Spoiler Alert: To find the answer to the question asked in the title of this article, you’ll have to read every word .
Dennis Mackrel (yes, that’s his real name) was born in the Anchorage, AK suburb of Bartlett back in 1962. His parents were both U.S Air Force members who were stationed at nearby Elmendorf Air Force when their baby boy arrived on the scene. They were also huge fans of America’s most beloved musical contribution to the world: jazz!
Dennis’ dad remembers that “whenever we got reassigned, the last thing that got packed up and the first thing that was unpacked was always the records and the stereo.”
When their young son developed an interest in music, in general, and in the drums, in particular (when he was just six years old), his mother got him a set. Rather than provide him with formal lessons, they started taking him to local jam sessions at The Matador Lounge in the neighboring suburb of Spenard.
“I learned how to play drums by watching, asking questions, and remembering what the pros told me to do. I soaked up everything and practiced what I was taught at every opportunity,” Dennis recounts.”The older musicians saw that I was really into it and they let me sit in with them. They were always really nice to me.I was just ten years old when I got my first gig in Anchorage.”
Fast forward forty years and Dennis Mackrel has just made his first trip back to Anchorage since his days at The Matador. He’s paying forward the encouraging lessons he received back in the day. What’s changed is that now he’s the youngest director in the fabled history of the legendary Count Basie Orchestra!
While the group’s in-concert performances will be the most prominent part of the Basie band’s visit to The Last Frontier, all of its members (under Dennis’ spirited direction) will take part in a number of Workshops at Anchorage-area schools.
“We’re kind of the prototype for bands in schools,” Mackrel said. “School band directors often start with Count Basie arrangements. We travel all over the world and do clinics and workshops along with the concerts. But in Anchorage…my hometown…we’ll have several days to integrate with the schools. It’s very rare that we get to work with students for so long.”
Schools in the San Diego area still have music programs integrated into their curriculum, too…as do schools in most U.S states. We can only hope that funding cuts do not rob our youngsters of the opportunities that arts, in general, and music, in particular, offer them. But if we go a bit further south and cross the border, we see a country that since the 1930’s has had NO public school programs teaching their internationally acclaimed music…mariachi…to its students. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recently awarded mariachi its coveted Patrimony and maestros from almost every other country of the world are flocking to Mexico to learn more about it. Why the domestic disconnect?
While the answer to that question is examined, we see the mariachi equivalents of Dennis Mackrel, including several Grammy Award-winners, returning to cross-border regions of Northern Baja to bridge the gap. This year’s 3rd Annual Rosarito Beach International Mariachi & Folklorico Festival, held at the Rosarito Beach Hotel, featured Workshops that were attended by nearly 300 students from area schools where instruments and musical instruction are not available. The funding came from local residents…both Mexican nationals and expatriates… who became Padrinos de los Talleres (Patrons of the Workshops) to come up with what was needed to cover full scholarships for those interested in pursuing their own country’s premier musical contribution to the world..
If you are interested in becoming part of this program, spearheaded by the local Boys and Girls Club (the Club de Ninos y Ninas Seccion Rosarito), please contact Rosy Torres, the Club’s President at www.clubnyn.org AND Save The Dates for next year’s five-day encuentro: October 2nd through October 6th 2013.
By the way, you’ll also be simultaneously helping to Save the Culture of your next-door neighbor!