We report on the foolishness and foibles of entertainers all the time, so it’s important we also recognize some of the great things they do:
- Growing up, Richard Smith’s father was gone and his mother struggled to keep above the poverty line while raising two kids on her own. Today he would have been labeled an “at- risk” kid. Now the soul jazz recording artist is doing something to help at-risk youth in South Central Los Angeles. Smith founded the GuitarMasters Workshop, a community outreach program that provides free lessons, classes, guitars and mentoring through the Challengers Boys and Girls Club.
In addition to his career as a recording artist, Smith is a tenured professor at the Thornton School at the University of Southern California. He was the youngest guitarist to ever head the guitar department when appointed at age 29 and he has since gone on to create the first doctoral program in jazz guitar in the world. He selected South Central Los Angeles for GuitarMasters because the community neighbors the USC campus and the children there are especially in need of programs to keep kids off the streets after school as well as teach skills that build self-esteem and bolster hope.
Smith’s students serve as mentors by giving a child weekly lessons on guitar, bass, drums or vocals for twelve weeks, which concludes with a talent showcase. Kids that demonstrate promise and wish to continue are invited to receive free lessons on campus from Smith, other faculty members of the music school and students. Down the road, Smith hopes to be able to give some of the program’s participants scholarships to attend USC.
Dually, GuitarMasters, which began last year, is committed to continuing the legacy and rich historical tradition of American roots and popular music such as blues, R&B, rock, and jazz. Smith strongly believes that roots music is an integral part of the American tapestry, that it is an essential subject, and that quality music education can be the catalyst for developing a wide range of skills that transcend all aspects of life. The foundation of the program is built upon four basic tenets of music education: appreciation, training, mentoring and performance.
The genesis for GuitarMasters came after Smith had a brief encounter with Bonnie Raitt. “I began to think in terms of the bigger picture with regard to my role as an educator and the role higher education should play in creating substantive opportunities for young people,” said Smith. “It was exciting to think about teaching American popular music to young people because music schools in the U.S. are still for the most part classical institutions. My department at USC is an exception in that we celebrate all indigenous American music – not just classical or jazz, but pop, rock, blues, hip-hop, country, etc. We’ve taken this inclusive approach to South Central where young people find that their music can be part of the music fundamentals while they learn life skills that can help prepare them for college and careers. It is widely believed that music skills contribute to better learning and motivation at all levels.”
Initially funding for GuitarMasters came via credit card: twenty guitars were purchased on credit to launch the program. Thankfully, donations came in and sponsors like Yamaha, Fender Musical Instruments, D’Addario Strings, The Ella Fitzgerald Foundation, The Ray Charles-Sir Charles Blues Lab and various private donors stepped up.
“We’ve been at it for just over a year and we’ve seen that GuitarMasters has made a vast difference in the lives of many kids,” explained Smith. “The week of our first Christmas recital last year, there were 25 murders in South Central. Anything we can do to get these kids off the streets, especially during those highly unsupervised hours immediately after school before parents get home from work, is a welcome diversion. I was an at-risk kid and music kept me out of trouble, gave me direction and helped divert my mind from my situation. This program creates a nurturing environment designed to spark imaginations, unlock creative spirits, and encourage every child to strive for success. The motto we have adopted for GuitarMasters is: Find your passion, lose your fear, dream big, talk small, work hard. In your dreams, so shall you become.”
Last month, Smith released his eighth solo album entitled Soulidified, a collection of R&B, contemporary jazz, funk and buoyant pop tunes. It’s his first album of all new material in three years and his debut for the A440 Music Group record label. Smith wrote or co-penned nine new compositions and contributing to the album was a talented supporting cast of musicians, including producer Brian Bromberg, Jeff Lorber, Brian Culbertson, Jeff Kashiwa, Freddie Ravel, and Alex Acuna. Aside from his solo career, Smith has recorded and toured with such smooth jazz luminaries as Peter White, Marc Antoine, Rick Braun, Kirk Whalum, Warren Hill and Richard Elliot, who Smith recorded six #1 albums with.