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The power of mentorship

For the past three Tuesdays at 1 pm, I’ve been tuning in to the webinar series Breaking Down Racial Barriers presented by CIMA and Advance. Subtitled “A Series of Discussions with Music Professionals from the Black Community on anti-Black Racism in the Canadian Music Entertainment Industry”, I’ve found the sessions wholly engaging – for me they’ve been an excellent way to listen and learn about the work I still need to do – and the work still required by the industry at large – before we can talk about equality in the music business. I’ve especially enjoyed the structure of each discussion: for the day’s given topic, the first half seeks to outline challenges faced by Black music professionals; the second half seeks to outline possible solutions.

One of the concepts which has come up each week, regardless of topic, is mentorship. The idea that we must be working with new generations of music professionals now, so that when opportunities come up – especially at the decision-making levels of organizations – those younger music professionals are ready to take the plunge. It’s all well and good to suggest that the opportunities are there for the taking; if we don’t actively help to prepare the next generation for those opportunities, we won’t see any change to the structures and systemic failures that act as barriers, especially to people of colour.

The week before last, the world lost a powerful musician, writer, producer, advocate, and mentor, with the passing of Salome Bey. Salome, know as Canada’s “First Lady of the Blues”, was a Grammy, Dora Mavor Moore and Obie Award winner; a Member of the Order of Canada; and, to quote local drummer JoJo Bowden, the “second Mom” to many. Whether she was helping to launch the career of young artists as she did in part with her children’s production “Rainboworld”, hiring younger musicians to join her on tour, taking new generations of performers under her wing, or advocating on behalf of the Black community, Salome helped to shape the musical and social landscape in Toronto. In outlining why Salome’s family is inviting donations in her memory to Freedomschool – Toronto, her daughter Tuku said, in part: “Salome believed in fiercely mothering the creative identities of young people by encouraging deep self-knowledge and self-awareness through artistic mentorship. Salome was committed to the preservation of black artistic legacy and extended that practice by centering the creative brilliance of young people in her mentorship work.”

Before jazz performance and, frankly, most aspects of the music industry were formally taught at post-secondary schools, mentorship was vital to gaining experience and advancing. One can only learn so much in the practice room – once on the bandstand (or in the studio or on the marketing team), the opportunity to learn from your peers and, especially, your superiors, is irreplaceable. The most storied example in jazz is perhaps Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers: over the 40-plus years of the ensemble, more than 150 musicians – the biggest names in jazz – passed through the group, learning not only how to be better players, but also how to be better performers, and better people. He sought out the outstanding younger players, then pushed them to find their own path when he felt they were ready.

Here in Toronto, Archie Alleyne played a similar role. An internationally acclaimed drummer, Archie made it a priority, with Kollage, to seek out new generations of exciting local jazz musicians, putting them front and centre. His legacy now carries on with the Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund, which continues to provide financial bursaries to emerging musicians seeking to further their music education. Trumpeter Alexander Brown was a member of Kollage; when I recently asked him why he works with musicians both his age and of older generations, he said, “This is my classroom; these are my teachers.”

And, as I’ve read the tributes to Ron Gaskin, who passed away earlier this week, I’m realizing that in his own quiet way, Ron served as a mentor for many. Whether it was making musical introductions, on or off stage, or reaching out unexpectedly to make new connections, Ron helped to foster a vibrant creative music scene in Toronto. I have fond memories, early in my work here at the Festival, of spending an afternoon, over coffee, in the backyard of the house in which Ron was living at the time, chatting about whatever came to mind. We barely knew each other – and we didn’t get to know each other well – but when I reached out, he was more than happy to respond, to lend an ear, to be available. I continue to be grateful to the many who have been, or continue to be, my mentors.

Mentorship can take many forms, and mean different things to different people. But while the musical – and educational – landscape has changed drastically since the early days of Art Blakey, sharing one’s skills and knowledge with younger generations remains a vital component of the music ecosystem. And, as discussed in the weekly Breaking Down Racial Barriers sessions (which continue through September – register at bdrb.ca), it can play an important role in working towards greater equality in our industry.

How has mentorship effected your career development?

Josh

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