“I came to college with a basketball in my hand and left with a piano on my shoulder,” said CWCMC alum Randiss Hopkins.
The Chicago West Community Music Center in the Austin community on the West Side is doing phenomenal work with young people in the area of music. The Center has been around for 20 years and is run by Howard and Darlene Sandifer. CWCMC has truly taken the mission of exposing children to the arts and other cultures full throttle, after the Chicago Public School System removed music and arts programs from regular instruction decades ago.
“When music and arts were taken out of the Chicago Public Schools in 1979 due to budgetary cuts, we felt we had to do something to help make up for the deficiency of music classes particularly in our West Side schools,” said CWCMC Executive Director Howard Sandifer. ”We decided to work with schools, community centers and churches to provide high quality instruction in music. We started with general music classes and group guitar classes being implemented into select school curriculums as well as classes being taught before and after school hours [at the Center].”
This appreciation for the effect of arts on a young child’s life has followed program participants past the West Side, to places across the city and as far away as China—essentially changing lives, families and communities through music.
To celebrate these accomplishments, award scholarships and to showcase the varied talents of students in many artistic disciplines, on a recent Saturday evening within the illustrious confines of the Palmer House’s Empire Room, CWCMC honored West Side native and esteemed filmmaker, actor and producer Robert Townsend, along with world renowned Maestro Riccardo Muti of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Veteran Chicago broadcast personality Merri Dee served as the emcee.
Townsend is best known for directing the films “Eddie Murphy Raw” and for starring, directing and co-writing the 1991 classic film “The Five Heartbeats.” He directed the 1987 “Hollywood Shuffle” on a shoestring budget and maxed out his personal credit cards. The film centered around an aspiring actor and hot dog stand employee Bobby Taylor, played by Townsend, who is cast in an exploitative film and goes on to have a series of conflicted dreams satirizing African-American stereotypes in Hollywood. Townsend also is behind the first Black superhero film, the 1993 sci-fi comedy “Meteor Man.”
According to the International Movie Data Base (IMDB), Townsend has had 42 actor credits, 39 director credits and 17 writer credits since 1987, as well as played the father on 77 episodes of “The Parenthood.”
Howard Sandifer said that Townsend had not forgotten from whence he came. “We wanted to celebrate and honor him for his accomplishments in the film industry and his commitment to help improve conditions in his old neighborhood on the West Side.”
Muti is the Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and has dedicated much time and effort in training young musicians with the Luigi Cherubini Youth Orchestra, the Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy for young conductors and supporting the CSO’s African-American Network. The Network has collaborated with CWCMC to provide more opportunities in music education to West Side communities.
Muti, born in Naples, Italy, is one of the preeminent conductors of our day. In 2010, when he became the tenth music director of the CSO, he already had more than 40 years of experience at the helm of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Philharmonia Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Teatro alla Scala. He is a guest conductor for orchestras and opera houses all over the world: the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and many others.
During the Gala, Muti complimented a young, Black female classical singer named JesSalle Jakes telling her that he “heard an Italian vibe” in her delivery. After several performances by members of CWCMC, which included a Jazz piece by the orchestra and a song by student Charles Brown, Muti also said that he was impressed with what he had heard and the work of the Center. “They played with heart, emotion and commitment. You have to enjoy making music. It’s a mission and not only a profession. He stated that, “You can’t make music without a love for people and mankind.”
Brown is a student who found purpose at CWCMC, telling guests via a video that he hardly ever ventured outside of his West Side home, fearing that a stray bullet would end his life. “Now, I have found a voice through music.”
An alum of the program, Randiss Hopkins, earned a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music’s five-week Summer Performance Program that took place in Boston in 2009. He also attended Northern Illinois University and studied Jazz piano, and relished his time at CWCMC. “I came to college with a basketball in my hand and left with a piano on my shoulder,” he said via video.
Townsend, who grew up in Chicago’s “K” town, said that one of his principals once called him a “hustler of hope.” He shared how he latched onto the world of Shakespeare in the fifth grade and always watched television. He went on to impersonate Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart and actors from French films. He was told that he was going to be somebody, and he didn’t take that support lightly. “Say no to gangs, drugs. What do you say ‘yes’ to?” He applauded the support for the fundraiser and the students when they need it most, saying that he and they had much in common. “They [the students] are me, and I am them. The playing field isn’t level, and we need to all work together.”
Maestro Muti was so impressed with the students that he promised to lead a workshop at CWCMC in the fall, which was sweet music to the Center’s ears. “It is a huge honor,” Sandifer said. “To have the best classical music conductor in the world visiting our institution and bringing with him musicians from arguably the best symphony orchestra in the world to play for and work with our community and students is a unique opportunity that we welcome.”
For more information about the Chicago West Community Music Center, or to make a donation to support its programs, visit https://www.cwcmc.org/.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.” For book info, [email protected].