Straz Shout Out: Local Guitarist Christie Lenee

The 2019 Acoustic Guitarist of the Year happens to be a Tampa native.

christie lenee

One of the things we love about being this area’s performing arts center is that we get to host so many incredible Tampa Bay-area talents early in their careers. One such—guitarist Christie Lenee—appeared in the Jaeb Theater in 2018, already crowned 2017’s International Fingerstyle Guitar Champion. But before that, she step-ball-changed her way across our stage in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as a kid.

Her background is straightforward: she graduated from Blake High School as part of the arts magnet school component, focusing her studies on classical guitar and acting, then continued at University of South Florida with music composition and classical and jazz guitar. Everybody who heard her play knew she was something special, and now she’s considered one of the greatest guitar players in the world.

Her tapping fingerstyle emerged while composing choral music on guitar and needing to play multiple parts. The tap served as a stand-in piano but the technique fit Christie so well it became a part of her signature style.

Christie’s ability to make one guitar sound like a folk acoustic chamber music trio is best seen to be believed. Here she is performing her song, “Breath of Spring,” on Music City Roots Nashville:

Winning Takamine’s Acoustic Guitarist of the Year in 2019 was no small feat considering her competition. Take a look at the three finalists.

Like many artists in this historic moment, Christie has risen to the challenge, appearing live on Facebook with music to inspire and uplift while we’re not gathering in public together.

If she’s not on your radar, we’d love for you to check her out. We are big fans and super proud of her contributions to fingerstyle and acoustic guitar.

Hopefully, life will go back to the old normal soon; and, if so, you’ll be able to see Christie Lenee live and in person at the Hideaway Café on Central Ave in St Pete on May 31. Keep up with her concert sched on http://christielenee.com/.

Little-Known Facts about the Widely-Known Songs in SHOUT! The Mod Musical

SHOUT! The Mod Musical opens tomorrow, so now is the perfect time to take a strut down memory lane with a few of the show’s mega-hits from the 1960s. We put together this fab list of choice info to give you the skinny on some of the most popular songs in the show. It’s a gas, baby.

Photo By Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

  1. Wishin’ and Hopin’

The *other* 60s throwback, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery¸ put Burt Bacharach back on the screen in one of the best scenes in the movie, a cameo featuring “What the World Needs Now.” Because, what’s a swingin’ Sixties story without Burt Bacharach? The smoother-than-a-lounge-sofa composer first wrote “Wishin’ and Hopin’” for Dionne Warwick (aunt of Whitney Houston). Dusty Springfield heard Dionne’s recording and loved the song so much she went out and recorded her own version two years later. Dusty Springfield, of course, is best known for another song revived by the movies …

  1. Son of a Preacher Man

Welp, we dare you to hear Dusty Springfield’s version of this song and not think about Pulp Fiction. We’re pretty sure the scene of Vincent (John Travolta) picking up Marsellus Wallace’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) at their house would not have been as fraught with temptation had Tarantino picked any other song. In fact, Tarantino claimed later he wouldn’t have shot the scene had he not be able to set it to “Son of a Preacher Man.” The song sits at slot 43 of the greatest singles of all time according to the writers at New Musical Express. Dusty Springfield, of course, is a stage name. She was born in London as Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien. That’s a lot of names, kind of like the woman who sang …

  1. To Sir, With Love

… who was Lulu, born Marie McDonald McLauglin Lawrie. Lulu is certainly easier to remember. “To Sir, With Love” hit No. 1 in 1967, the theme song of the film To Sir, With Love starring Sidney Poitier as a teacher doomed or destined (depending on your perspective) to save a class of wayward youths at a school in dodgy east London. Lulu made her film debut in the movie, going on to win bit parts in other films including 2016’s Ab Fab: The Movie.  Don Black, the lyricist for “To Sir, With Love,” also wrote the lyrics to the 60s hit “Born Free” and the theme songs to the Bond films Diamonds are Forever, The Man with the Golden Gun, Tomorrow Never Dies and The World is Not Enough.  Which brings us to …

  1. James Bond Theme/Goldfinger

Probably one of the most recognizable movie theme songs next to Jaws, the James Bond Theme carries a bit of intrigue around its creation. Credited to Monty Norman, whose been earning royalties from the music since 1962 when he composed the piece for Dr. No, there’s been some pushback from John Barry, who wrote “007 Theme” for From Russia with Love. {Some will argue the circumstances for Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love were much more dangerous than for Sean Connery in same title except From Russia]. John Barry indisputably wrote “Goldfinger” for that Bond film with the unashamedly over-acting diva Shirley Bassey belting out the theme song with her unmistakable “GooooldFINGAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” which has been a joy to replicate for everyone covering the song thereafter. As of this writing, the great diva Dame Shirley Bassey is still alive and performing this very song.

  1. Georgy Girl

As long as we’re talking divas, let’s start by mentioning Lynn Redgrave starred as Georgy Girl in the film, which was her breakout role about a young woman coming-of-age in Swingin’ London. It’s a perfect song for SHOUT!, which is all about women like Georgy. The theme song “Georgy Girl,” performed by The Seekers, made them the first Australian folk group to get major success in the US and UK. The song hit No. 1 in 1965, and, in 1967, The Seekers were named Australians of the Year. And, guess who wrote the music to “Georgy Girl”? Tom Springfield—Dusty’s brother. His birth name was Dionysius P.A. O’Brien. At this point, we’re beginning to suspect Dusty and Tom had very interesting parents. And you know who did have interesting parents …

  1. These Boots are Made for Walkin’

Nancy Sinatra. Eldest daughter of Old Blue Eyes Frank and mom Nancy, this woman was destined for the charts. Her No. 1 hit, “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” has been covered by a surprisingly diverse crowd that includes Billy Ray Cyrus, Megadeath and Ella Fitzgerald. Lee Hazlewood wrote “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” and he’d later write the theme song for Frank Sinatra’s detective movie, Tony Rome¸ which he got Nancy to perform. Lee and Nancy collaborated all the way up to 2004. Hazlewood confessed in an interview that the catch phrase of this song, “one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” came from a conversation he was eavesdropping on in a bar.  That proves 1) be careful what you say in a bar and 2) inspiration comes from all kinds of places like …

  1. Downtown

… the ginormous 1964 Petula Clark hit that came after songwriter Tony Hatch went to New York City to find new material for Clark. Before “Downtown,” Clark was unknown in the United States even though she was a huge British star. The single skyrocketed her to the top of the U.S. charts and “Downtown” was covered by Frank Sinatra, Patty Duke, and, most notably, by Dolly Parton on her The Great Pretender album. In a very 90s turn of events for the song, it featured prominently in “The Bottle Deposit” episode of Seinfeld, when George and Jerry decide to use the lyrics of the song to try to decipher a message from George’s boss because George, of course, is too anxious to ask his boss to clarify the message directly.  So, George and Jerry head, well, downtown—where all the lights are bright—and a bunch of hilarious nothingness follows.

  1. Shout!

Talk about your songs that have been covered and covered and covered. This Isley Brothers ditty barely had a chance to become one of their signature songs before everybody in the 60s … then 70s … then 80s … then 90s to now covered it for their own albums. Only one month after the Isley Brothers dropped the record, Johnny O’Keefe did the song in Australia and got it to #2 on the Aussie charts. After that, Chubby Checker recorded it, followed by Dion, Lulu, The Shangri-Las, The Beatles, The Kingsmen, The Shondells, Otis Day and The Knights, Joan Jett, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Green Day, Panic! At the Disco, Garth Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, Alvin & the Chipmunks and the cast of Glee. And that’s not even a complete list. In an interesting side note, the Isley Brothers also wrote and recorded “Twist and Shout,” also recorded and made famous by The Beatles.

From Houseless to Household Name

Consummate storyteller John Tesh speaks in this exclusive interview with the Straz Center

A few months ago, our senior marketing manager Carol Cohen interviewed John Tesh over the phone for his current Q&A in the back of The Straz’s official publication, INSIDE magazine. The interview covered some interesting ground that we had to edit from the Q&A—including his time living in a tent at a state park in North Carolina among other fascinating tidbits. We wanted to publish a longer, edited version of that interview here so John Tesh fans could get a fuller version of the story.

Carol Cohen:  I read that your parents only let you watch Star Trek: The Original Series growing up. Is that true?

John Tesh:  It is true, but they didn’t say, “You can only watch Star Trek.” They said, “You can only watch a half hour of TV a day.”

CC:  So you could choose.

JT:  Yeah … My mom was like an age group tennis champion, and she was also a retired surgical nurse. I was born in ’52, and back in the day in the suburbs if you had kids, as a woman, you didn’t work anymore. It was natural to raise the kids, right? That was the social demand. She decided that I was going to be a musician. So, for two hours every day, even as a six-year-old, I was either playing piano or playing trumpet. There really wasn’t much television. My dad liked The Jack Paar Show. It was on too late for me, but we also watched Ed Sullivan as a family. So there wasn’t [much television watching] … unless I got sick, right? Then you watched I Dream of Jeannie.

CC:  Obviously you’re an extremely gifted piano player. Do you still play the trumpet?

JT:  Yes. I play piano for a living now, but I was probably a better trumpet and baritone horn player than I was a piano player, because I had some incredible training as a kid in elementary school on Long Island. Stewart Avenue School. In fact, the teacher, Dr. Tom Wagner, he ended up being New York State Teacher of the Year twice. This is before performing arts schools, and so the Garden City school system was really like that. There was a lot of theater, a lot of music, a lot of performance. And so, I played trumpet in the band, the marching band, the orchestra, the dance band and all that. I only played piano at home and during recitals. I had more training as a trumpet player.

CC:  Do you still play it now?

JT:  Only to wake up my grandkids. [laughs]

CC:  I guess the piano just doesn’t quite cut it for that.

JT:  Well, and the other thing is … I’ve interviewed many musicians, including Eric Clapton and Michael McDonald and Elton John, all those guys. You can ask any of them, and they’ll tell you that the reason they got into music wasn’t because they were interested in music. They were either interested (a) in being popular or (b) in meeting girls. Girls weren’t really interested in the kid holding the trumpet in the marching band, so I went to Western Auto and got myself a little chord organ and played in a garage band. We played for a lot of the school dances and the Catholic Youth Fellowship back in the 1960s. I still didn’t meet any girls, but at least I was in a band.

CC:  I saw on your website how you have the pet of the week. Are you an animal person?

JT:  I grew up with a cat person, for sure. We always had two cats in the house: Tippy One and Tippy Two because we couldn’t come up with another name. [laughs] In fact, Tippy One was the star of my first science fiction movie. But then we ended up getting a chihuahua, and there was a total mess in the house. When I got married to Connie 27 years ago, she’s allergic to cats and so is my stepson. We ended up with a dog that followed me home one day as a puppy. I was running out on Mulholland Drive, which is a very dangerous area, and she followed me home. We’ve had Lucy for 15 years. She’s got a heart problem, so the doctors gave her Lasix, and then they gave her this other pill. I said, “What is that?” It said ‘sildenafil.’ And they go, “Oh, that’s Viagra.” I said, “You’re giving my dog Viagra?” They said, “Yeah, it was originally prescribed as a heart medicine, and then it had other ancillary effects.”  So, my dog’s on Viagra and Lasix, and she couldn’t be any happier, you know?

CC:  Let’s talk about how you got started in show business.

JT:  Well, my dad was a vice president at Hanes underwear. When we were getting ready to tour schools [after high school], I wanted to go to a conservatory. He said, “Sorry, that’s not happening. You need a real job.” And so, he enrolled me in North Carolina State University, in textile chemistry. I lasted for about three years in that curriculum, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. A friend of mine said, “Hey, I have an easy A course you should take,” and it was radio and television. I walked into that course, and everything changed for me. It was just … a light bulb went off. As a little kid, I was always making movies and making shows. I tried to change my major without telling my parents, and one of the professors wouldn’t sign the drop/add card. He said, “No, you’re past the drop/add date. I can’t do that.” I pleaded with him, and he said, “No!” Under advice from one of my dorm mates, I signed the professor’s name to the drop/add card, which basically is forgery. I got caught. I got thrown out of school. I wasn’t expelled, I was suspended for breaking the honor code, and my parents threw me out of the house—my dad did.

JT:  I ended up living in a tent for like six months in North Carolina. And I begged my way onto a radio station and got a job playing the religious tapes on Sunday. Then you know what happened … Within about four months, I was doing the news on the weekends. Then, three years from the moment that I was homeless in a tent, I was anchoring the news in New York City as a 23-year-old.

CC:  Were you up in the Raleigh area living in a tent?

JT:  Yeah, I was in Umstead Park.

CC:  You’re kicked out of school; your dad kicks you out of the house. What’s going through your mind as you’re sitting in this tent in Umstead Park? Were you like, “My life is over”? Or, “Now I’ve got to figure it out”?

JT:  Mostly I was exhausted because I got a job working construction during the day, then at night, I was pumping gas at College Esso. I had to buy food, right? And mostly hotdogs. I thought I was done, you know? I didn’t even have enough money to get drunk. [laughs] My girlfriend broke up with me. All my friends were going to classes, and Raleigh was really the only area that I knew. I didn’t have enough money to drive my car back to Garden City [NY}, so I thought that was it for me, that I would be working construction. I didn’t have any skills that would get me a job. I didn’t have a college degree. Eventually, the feeling I had was that I could either stay in that tent and work construction and pump gas for the rest of my life and start chewing tobacco, or I had to get a job somehow. And so, I went into the college radio station. I had a friend who got me in there, and I did a fake demo tape. I took that tape to several stations. One guy felt sorry for me and gave me a job on Sundays. You know, strangely enough, in three weeks, I’m going to be in New York City. They’re inducting me into the Radio Hall of Fame, and the guy that gave me that first job back in 1973, Scott White, is going to be sitting there. I’m going to thank him publicly.

CC:  That’s amazing. Speaking about that, what would you consider your greatest successes?

JT:  Professionally, it would certainly be the Red Rocks show. I was married at the time and working for Entertainment Tonight, but I couldn’t get a record deal. I was recording all this music, and I was sending it to record companies. They were like, “No, this is not for us. No instrumental music, no thank you.” I saw a PBS special on TV that was the Moody Blues at Red Rocks. I saw another one with U2 called Under a Blood Red Sky, also at Red Rocks. I was like, “What is this Red Rocks place?” I thought, you know, “If I’m going to be taken seriously as a musician, I need to do something big like that.” And PBS would not fund it because I didn’t have a history as a musician. So Connie and I took our savings and took a second mortgage on the house, and we produced the show ourselves. And we almost lost everything because it started raining in the middle of the show. But God stopped that after about four songs, and the orchestra came back, and we finished the show. That show has raised about $20 million for Public Television over the years. And my music career, that’s certainly the biggest thing I’ve ever done.

CC:  What about personally? What do you consider your greatest successes?

JT:  Personally would be being educated and learning after 65 years about something called the mind/healing techniques. In May of 2015, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and doctors gave me anywhere between 10 and 18 months to live. Our family, Connie and I mostly, went through the normal channels of surgery. It was prostate cancer, but it was undetectable prostate cancer. It was the weirdest thing. We went through the usual channels of surgery and chemo and all kinds of really horrible treatments. It left me with barely a body, and it kept coming back. About a year ago, Connie and I had gone through this training of using visualization, manifestation, and certain scriptures in the Bible, and renewing our minds and getting together and using prayer to manifest my healing and the end of sickness in our family. It was a supernatural healing that can happen for anybody, but there’s a path that you have to follow for it.

CC:  Active healing on your part. You discuss that in your concerts. I was looking at a lot of the videos, testimonials of folks who had been at your concerts and so on. They were saying how inspirational it was that you had overcome such an illness.

JT:  You know, testimony is a powerful thing. I’ve written it all down. I finished a 90,000-word manuscript, took me two and half years, just last week and handed that in. And the cancer journey is throughout the book. The journey of my life, and a lot of the stuff that you and I are talking about right now, that’s the book, but also there are flashbacks to going through the surgeries and going through the divine healing.

CC:  Well, let me ask you: If you hadn’t become a musician, composer, radio host, all the things that you do, what career do you think you have wound up in?

JT:  There never was a chance that I was going to be anything but what I became. If you were to look at me as a kid, I was always putting on shows for the other kids. I was always recording stuff. I was always making music. As a kid in bed at night, I literally was visualizing me playing on stage with an orchestra. That visualization was so strong, it would have chased me down. Maybe I would have fought it until I was 70, 75 years old, but it would eventually have chased me down. I have to be a disciplined person. I’m in the gym at 5:00 a.m. every morning, standing outside waiting for it to open. And in my ear are readings about healing and manifestations, you know, out of Scriptures. And so, there’s so much more to do, but it was never a question that it was going to be anything but this.

JT:  There were some detours. I think that time in the tent, right, where all was lost, everything, done … I’m able to look back at that and connect the dots, right. [Especially when you write a book] you go through everything and you connect the dots. When I was in the tent and then I’m anchoring the news as a 23-year-old in New York City, that always seemed like a 10-year time period for me. But when I went back and started writing it, I’m like, “Wait a second. That was less than three years.” I just said yes to a lot of stuff, you know? And jumped out of the airplane without a parachute. And then you just outwork everybody. It’s the only way. I’m a very average person. You can look at my SAT scores. Very, very average. But I will outwork you. I just never stop.

CC:  So in terms of inspiration, it’s your family and God?

JT:  Well, yeah. If you’re able to renew your mind, and you get the message, the Word, the message in the Bible, right?, then everything just falls in place. And I’m not talking about religion. I have a serious problem with what some churches are doing, where they’re weaponizing Christianity. I don’t think Jesus would have done that. He never did. But pursuing the Word of God, that’s the best way to say it. And my wife’s always saying that. We continually pursue the work of God, and that always leads us into righteousness. I’m sorry. I’m probably hitting the Bible a little too hard for you. I apologize.

CC:  Not at all. But I’m wondering… do you read other books besides the Bible? Do you even have time to read books?

JT:  Yeah. I’m actually … I think my wife would tell you I am a voracious reader. I am always reading. I’m in the middle of Phil Knight’s book, it’s called Shoe Dog. It’s the story of him starting Nike. It’s a fascinating book. I just finished my second read of a book by Ryan Holiday, called The Obstacle is the Way, which is a tremendous book, especially for me because there have been obstacles I’ve faced throughout my life. And then one of my favorite books is [Stephen King’s] On Writing. I’ve read it three times now.

CC:  Well, I think I have all the answers to my questions. Gosh, I could probably go on for another half hour at least with you. But I know you’ve got a busy day ahead of you. I so appreciate this. We really look forward to seeing you here in February.

JT:  I really enjoyed it. Thanks again for your time. I appreciate it.

John Tesh performs Songs & Stories from the Grand Piano in Ferguson Hall on Friday, Feb. 28.

Wiggle Room

The Straz Center’s Wee Folk series is designed specifically for the toddler set. Welcome to the room where wiggling is allowed.

You may not know this, but on the ground floor behind Morsani Hall, we have a large, tall rehearsal room that regularly sees Opera Tampa rehearsals, ballet classes, chamber music practices and the occasional special event.

Children enjoying a show in our Wee Folk Series.

However, three times a year we roll out a cart filled with multi-colored foam squares and interlock those bad boys on the floor of the rehearsal hall for one of our favorite audiences: toddlers.

If you or anyone you know has ever tried to perform for kids—especially tiny tots designed to meltdown easily and go into wild mode with a little bit of sensory overload—then you know it’s a tough gig in show biz. Getting a fun, smart, successful act together for two-to-four-year-olds requires a special skill set, a special personality and a special sense of humor.

Fortunately, we have some great local performers who do an excellent job with this age group, so we book them for our youngest theater-goers. The Wee Folk series features clowning, storytelling and song in a way that little ones love. Plus, we set up the whole environment in the rehearsal hall specifically for performing arts patrons who love to get up and run around, make crazy noises and are relatively new to the whole life-on-earth business. Toddlers get to be toddlers, and parents get a super-affordable live performing arts experience for their kids without the weird social pressure for their kids to behave like adults in public. It’s a win-win.

Lippo The Clown

“The Wee Folk series is as much for the parents as it is for the kids,” says Joel Lisi, who programmed the Wee Folk series for several years, now serves as the Straz Center’s senior programming manager and is the proud parent of a seven-year-old. “We know parents want to bring their children to live theater, but this age isn’t meant to sit still in a dark theater and be quiet. So, we created this three-performance series and designed it with toddlers and parents-of-toddlers in mind. It’s a safe space, you don’t have to be embarrassed if your kid gets up and runs. Or shouts. Or screams. There are other toddlers there, so parents are free to not worry and let the kids be kids.”

This Saturday, we have the second Wee Folk show of the season, Lippo the Clown’s One-Man Family Circus.  “Lippo’s got a certain classic art,” Lisi says. “He’s not creepy, let’s put it that way. He comes from a classic vaudevillian sensibility that shows the beauty of clownship, as it were. He’s a real character that the kids just gravitate to, and he’s great. We’ve also had his other show, The Franzini Family Science Circus here, so we appreciate his philosophy of teaching children while entertaining them on their level. He’s just a class act.”

Katie Adams, Animal Safari Stories

Another Wee Folk hero, storyteller Katie Adams, wraps up the series in May with one of her best-loved programs, Animal Safari Stories.

“All these performers are specialized,” says Lisi. “They don’t get shook because the audience might get a little unruly. Their shows are interactive, short and they know the tricks of the trade for managing an audience of toddlers. It’s really a fun experience for everyone.”

Silly Sam The Music Man

To get your seat on the foam floor, visit strazcenter.org. Our other Family Fun series, Kid Time, is for ages five to eight and graduates kids to Ferguson Hall. If that’s of interest, check it out here.

Arts Legacy REMIX

What started as a conversation about celebrating the Tampa area’s rich artistic heritage turned into a free concert series drawing unexpectedly large crowds. The Straz Center’s Arts Legacy REMIX was a long time in the making and looks like it’s here to stay.

After a brutal warrior’s stint in Vietnam that gave him an ultimatum to become brutal himself or take a higher calling, Fred Johnson chose love.

A longtime jazz musician who’d played with Aretha Franklin and Lionel Hampton and opened for Miles Davis, Fred immersed himself in studying Sufi wisdom and musical-spiritual cultures around the world. He wove this knowledge into his streetwise philosophy of caring for the neighborhood through the sharing of talents.

Fred Johnson

Fred eventually left The Straz to take this philosophy on the road, traveling around the world working with artists and community organizations to find paths of common ground and opportunities to teach. “I always kept in touch with The Straz and felt connected to the work here. I always felt, on some level, no matter where I was, I was an ambassador for Tampa. My journey out into the world was an extension of the work we did here, looking into how profoundly arts and artists can serve as catalysts for real transcendence and transformation,” he says.

Judy and Fred reconnected in 2016 at a Creative Forces forum, an organization dedicated to exploring ways the arts help veterans with PTSD and effects of traumatic brain injury.

“Our conversations were about the fact that society as a whole sees the therapeutic benefits of the arts from re-attaining wholeness with veterans to the growing need to find common ground among people,” Fred says. “We had started that notion with the Community Arts Ensemble, and we are living in times very receptive to this idea now.”

“We wanted to amplify that commitment and make real ways for the public to have greater access to The Straz. That’s what Arts Legacy was born from.”

Fred returned in 2017 to spearhead the Arts Legacy initiative which built on the philosophical foundations of art’s profoundly transformative role in the human experience.

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

“Arts Legacy is about celebrating our community’s cultural impact,” says Straz Center President and CEO Judy Lisi. “Our community artists belong here, creating and having a place to be seen and appreciated. It’s very important that, as a community arts center, we represent the powerful sectors of culture right here. Fred took that notion and brought it to life; he’s always been great at working withdifferent members of the community to communicate and realize our commitment to all.”

Fred assembled a team of diverse community members to give input on what this Arts Legacy initiative would be. “The Straz has a responsibility to be an active community member, to have a voice at the table when decisions are being made that affect people.”

”Our legacy is redefining the role of art — that understanding art and creativity are the foundations to manifest change, to make the world a better place,” says Fred. Through a network of community members, the Arts Legacy team built a series of performances highlighting certain cultures that themselves are foundations to the Tampa Bay area.

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

In essence, they got to the work of building bridges.

They got to the business of calling out to the heart and soul.

People answered.

The team took suggestions, made contacts, networked, organized and, in the end, produced six free concerts on the Riverwalk, drawing crowds of up to 500 people. They needed a name for the series and the Straz Center marketing team came up with Arts Legacy REMIX. “It’s hip, it’s inclusive,” says Fred, “and the success of Arts Legacy REMIX events was the outgrowth of reaching into the community and saying ‘hey, not only do we have one of the finest institutions in the world to present art, we also have this amazingly culturally and ethnically rich community that we can learn about from each other.’”

Last year, Arts Legacy REMIX hosted song, dance and drum performances around Hispanic heritage, Indian Diwali, Dr. King, Asian culture and global storytelling. Arts Legacy REMIX also hosted the Black Artists Film Series in the TECO Theater.

“It’s been really great just to see how excited people are about these performances and how much they look forward to it,” Fred says. “People are having an expanded relationship with The Straz and realizing how much we want to celebrate the arts and artistic traditions we have around us. It’s exciting to know we’re becoming more a part of people’s everyday lives by creating more opportunities for them to be on our grounds.”

FOTOSET BY JAMES LUEDDE

“We’re open to suggestions and ideas. We have the line-up for the 2019-2020 season and six more performances, but we are excited to engage as many members of the community as we possibly can,” Fred says. “Now more than ever, the artist is really important in putting a different kind of stamp on the human experience. We welcome community theater companies, community organizations — any folk out there who love what we’re doing and who want to support what we do; they can email communityprograms@strazcenter.org

The next Arts Legacy REMIX performance will be an MLK Commemoration: Power of Storytelling on Jan 17.  performances take place on the Riverwalk Stage, free of charge.

People Get Ready

Club Jaeb artist Kyshona Armstrong talks about the music that made her and her journey from a music therapist into a singer-songwriter in this exclusive interview.

Caught in the Act caught up with folk musician Kyshona Armstrong while she was on the road to Missouri for a gig. She appears next Monday, Dec. 16 as our featured Club Jaeb artist for December.

Caught in the Act: Let’s talk about the South. Tell us a little bit about where you grew up and your life there.

Kyshona Armstrong: I grew up in a town called Irmo, South Carolina, and it’s right outside of Columbia. We used to run around in the woods. We spent a lot of time in the house or playing out in the yard or whatnot. My grandpa played guitar and sang in a gospel quartet, and my dad is the same. In the house, my dad was always practicing, so we would hear him playing old gospel songs on his electric or playing “People Get Ready.” [sings] People get ready, for the train’s coming. [laughs] He was always playing that or the solo from Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Those were his go-to songs. Anytime I hear them, my brother and I are like, we think of Daddy.

When I was young, Mama put me in piano, and that was my escape. I loved telling stories through the music alone. I loved creating a soundtrack to whatever was going on in my mind. Whatever Beethoven or Mozart song, I always had a movie in my head when I was practicing and playing. That’s how I always wanted to emote.

I feel like singing wasn’t something that I grew up doing, though. I preferred getting an emotion across just through my hands. Even when I was playing the oboe, I wanted to tell a story through the music alone. I wasn’t wanting to use my voice. When I went off to college and studied music therapy, music became this ‘oh, we can create in the moment. I don’t have these notes right in front of me that are telling me what to play and what dynamic to play it and what speed to play it, but I’m able to create in the moment with my patients and with my other therapists or with my classmates.’

It got back to what I experienced with my grandfather, with my dad, of creating in the moment with others and creating an environment with the music.

CITA: Was there any particular reason why you didn’t think about singing as a part of who you were as a musician? Did you not want to speak? Did you feel like you didn’t really have anything to say?

KA: I definitely was a very shy kid, very much an introvert. I did not want to be the center of attention. I never want anybody looking at me. I didn’t want focus on me at all. Please ignore the fact that I’m in the room. [laughs].

But I didn’t really have anything to say, either. What I’ve always prided myself on, though, even when I was shy and the ultimate introvert, was the ability to convey an emotion through song. I wanted to give people the experience of going on a musical journey. I wanted to play Fur Elise by Beethoven completely different than anybody else did because I wanted the listener to have a different experience. I’ve always connected to wanting to give people a different emotional response.

But as far as me using my actual voice to do that, though … I didn’t find my voice until I was having to use it for my patients, and it was just my patients saying, ‘your voice is very soothing, your voice is very calming.’

When someone is telling you that, and they’re a person in a hospital bed, then that’s how I’m going to use my voice from then on. If someone has said ‘your voice comforts me,’ I’ll use it again in a comforting way. Slowly, I started to own the voice that was coming out.

My voice has changed for sure over the years from a quiet, comforting voice to one that is gritty. I growl a lot more. I yell a lot more, but I think that’s also because I’ve walked through the world a little bit more and I’ve seen so much more.

CITA:  Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into musical therapy as a job?

KY: I went to the University of Georgia. It was one of the oldest music therapy programs. Because I had so many years under my belt as a pianist and as an oboe player, I knew that if I was going to go to college and needed scholarships, music had to be the way to do it. I was also very fascinated with psychology. My junior year in high school, I met this guy at the cotillion for my church, and I was just talking about, yeah, I need to do music and I’m in the marching band so I know I’m going to have to major in music somehow.

He was like, well you know, there is this profession called music therapy. I leaped on it and started doing research, and I found the American Music Therapy Association organization’s website. There was a music therapist in Columbia who worked at Baptist Medical, and I shadowed her. I followed her around for my junior year class project, and at that point I was like, ‘I think I know what I want to do.’ It sounded awesome—to combine music with psychology and the ability to help people through music.

CITA:  Then you ended up working in some really hardcore situations, in prisons and with people who had mental illnesses. You went straight into what you’ve referenced before as “really heavy circumstances.” Did you feel called to be there? At any point were you aware that you were gathering materials as an artist, or did the work feel more like spiritual healing?

KA:  I definitely was not aware of gathering any kind of materials. I think it was more self-centered than that.

For me, if somebody says, ‘this is a population that is hard and it might be difficult for you, we don’t know if you can handle it,’ then I’m always like, ‘cool.’ That’s what I want to do.

My senior year, we ended up doing some clinical work in the jail that was a couple counties away. I loved the challenge, and the patients challenged me all the time. They kept me engaged. It started off like ‘I dare you to tell me I can’t work with this population because you think I’m too quiet and I’m too sweet and I’m too nice. That’s not who I am.’ After a while, I found out that I actually had the tools and the patience and the desire to go where a lot of people don’t want to go. I enjoy going into places that are difficult for me. I enjoy going into dark spaces with others. I like being stumped. I like sometimes not having the answer.

But, I also found that what I liked about going into those into the hard places was just the fact that not everybody had a positive voice for my patients. Not everybody was seeing them in a positive light.

I found I was able to truly be an advocate for those people who the medical team might have given up on. My work as a musical therapist helped me realize I have the heart and the tools to show up and speak for these people.

CITA: We’re super intrigued by what you just said about being an advocate. We’ve been thinking about your evolution as an artist. In your other interviews and in your Ted Talk, you speak about finding your voice as something that must be an advocate for all people. Is that an evolution that you felt consciously, that your voice needed to be an advocate for healing in these troubled times?

KA:  It was an evolution for sure. What made me pull back from music therapy was the fact that I realized I was getting walls thrown up in front of me when all I was trying to do was good.

The more I spoke up for the kids, the more heat I got from the team. What I realized was, the moment I stepped away from the institution of it all, from the rules and the hierarchy, I could do more work by coming in from the outside. It’s almost like I have more credibility, too. I feel like I can reach people on a deeper level because I’m not confined by any kind of position. I’m not worried about my job at this point. Now, my job is to come in and be a voice. That’s it.

CITA: Who are your big musical influences?

KA:  I’m all over the place. As far as what they stood for and their mission with their music … Definitely a major fan of Nina Simone. Also Sam Cook. I’m listening to Hozier right now because he’s doing the same thing. His music has a meaning and there’s a purpose behind it. He’s trying to create change through it, but sonically it feels so good.

I love that Nina [Simone], her whole thing was that it is the point of the artist to be a reflection of what is happening in this country. That is a responsibility on the songwriter, on the artist to tell the story, of what is really happening in the world. I feel like she’s been definitely an influence of how I walk through the world with this new hat that I wear.

CITA: When we were watching your “Same Blood” video, we wondered if you had any inspiration from Nina Simone. It seems like what she was doing at the time she was visible is very similar to the times that we’re in right now and what you are doing. We’re in a social moment we’re we can no longer assume people are going to have a rational response. Because of that, we’re seeing the kinds of public social violence Nina confronted. Do you feel that too?

KA: Absolutely. Also, from the videos that I’ve seen and interviews that I’ve have heard of hers, her audience was also very similar to mine. It was mainly a white audience, and so she was a reflection of what else was happening, the other side. That’s something that I have to think about every time. Oftentimes, I show up to performing rooms, and I’m the only one who looks like me. Therefore, I try to make sure that I get it right, or as right as possible, and I speak truth.

I don’t have the comfort to just pull up in a gas station, especially if I’m in middle Georgia or South Carolina. I can’t just pull up anywhere. Oftentimes, I’ll pull up to a gas station and be like, ‘oh no, this isn’t a safe spot.’

But people think, oh, you’re a songwriter, you’re out on the road, that must be magical. Yeah, and a little dangerous at times.

I have to really think about where I am and where I’m going to rest my head. That’s not a reality people think about when it comes to what it must be like being a songwriter and storyteller. Some people see it as this awesome experience, but I’m also seeing real America, and not only am I experiencing those moments of ‘is this a safe place for me and a safe space? Can I say what is on my heart and what I’ve experienced?’

We’re currently right now driving from Nebraska. We were in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas, and that experience … I got to see a different part of America that not many get to see. These are the people who are feeding America. You know what I mean? Their wants and needs are different, their desire is different, and I’m playing in rooms where there was no one there that looks like me. These are towns of 200 and 300 people. I’m a representation of a people, another way of living in a region that they don’t know. But the thing that I’d like to get across to them, too, my storytelling, I always start off by talking about my family and where I come from, because that’s something that many of us have in common—we have roots. We have people who fed into us. We have someone who inspired us, either from traditional or nontraditional families.

That’s something in common. I might look different than you, but somebody raised me and instilled me with qualities and with a purpose and with morals. That’s where I start, and by the time I get to the end of the show, we’re talking about how we’re walking through the world and how are we seeing one another. Are we being truthful with one another and kind with one another? I’m telling the stories of everyone that I’ve met that is incarcerated, that is dealing with mental illness, that is walking around quote unquote free in this world, but in their own prisons because of the wounds they’re carrying and the trauma they’re walking around with.

Yeah. In that way I find I have to always look back at the work that people like Nina Simone and Mavis Staples have done in just telling the stories and singing the songs and keeping the thread going. That’s the only way to bridge the gap between all the regions and all the different ways that we live, not only in this country, but in the world.

CITA:  It’s a hard walk to be true, so we’re glad you’re doing it. How do you let off steam? How do you care for Kyshona?

KA: [laughs] That’s a very good question. I just got a membership at Massage Envy.

CITA: Good idea because Massage Envy is everywhere.

KA: But this is something I’m trying to work on because I’m in a season where I’m working really hard. I’m gone a lot. I’m fortunate for it, I’m grateful for it, but the same thing that happened to me when I was a music therapist has happened. I stopped taking care of myself. I’m feeling again a little run down and a little heavy. I’m trying to just take little moments of joy. When I go home, I shut down. I might turn on some trash television. My new thing has been Schitt’s Creek, catching up on what I’ve missed over the years and just trying to find a way to zone out and maybe not think about anything. A couple of weeks ago I tried to really stand in the privileges that I have, and I went on a because-we-can trip to Barcelona for four days.

CITA: Did you love it?

KA: I did. We had no plans, other than to walk around and eat food and drink wine.

CITA: Well, what other plans do you need in Barcelona?

KA: [laughs] Right? That’s the other thing that music has done for me is pulled me into different countries, which I never thought I would be able to do as a child, or even as a young adult. I never thought I would get to travel the way I have because I have a guitar and stories and songs to share. It was great to travel to Barcelona and experience a whole other culture and a whole other way that people live, to have no job other than receive, right?

CITA: We’re pumped that you’re bringing your music to Tampa. Is this your first time to this part of Florida?

KA: No. I’m actually down there often. The first thing that brought me to the Tampa area was a songwriters’ festival that I did in Safety Harbor, Florida.

CITA:  Oh wow! Yeah, that’s right up the road.

KA: Yeah, I’m always in 30A for this 30A Songwriters’ Festival. and I’ll just keep on coming south. I was just in the area a few months ago to play at Fogertyville.

I’m playing house concerts, which are nice, intimate songwriting series that are in these communities people just built up, and they’ve created a really cool network in Florida, especially around the Tampa, Clearwater, Safety Harbor Area. Florida has surprised me by their love of the singer-songwriter and their love of storytelling

CITA: Well, we’ll be glad to see you here soon.

KA: See you soon!

Learn more about Kyshona Armstrong when she appears live and in person at Club Jaeb next Monday night, Dec. 16.

Past, Present & Future

The 2019 D’Angelo Young Artist Vocal Competition honors Opera Tampa’s dedication to nurturing new artists. On a more personal note, the competition represents Opera Tampa League Board Chair Gina d’Angelo’s commitment to continuing her parents’ love of music through philanthropic support.

Dr. George and Mary D’Angelo

When Straz Center donor and Opera Tampa League chairperson Gina d’Angelo was in college, a fortunate series of events led to her parents hosting a dinner party for Luciano Pavarotti at their home in the hamlet of Erie, Penn. Tasked with pressing the wrinkles from the famed tenor’s tux, Gina and her sister Joanne set to their chore with giddy delight. Joanne, an actress, knew a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a costume when she saw it.

She pulled on Pavarotti’s tux, brandished its white handkerchief, then launched into her best impression, small white flag a-wave, as though she stood on the stage at La Scala.

Pavarotti and Gina at a D’Angelo dinner in Erie, Penn.

As charismatic and larger-than-life as Pavarotti was, it wasn’t the two D’Angelo daughters who were most enamored with the Italian singer — that was George D’Angelo, the girls’ father, who happened to be Erie’s homespun impresario and a devoted fan of fine music and inspired artists. Dr. D’Angelo, a heart surgeon, also presided over the Erie Philharmonic and had befriended Pavarotti’s manager in the hopes of convincing him to get Erie on Pavarotti’s performance calendar. A few years passed until, one day, Dr. D’Angelo received a call.

“Pavarotti’s going to be singing in Cleveland on Friday,” the manager tells him. “If you want him on Sunday, he’s yours.”

That’s how Joanne D’Angelo ended up in Pavarotti’s tux while the rest of the house was in a tizzy getting ready for the post-concert reception for the world’s greatest tenor.

“It’s funny,” Gina remembers, “because when you host an event like that, everybody comes through the front door. My parents were very social, and because they were such lovers of great music and subscribers to The Met, we had quite a few singers at our house in those days. But Pavarotti — he came through the back door, through the kitchen. He started talking to the cooks, tasting the food. He was just a normal guy. A pretty large normal guy.”

George D’Angelo came to his appreciation of the arts through Gina’s mother, Mary. “It all started with my mother,” Gina says. “She was classically trained. She had a beautiful voice. She first got involved with the Erie Philharmonic, eventually convincing my dad to get involved as well. Those initial investments of time grew into so much more.”

Mary D’Angelo with Granddaughters Olivia and Alexa

The D’Angelos ultimately funded the D’Angelo School of Music at Mercyhurst University and the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center. Eventually, they saw the need to take an active role in developing new talent, so the couple conceived of and created the annual D’Angelo Young Artists Competition in Erie, awarding the winners substantial prize money and a performance opportunity.

When George D’Angelo passed away in 2014, Gina felt a profound sense of responsibility to live up to and honor the example her parents had set as contributors to their community. “I thought, if my dad could be a surgeon working 18- hour days and be president of the philharmonic as well as giving to so many other charities, then I can do that, too,” says Gina. She became the chair of the Opera Tampa League in addition to her full-time job and various other obligations, deciding, last year, to revive the D’Angelo Young Artists Competition for Opera Tampa. “I think Dad would be proud of me. I contacted the winners from when we hosted the event in Erie. I asked them, ‘what did winning the competition do for your career? How did it impact your life?’ The responses I got convinced me we needed to bring it back.”

Dr. George D’Angelo with Pavarotti

This season, Opera Tampa celebrates its 25th anniversary — an auspicious milestone for enacting the inaugural D’Angelo Young Artists Vocal Competition. Purely a competition for upcoming singers, this event demonstrates Opera Tampa’s unwavering commitment to finding operatic talent and developing their careers. The winners receive prize money to further their studies and careers and also earn the opportunity to perform in an Opera Tampa production. “For me, bringing back the competition is an extension of what my parents did. Mom and Dad instilled in me that giving back is just what you do. I am trying to live by their example,” says Gina.

The D’Angelo Young Artists Vocal Competition finale takes place on Sunday, Nov. 24, at 4 p.m. in the TECO Theater. Winners will be announced, and prizes awarded. To see these upcoming opera stars, rsvp@strazcenter.org.