Anthony “Tony” White: Beyond the Band

A New Year’s Day tradition since 1891, the Tournament of Roses Parade has only been cancelled four times in its history: for three years during World War II, and in 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic. This year, when the parade begins once more at the corner of Green Street and Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena, Anthony “Tony” White will be there, leading the LAUSD All District Honor Marching Band, as he has previously done for 36 years. 

“I marched in [the Rose Parade] when I was 18 years old, and I’m still doing it,” says White, who serves as Administrative Coordinator for the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) branch of Beyond the Bell, leading music and entertainment education.

White, who plays saxophone, clarinet, and flute, has performed and recorded with numerous Los Angeles jazz legends, including Gerald Wilson, Billy Mitchell, John Stephens, Bill Green, Dr. Art Davis, John Ehlis, Jose Arellano, Al Viola, and Bobby Rodriguez. White has also been a member of the LA Mambo Combo, and East Los Angeles Sax Quartet. 

Anthony “Tony” White (shown here in 2014) is a regular performer – along with the students he leads in LAUSD’s All City Jazz Band – at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Anthony “Tony” White

As a high school band director with LAUSD, White has provided his students with memorable experiences in their musical education and in their lives, including taking LAUSD students to perform at the White House in 2009, during a day of jazz workshops presented by then-First Lady Michelle Obama. White’s students, who were among 100 from across the nation, performed with and were taught by Wynton Marsalis, his brothers Delfeayo, Jason and Branford Marsalis, and their father, Ellis Marsalis.

In addition, White’s students in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz performed at The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in 2011. The All City Jazz Band is a regular feature at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, and in June of 2022, the band will return to the Hollywood Bowl for its eponymous jazz festival, formerly known as the Playboy Jazz Festival. Other groups of students led by White have performed at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Disneyland, Pasadena City College and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade in Los Angeles.

In 2003, White released his first CD, The Tony White Project, with his jazz saxophone stylings accompanied by Minority Report and produced by jazz impresario Billy Mitchell. In 2019, the EP, “Trio EWM” was released, featuring White with percussionist Ray McNamara and guitarist John Ehlis. White was honored by the Los Angeles Jazz Society, of which he is an active member, in 2019 with its Jazz Educator Award. He also serves on the board of the Friends of Jazz at UCLA.

MLS recently spoke with White on his return to the Rose Parade with not only his students, but his son, a budding jazz drummer; the effects of the pandemic on music education; and the need for musicians to be – to paraphrase the title of a Buddy Collette album – a man or woman of many parts. 

I can only imagine what it must be like to be a 16-year-old in a high school band, having the opportunity to play at the Rose Parade.

Well, that’s the whole idea about designing these all-district groups. When we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, we bring together students from communities that they would otherwise not associate with, for a common cause to perform on these world-class stages like the Hollywood Bowl [or at] the Rose Parade.

Omnicron notwithstanding…

I didn’t want to say the O-word, but yes. The great thing is that the Rose Parade is not deviating [from the plan], and that’s causing us to push and keep our kids focused. It’s easy for people to say no and not do things [during the pandemic], but when you have other things that are pulling, it helps to move the situation in a great direction.

Not to make this all about COVID, but in the wake of learning loss and inequities in technology and resources at home, how has music education in LAUSD been affected? 

That was a challenge. My role in LAUSD is as an administrator… becomes all assignments as needed. I’m an educator at every level, whether that means being a teacher, an aide, or an administrator. It’s being able to help make our schools and educational process better. But at the same time, COVID really knocked everybody on the axis. 

It became really challenging for students as well as teachers, going to a new medium and really trying to connect. Playing via Zoom was not ideal, but it was a way to help with some engagement. And that’s where we realized the most important part of what was happening for everybody is the human connection. It’s like the saying that you never know what you have until you don’t have it anymore. [The loss of] being able to be around people and play an instrument every day, teachers being able to have a class to explain and perform – it was a challenge that none of us could predict. 

And although we made the best of it – and I say we, meaning all my colleagues – it kind of put the focus back on the individual. We get so caught up teaching to the masses that we forget the individuals. Say you have a band of 20, with the saxophone section, the trumpet section, and the trombone section. And they play their sections okay, but now [teachers] have to isolate one person or two people and hear their parts. That opened up a new challenge and a new way for teachers to look at how we can assist the individuals. 

How do you keep your students engaged during this challenging time?

That is still the test of time and a test of getting everybody refocused. We always say that we are as strong as our weakest link. So now, we look at how we pull together for the people who need support so we can help lift them up, [to create] a system of equity and dedication and pride.

Obviously last year with COVID, there were things we couldn’t do because of the situation. But our retention rate is pretty good. We had to deal with other perimeters too – making sure they’re academically eligible and that they’re in good standing with their home school programs, etc. 

An important part that we were looking at that obviously plays into a district as large as we are – second largest in the nation – is the living conditions of some of our students. Multiple families living in single family dwellings, having the privacy issues, [not] having your own space. In my home, I have two kids and my wife. Our home is big enough that you can go into a corner and kind of not disturb each other, except for when I’m playing the saxophone and my son is playing the drums. 

But that’s not the norm, and especially as we know now in L.A., with the homeless situation,  and understanding that when we tell a kid to go home and practice, we assume that they have a place to practice. [For many students], the school is that place for them to have that practice. That was the challenge. Our district did yeoman’s duty in trying to equalize the playing field, negotiating with the technology companies for broadband [to help] people who couldn’t afford it to have free access. The challenges are real. But the thing that came out of it was, “This is where we are, this is what we have to do.”

Do you have a number of homeless students in the program?

I don’t have those demographics. In our program, we always encourage our students to be as open with us and communicate with us as much as possible so that we can assist them. But we try not to pry, and we don’t want them to feel inferior if they don’t have what the person next to them has.

And then you throw in all the other situations that we’re dealing with – gender identity, economic situations. If you go down that rabbit hole, then you find yourself asking, “Why am I even teaching?” It becomes that balance where you are aware of what’s going on but you need to think, “How do I move this forward in a positive direction?” If a kid comes to our programs, how do we help them to become better? That’s where I think it becomes difficult for everyone when you look at the economic challenges and the challenges of society. 

In this 2018 photo, Tony White leads the LAUSD All District Marching Band in a performance at Pasadena Community College.
Courtesy of Anthony “Tony” White

What got you started in music as a young student?

I’m a product of public school music education. I started playing clarinet when I was in middle school. The irony about that is when I went to elementary school and asked to be in the band, they said no because I didn’t qualify, whatever it was. And I’ll never forget that. One of the things that I always make a point of is never telling a kid no – we may not be able to do it right then, but we’ll always figure out how we can assist them, if there is something they want to pursue artistically.

I got to middle school and was in beginning band class, playing the clarinet. My teacher Fran Herman just had her birthday this week and I called her and played “Happy Birthday” for her on the saxophone. That’s how pivotal she was for me. It was through [her] that my eyes were opened to music, and I started playing the saxophone. 

She left the middle school and I maintained contact with her, and she served as a mentor. I eventually transferred to Narbonne High School where she was teaching, because it was the human connection, the human bonding. It was in my last year of high school that the opportunity to audition for the All District Band came up. It was an all brass and percussion band, so I had to learn how to play the cymbals and audition, which was scary.

Somehow, I got through the audition and played in the band. To show you how full circle this is, the first time that I heard the band was at Franklin High School. We were there [rehearsing] and the band played, and it was a vibration like no other. I remember it was a rainy day and we had to go inside and the band, being about 200-plus [members]… all of a sudden, you heard the sound of them playing. You talk about something that sends electrifying waves through your body… that was it. I will never forget that – it brought something alive in me.

What led you to become a music educator?

I’m the first one in my immediate family to go to college, the oldest of ten kids. Those kinds of blueprints weren’t out there. I ended up going to UC Riverside and was going to be a business major. During that time, I volunteered my services every Saturday in the fall and during my two-week vacation at the holidays, with the band. I didn’t realize I was interning.

I did it the first year – I don’t think the staff knew me from anybody. I just showed up every week and listened and tried to fill in and make things happen on different levels. Then I started getting more responsibility, becoming the music librarian, working with the drum majors and the brass section – you name it. All of a sudden, [I decided] to become a music educator. The rest is history.

I didn’t realize that the leaders of the All-District Band were some of the top administrators here in L.A.Unified School District. When I was ready for a job, I interviewed at several places, ended up going to John C. Fremont High School as a music teacher. That’s where the magic really started happening. 

I was my own and had to develop a [music] program from nothing. There were some kids there who held instruments, but as far as the depth [of a program], that had to be created. The first year of band was 12 kids and the second year [had] 70. I did a lot of recruiting – I was [like] “The Music Man” – recruiting and getting kids involved and getting them to play instruments and to perform. 

Then the band just took off. We had over a 100-piece band. We developed a pretty successful jazz program on top of the marching band and the concert band, and that’s when artists like Buddy Collette and Bobby Rodriguez and people like that helped to cultivate and build a [music] culture at the school site. 

I was there ten years as a music teacher and got my master’s in public school administration during that time. I still was playing too, as much as I could. Hanging out with Buddy Collette during that time, [he told me], “Hey, you should be playing more.” So, I started really working on developing myself as a player. I started getting calls from people like Gerald Wilson and playing in his big band and in other ensembles. 

That was a dream come true. The Gerald Wilson Big Band played at Drew Middle School, where I attended school, and I remember hearing the greats: Harold Land, and Snooky YoungCharles Owens, and all those guys playing. 

I went up to Gerald one day, and I said, “Man, I really want to play in your band one day.” I don’t think it was anything that he did on purpose, but he said, “Yeah, man, okay, alright, alright.” Because there isn’t really a blueprint out there for musicians either. “How did you get that gig?” You realize it’s a people thing. One, it’s how well you play, but two, it’s about being around people and getting them to recognize you and give you opportunities.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned – and taught your students – beyond the playing of an instrument?

I was at Ken Poston’s [Los Angeles Jazz Institute festival], playing a tribute to Buddy Collette, and I was talking to Ken and asking how to advertise this to young people. It would have been a perfect opportunity for our young people to come and listen and experience the music on a different level.

No matter the genre or style, [I tell] every kid, “You have to listen to live music, you have to experience it.” And I tell teachers that when they go and do these festivals, “Don’t just take your band to play and leave. You want to listen because you never know where that inspiration is going to come from.” 

Being in the room is very important. Sitting at the table is very important, and really trying to use the power of influence to bring people together. Part of my hesitancy about being on [social media] all the time… this is the way that a lot of artists communicate and get their ideas out, and quite frankly, get work. But at the same time, it’s not the same as being next to your favorite artist and hearing them play a note.

I’ve been very fortunate to meet almost all of my favorite artists in ways that I probably wouldn’t have if I wasn’t involved in education. One of my inspirations is Michael Brecker, somebody I got to really know before he passed away. It was because my Fremont High School jazz band was playing at the Playboy Jazz Festival, and we stayed connected until his untimely end.

Tony White (at left) and students from his LAUSD Beyond the Bell All City Jazz Band participated in a New Orleans-style “second line” parade with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (at center), clarinetist Victor Goines (at right), and other members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2018.
Courtesy of Anthony “Tony” White

There was a parade in L.A. to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the LA Philharmonic, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center band was in town. [Wynton Marsalis] and I ended up playing together on these tunes that originated in New Orleans. Some of the kids from our All City Jazz Program were involved in that, and we had a great time. The next day, I got a call from Wynton, and we went and had dinner that night. It was great hanging with him. We also just did an alumni band performance with Jon Batiste about two months ago. I got to know Jon when I took him into a school to do a concert and he and I became friends. It’s been a blessed life. 

You’ve mentioned that Buddy Collette was another mentor and friend.

I now play a flute that Buddy Collette actually gave me. The irony of playing [a tribute to him] with the John Stephens band was that I was playing the flute that Buddy gave me and that was very surreal.

Buddy was so kind to a lot of people, and he was so kind and encouraging to me. I was with him a week before he passed away. We had a meeting to talk about the state of music and everything. He was very encouraging, and being “A Man of Many Parts,” that was him. I realized that I was keeping in that lineage of teaching and playing and advocating like he did, with bringing the [musicians’] unions together – making the best of what we could do.

I think about him all the time. He was so into people. Don’t get me wrong – he was a great musician, but that wasn’t his only talent. I think all of us as artists and musicians, we have a role to do everything. I tell kids, “Figure out a way to do it all, because that’s what the world is demanding nowadays.” 

You’ve got to follow your passion, you’ve got to feed the soul. For me, playing the saxophone is so important. It’s weird: when I play the saxophone, I think about the work I have to do, and when I’m working, I think about playing the saxophone. They go hand-in-hand. I have to remind myself of that all the time, I have to remind my wife. And, I have to understand that sometimes when my kid comes home, he wants to play drums, and I can’t complain, “It’s too loud,” which he does get. I just learn to put in my earplugs and let him go for it because I know that in his way, he’s releasing whatever toxins are in him because when you’ve got to play, you’ve got to play. It’s the same with me, when I’ve got to play, I’ve got to play. I always have a saxophone with me when I travel, and I always make time to practice each day.

What is it like to watch your son develop as a musician?

My son, Anthony Nikos White, is a senior this year in high school. I used to take him to Guitar Center when he was a kid to give my wife a break and have him play on the drum sets. And now, I’m looking at him – he’s 17 and he’s marching in the Rose Parade with his dad. He’s playing a mean drum set.

[Last year] during COVID, with another student who plays saxophone, we would drive up to the local elementary school here in Mount Washington and would set up on Fridays and play socially-distanced concerts. First, we did it just to rehearse and to play outside. Then it became a weekly gathering and people were coming out. It became one of these focal points during a time of uneasiness. 

Now, life has kind of picked back up again, and everybody is kind of moving. But one of the things I do enjoy is playing drum and saxophone duets with my son. We still get together as much as our schedules allow us to and work on making music, which is what it’s all about.

When you spoke of meeting your heroes, it made me think that education is a sort of conduit to so many things in the world, and what you do is a great example of that, in not only enhancing public education with music for students, but also giving them a window to the larger world that awaits them.

We’re in such a metric-driven world – how many kids go to college, or go into music, etc. I would say I’m more interested to know if they become successful human beings and how they are taking the skills that we are providing them to be able to navigate the world, which we know can sometimes be very challenging. 

I do have quite a few students who are now teachers, musicians, lawyers, doctors, counselors. I remember my grandfather always used to say, “Tell me something good.” And that’s what I say to the kids: Tell me something good. What are you doing? 

Those are positive stories. They always say, “Thank you for letting me be a part of this.” I say, “I didn’t make you do anything – you did it because it was there.” What I work on is make sure we can provide these opportunities so kids can come and grow and be a part of this. I want to be part of an ecosystem that makes the world a better place.

How do you think learning to play music as a collective teaches students that peace and respect for others is important?

That goes back to the diversity, equity, and inclusion that I address with the band, that every student will be respected. Every student will be treated with the respect and honor they deserve, and to be a part of that process.

Celebrating – not tolerating – but celebrating diversity, and understanding that the colors that are out there, either visually or harmoniously, are something to really relish, and to understand that you are contributing to this. When you play a note and you play it in tune [together], a phrase or a melody, the voices are amplified at levels that you just can’t do by yourself. It goes back to the proverb: you can go faster by yourself, but when you go with a group, you have more impact.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jane Kirton says:

    Great article and you did a beautiful job of linking all the things that are most important about music and education. Thanks, Tony!


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