Yuzo Nieto is best known for his stint as the gifted sax player in Pee Pee and the ringleader of avant-garde jazz and Afro-Cuban outfit Pink Hawks, the latter of which is still a going concern. Nieto has been a music teacher at SOAR Charter School in Green Valley Ranch for the past two years, and the school, with its focus on a social curriculum, as well as the arts and science, has given Nieto a refreshingly wide latitude in crafting the content of his curriculum as a music teacher. So this month, Nieto has been teaching a unit on local music, and he has invited local artists to come in and demonstrate their craft for classes of elementary students.
"It's a celebration in the end of teaching realia when you teach real things," says Nieto about the idea behind the unit. "My realia was bringing in the actual artists. I have enough connections in the music scene here that I could bring in musicians and have them come in and play live for the kids. I think it is mutually awesome for both parties because the kids got to feel that there was a famous person they got to meet, and the musicians got to get their heads a little big by how the kids [reacted to the performance]."
Last year, Nieto taught students about American music through genres, and this year he had the opportunity to apply a similar approach using local artists as examples. The music program at the school has a grounding in West African drums, as established by Gianna Cassetta and Marc Waxman, who ran a successful, similarly-oriented after school program at the FLI Charter School in Harlem before relocating to Denver.
Nieto's current unit on local music included a study of artists as diverse as Oblio Duo, Paper Bird, Ron Miles, Keith Oxman, Debajo Del Agua, Molina Speaks, DJ Cavem Moetavation, Flobots, Descendents, Planes Mistaken For Stars, Bad Weather California, 3OH!3, Josephine & the Mousepeople and, of course, Nieto's own Pink Hawks and its own foundation in West African rhythms.
Emphasizing active listening, Nieto teaches his students to discern different parts of a song, not just by listening intently to the music but also by showing how he learns someone else's songs himself. Each week, Nieto invited artists to perform in the classroom, and so far, the guests have included Stephen Brackett of Flobots, Adrian Molina of Molina Speaks, Letef Vita of DJ Cavem Moetavation, Steven Lawson of Oblio Duo and Doo Crowder doing Pee Pee songs with Nieto. Not surprisingly, the musicians were eager to perform for the younger than usual audience.
This week, the unit culminates in a performance by first and second graders of some of the local music they have studied thus far. "They picked the Molina Speaks song called 'Fam Biz,'" Nieto reveals. "They also picked an Earth, Wind & Fire song, 'Let's Groove,' 'Cambio' by Del Bajo Del Agua. They're also doing 'I'm the One' by the Descendents and 'Handlebars' by the Flobots. It's right after school. The First grade performance is on May 29th at about 5. The second grade performance is on May 30th at about 5. If anyone is interested in coming they can email me at [email protected]"
With Nieto's sensitivity, passion and engaging direction behind this effort, perhaps this effort will spark some worthwhile Denver music in the future.