at Lincoln Center in New York in July. Praying together is something they have always done, he said, even before he arrived.

From the window of his second story office on East McLemore in South Memphis, Kirk Whalum can see the past, present and future.

Whalum, a Grammy winning saxophonist and president and CEO of the Soulsville Foundation, can gaze at the spot where his grandparents’ home once stood, and the fertile ground where the legacy of Stax Records was born, lost and rebuilt.

Also in sight is what’s ahead — the faces of children hustling to classes at The Soulsville Charter School and the Stax Music Academy.

Earlier this year, the academy marked its 10th anniversary as an after-school music education program.

Over the last three years, — since it shifted its focus to high school students — Stax has become a model of efficiency. Of the 42 academy graduates since 2008, all of them have been accepted to college, with nearly half receiving scholarships, and with many of them studying music.

“But it’s much bigger than music,” said Whalum. “Some of these kids will become musicians, some might become (audio) engineers but they’ll all become successful. What we’re doing here is really about saving lives. We’re taking kids, good kids, who just lack opportunities and providing them a way they can get to college and beyond.”

Currently, the academy is set up to handle 60 students per year — many of whom come from low-income or at-risk environments. Whalum and others involved say more can be done, that more needs to be done.

“We’re not trying to have a thousand kids; to really prepare kids the right way, a high school music academy needs to be boutique, needs to be small,” said Whalum. “But we would absolutely double the number tomorrow if we could. But that means doubling the staff and having more space. And that means more funding.”

Along with Whalum, Soulsville COO Mark Wender — who also came on board last year — has been working to spread the gospel of the academy, building relationships with philanthropists, both inside and outside of Memphis, who can support the program into its next 10 years.

“For some reason people in Memphis think we’re well-heeled,” said Wender. “They kind of consider us part of the landscape, like ‘Stax is there, they don’t need any help.’

“That’s a challenge Kirk and I have to overcome, to get the philanthropists in Memphis involved, and also to lure people from outside of Memphis,” said Wender. “The bottom line is: For this to grow, we need more support.”

'You just don’t find those things anywhere else'

Those who have experienced Stax Music Academy firsthand — students, teachers, even celebrity musicians like Huey Lewis and Steve Miller — call it an utterly unique place.

“There’s no program like it in the United States, and I would venture to say the entire world,” said Justin Merrick, the academy’s vocal director. A graduate of Indiana University’s prestigious Jacobs School of Music, Merrick is now in his second year at Stax. “There’s no program that’s teaching music, music production and music business the way we do, and focusing on pedagogy as a soul musician. You just don’t find those things anywhere else.”

The academy offers a closely-knit, convivial atmosphere, one that emphasizes mentorship, starting from the top down, with Whalum taking the lead.

“To see Kirk, someone who has roots in this community, and who’s made it to the pinnacle of his craft, speaks volumes to the kids,” said Wender. “And he’s hands-on.”

A key part of the academy’s success is a willingness, unlike most music education programs, to adapt to fit the specific talents of its students. “In dealing with the precious resource of these kids, you’ve got to have elasticity in the structure,” said Whalum.

“You get somebody in with a particular set of gifts, you want to try and take advantage of and expand on those gifts. It allows those individuals to thrive in their own unique way.”

For musical director Paul McKinney — a lifelong Memphian in his fourth year teaching at the academy — it’s the totality of the experience that will provide Stax students an advantage in gaining a practical career.

“When I look at these kids, yes, I see performers, but I also see engineers, I see educators, I see professionals, working musicians,” said McKinney. “You see the full range. And so you want to expose them to as much as you can.”

Giving kids the best education and widest exposure has always been a financial challenge.

With more than 90 percent of the students on scholarship, and the rest paying a nominal annual fee, the academy operates on an annual budget of roughly $500,000 dollars. Most of that comes through fundraising efforts like the annual Staxtacular, hosted by the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, which nets around $100,000.

Other foundations, like Arts Memphis, also contribute, as do individual donors, such as rock guitarist Steve Miller, who recently cut a sizeable check after visiting the museum and being wowed by the students, who performed with him at a Memphis Botanic Garden concert in June.

The Stax Academy and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, operate under one 501(c)(3) (a separate 501(c)(3) is set up for The Soulsville Charter School). The museum attracts some 50,000 visitors per year, and between admissions, memberships, event rentals, and merchandise, turns a small profit. “But we need to do better, because any profits in the museum help fund our other programs,” said Wender, who added that a new museum membership drive will take place later this month.

In short, the academy manages to cover its basic costs. “We are getting a big bang for our budget,” said Wender. “But it’s frustrating because we know we can do a lot more for the academy. The challenge is to open up the aperture and get funding from as many places as we can.”

The goal is not just to add students, but to further increase the quality of the program. “It’s not just about maintaining the status quo but to have Stax Music Academy put on par in terms of quality with Juilliard or the Berklee College of Music,” said Whalum. “When people think of Stax Music Academy we want them to think of not only giving kids an opportunity, but having the finest music education available.”

Another major area of expense is travel. The academy’s various performing groups are given opportunities to play shows throughout the U.S. and abroad. This summer, for example, the students traveled to Washington and New York, to play the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center, but the cost of transporting 20 people had to be abetted by a last-minute private donation.

“The bulk of what will make these kids rise to the top like cream is the live experience, the practice of that,” said Whalum. “The more that we can do, the better for them”

For Whalum and Wender the priority now, and for the next year, will be to raise money.

That effort began in earnest during last month’s trip to New York, where they met with various deep-pocketed arts philanthropists. “We had some really good meetings, and already have some really positive results,” said Wender. “Others will take longer to develop. But we feel good about it.”

The one great advantage that the academy has is the legacy of Stax. “Stax music resonates all over the world, it’s a powerful brand,” said Wender. “But we’re also selling community redevelopment, music education, helping at-risk kids. Those are things that people can latch on to and connect with. We’ve just got to be able to leverage that into donors.”

Neighborhood hope

As the 2011-2012 school year dawns, things are bustling in the Soulsville neighborhood.

The Soulsville Charter School has opened a new building and now serves some 500 students, from grades six through 12. Operating since 2005, it previously had been housed inside the academy space and various trailers. More development is also visible, as a new multipurpose cafeteria and gymnasium facility is under construction next door.

Across McLemore, the once- vacant lots have been replaced by a series of new buildings, called the Soulsville Town Center, part of LeMoyne-Owen College’s Community Development Corp. A few spaces have been filled, and one major spot is being targeted for a grocery. “If we can get something like that in here, it’ll add to the vitality of the neighborhood, tremendously,” said Wender.

Another part of Whalum’s and Wender’s mandate has been to reconnect Stax to the neighborhood and its residents. In April, they staged a massive street festival called “Stax to the Max,” and close to 5,000 people, mostly locals, attended.

“It was a way to let the neighborhood identify with our campus. The people from this neighborhood, you could see it on their faces; they take pride in what we do, they’re living it through these kids,” said Whalum, noting that plans are to make “Stax to the Max” an annual event.

The next 12 months will be crucial in determining just how much of Whalum’s and Wender’s vision of the future will be realized.

Whalum said that while they pursue more funds and outreach, they won’t lose sight of the real mission.

“Yes, we’re working hard to coerce donors, and you can easily be distracted by all the day-to-day things. But having been here for little over a year, the thing that’s evermore miraculous to me is watching an individual child grow,” said Whalum.

“Over time, you’re able to get inside of the lives of the kids, and you get to watch them develop and see tangibly this miracle happen. If we can communicate to anybody why they should support us, it’s that.”

“You feel like there’s hope,” said Whalum, peering out of his window, as the academy students begin to file into the building.

“In this field of weeds, you see these little flowers pushing up, and you’re seeing their beautiful colors. It’s one thing to see flowers in a manicured garden of someone’s mansion, but to see these beautiful flowers growing amongst weeds… man, that’s a beautiful sight.”

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