Though it’s been decades since the legendary Stax recording studio closed its doors — and over 13 years now since they were reopened as part of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music — the legacy of the music recorded within its walls still lives on in the students of the Stax Music Academy.
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Located down the street from the museum, the Academy serves as an after-school program for primarily at-risk youth from Memphis and its neighboring areas. It started in June 2000 in the cafeteria of an ele-mentary school; music teachers and volunteers from local music organi-zations met with 125 children each afternoon for a month during the summer, offering kids the chance to learn about music and parents a safe place to drop off their children during the workday.
In 2002, the operation moved from the lunchroom to its own build-ing, down the street from the then-unopened Stax Museum on East McLemore Avenue in South Memphis.
“The initial goal was to build a Stax museum on the original site and a music school for kids in the neighborhood because there were no opportunities for them,” says Tim Sampson, a mentor who helped launch the program and the communications director of the Soulsville Foundation, which works to educate people about the neighborhood’s
history. “[The neighborhood] was crime-ridden and blighted and there wasn’t much for kids to do except to get in trouble or stay home and watch television, if they had one. The founders of the museum decided to build the music school first because they thought it was more im-portant to have something for the kids than it was to have a museum.”
Following the move, the program changed its focus from elemen-tary students to middle and high schoolers, teaming up with Soulsville Charter School, a local college preparatory academy. It currently hosts around 130 students from 2pm to 7pm Monday through Friday. After gaining acceptance (students have to audition in order to attend), the teenagers have the choice of joining two of eight ensembles: Street Cor-ner Harmonies, the school’s largest ensemble, an a cappella-based vocal group that incorporates choreography, stepping, and drama elements; the Drum Line; the Rhythm Section, a mid-sized vocal and instrumental group that focuses on Stax classics; Production, which trains students on both live and studio recording; Jazz Band, a full, big band jazz group that includes horns, guitar, bass and piano players; Vocal Jazz, a small, intense a cappella group; and a middle-school-only Rhythm Section.
Each ensemble performs frequently, and not just at local spots in Memphis — students have performed at the National Mall and Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the Lincoln Center in New York City and other venues across the globe. In 2012, a group of students traveled to Berlin to perform for the U.S. Ambassadors to Germany.
The school is staffed by highly dedicated teachers from various musical backgrounds, many of whom are artists in their own right. “Everybody who works here takes on the Stax Music Academy students like their own kids,” says Sampson. Adrianna Christmas, a vocal instructor and the school’s interim artistic director, says she enjoys seeing how much the students grow musically throughout their time at the academy.
“I have some students that came in whispering, and now they’re finally letting big, beautiful voices out,” says Christmas. “They’re all so talented. You watch them go into the practice rooms all the time and then they get that one solo and it’s like, ‘Man! That’s what it is.’”
Many former Stax artists engage with the program, telling their stories of the Stax days, holding workshops and performing with the var-ious ensembles. Floyd Newman, Booker T and the MG’s, the Bar-Kays and the Astors have all spent time with students. Betty Crutcher, the most successful female songwriter in Stax history and a co-writer on Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love,” has visited the school to teach masterclasses on songwriting. “The Stax artists do whatever they can,” says Sampson. “A lot of them are still very busy touring, but anytime they can do anything for the Academy, they do.”
Outside of the classroom, teachers and mentors are able to offer help and guidance to students that they may not receive from other adults in their lives.
“We aren’t necessarily trying to crank out professional musicians,” says Sampson. “We’re just trying to get these kids ready for college. Ready for life, mainly. Across the board, we try to take care of every-thing about them while we have them here.”
Christmas tries to spend any extra downtime chatting with students about their lives outside of the program and offering guidance and ad-vice where it’s needed.
“We’re able to talk to them about more than just music, like aspirations, college applications and scholarships, because we also offer college prep,” says Christmas. “We even touch on small things, like conflict resolution — like, ‘Okay they gave you this grade. Did you earn it? Did you do your homework?’ Small things, but also big things — we’re able to teach them life skills, like how to negotiate with authority or how to deal with conflict between their peers. We also have family resources that we’re able to connect the students with. What keeps us coming in to work every day and what we get the most excited about is seeing them grow personally.”
The Academy and its staff have had an undeniable impact on the students. One hundred percent of its attendees were accepted to college in 2015; roughly 40 percent received music related scholarships. Many students go on to study music at the university level, some at the country’s most prestigious music schools, including Berklee College of Mu-sic in Boston. During summer breaks, program graduates can join the Stax Music Academy Alumni Band, a group of 11 singers and musicians who perform tunes from the Stax catalogue at paying gigs several times a week around Memphis, including a Tuesday slot at the Stax Museum itself. This past June, the group opened for Al Green at Memphis’ Orpheum Theatre.
Sampson, who tries his best to keep in contact with alumni after they’ve moved on, says his involvement in the program has been immeasurably rewarding. “It’s really fun to watch how successful they have become, both as people who work in the music business and as per-forming artists and session players. Getting to know them on a one-on-one basis has been one of the greatest things in my life.”