Seven of television’s hottest and most sought after musicians and more importantly musical directors, took the stage last week, not to perform but to spotlight their accomplishments and celebrate Black Music Month.
These contemporary music pioneers, assembled for the first time, spoke candidly about the industry, particularly their role in shaping the music television audiences worldwide have come to enjoy.
They also gave the audience at the California African American Museum (CAAM) some incites and attributes, techniques, and skill sets that are required to do the job.
Patrice Rushen, award-winning musician and composer, moderated a panel that included African American music directors from many of television’s most watched shows–Harold Wheeler, “Dancing With the Stars,” and considered the godfather of the group; Ricky Minor, “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno;” Michael Bearden, “Lopez Tonight;” Ray Chew, “American Idol;” James “Big Jim” Wright, “The Mo’Nique Show;” and Greg Phillinganes, “Surprise Oprah! A Farewell Spectacular.”
Once rare a occurrence, Black music directors are making a significant difference in prime time TV. The role and transformation of music director in recent years is due in part to the popularity of variety musical programs like “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars” as well as the Grammy, Emmy, and Oscar awards show.
Rushen added until very recently, a music director’s job was “very thankless.”
And when it comes to the education it requires to step into such a position, the panelist spoke fondly about the musical education they received. They particularly note that music education was supported because it was everywhere–in home church, school, radio and television.
Minor of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” has some concerns with the lack of music in public schools.
“There are not many places for kids to play instruments,” he says. “Because of technology, if music is computer generated who is playing the guitar? If you are sampling Curtis Mayfield’s guitar, then you are not playing the guitar. Yet there is some creativity to sampling but there is a place for artistry.”
The panelist also say there are plenty of jobs in the music business, and that success is measured by how one handles the business side of music–how to cut a deal, and how to put together budget–as well as how you put together a musical arrangement.
However, Phillinganes stressed, “As a television music director, you have to deal with multiple egos, and they all have be fed. It becomes a pain in the ass. It’s not easy, and it’s not for the faint of heart.”
While the season’s two most-watched shows overall, “American Idol” and “Dancing With the Stars,” have Black music directors, neither say they can take anything for granted.
“You spend your time learning your craft and horning your skills,” says Chew. But when the opportunity presents itself, you have to be ready for it, because it may occur unexpectedly.”
Working on two of television’s most popular programs is both rewarding and stressful, the panelist say. Mainly because the success of these shows rides heavily on the music. As the demands increase so does the pressure to push the musical boundaries. Strong leadership and respect from your band is important and could very well cause friction.
After he was named music director of “Dancing with the Stars,” Wheeler recounts having to castigate band members.
“There are times when I was not given the respect that they had given any other musical director,” said Wheeler. “We enjoyed one another and had fun.”
But despite the fact that 50 of them were having a good time, Wheeler had to publicly expose five who were causing problems.
As the audience hung onto his every word, Wheeler elaborates about what he said: “I am the leader and you will respect me. Get out now. I’m giving everybody a five-minute break so we can take a breath, and when I come back and if you are sitting there, then you have decided that I am in charge whether you like it or not.”
Jeanie Weems, president of The Next Twenty Event Management, was the first to realize the significance of this special event at CAAM.
“A panel of this nature, music directors, who actually lead the bands of television shows, is an example of a music profession that is (quietly gaining prominence),” says Weems.
These individual’s ascent to prominence is not very well known and not many African Americans have been hired in these positions. With a smile Weems says, “What’s unique about this crew is that they all are unique.”
This event was Weem’s brainchild, because she wanted to do something to commemorate Black Music Month, and at the same time do something that had not been done before.
Ray Bradford, national director, equal employment opportunities for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, understands the impact of put together this talented group to speak frankly about their experiences. Most importantly, “to finally present to the public in honor of Black Music Month a very little known fact to many people, even in the industry.” He adds, “The most talented and amazing music directors for some of most visible national and international shows on television are African American.”
But Rushen adds there needs to be “encouragement for more women as music directors.” She emphasized that much of what music directors do is “genderless” and people outside the industry are not aware of what they do.
While the television music director’s position was once a closed portal within the industry, the success of these seven individuals has made an otherwise unattainable goal achievable for talented Black musicians.
During her closing remarks, Rushen left the audience with some words of wisdom. “Many can get a shot at it but few can succeed at this level. It speaks to the possibilities of our music and the future of our presence in multi-media. It’s about people who are passionate about their music.”
“Shaping the Sound of Television” was a collaboration of the Next Twenty Event Management Company, Beverly Hills NAACP, AFTRA, California Legislative Black Caucus, and CAAM.