The True School of Music (TSM), an institution that introduces students to the aesthetics of Western contemporary music opened in Mumbai two weeks ago. Justin DiCioccio, the acting dean, was in the city recently to meet students. Excerpts from the interview:
How did you get introduced to music?
When I was growing up in Buffalo, New York city, every party had a live band. Today every party has a DJ or just a guy and an iPod, perhaps. But back then, if you went to a birthday party, wedding or get-together, there was a band. While every other kid at the party was running around, I would sit quietly and watch the band. I don't know why I did that.
Eventually, I told my father about it and he said okay, if I continue to study. He was not a musician.
Did you tinker with other instruments before you settled on the drums?
No, I was very sure that I wanted to play the drums. I was six-years-old when I started private lessons. My father would take me to a community centre, which was in a music store. I was taught to play and I just had to make sure I kept my grades up. I joined a band and by the end of high school, I was playing for events in and around Buffalo. It was the typical teenage story, I was taught jazz, then went on to explore rock and other genres.
You were the official drummer at the White House. Tell us about that.
That was my first job. I was 18 years old. I heard the official band — The President's Own was looking for musicians, and I applied. I was the official drummer at the White House for five years.
This is the only band that is connected with the US government's State Department where musicians don't have to be in the military. What that means is, I didn't have to undergo a fitness test. The job was simply based on an audition. (laughs)
What does the White House band do?
I worked in Washington DC in the sixties. John F Kennedy and then Lyndon B Johnson were in office at the time. When there was a state function, we would play the background score as they sipped on cocktails. This was the 'party' following a long day of talks with the president. Consulate and cabinet members, the senate and embassy biggies would attend. Later, we played dancing music or put on a show. If an artist was visting, we sat in as the accompanying band.
I played with Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Robert Goulet.
Can you imagine networking at the White House?
How did the band decide the playlist?
It depended on who was visiting. I remember when the King of Holland came to visit the president, his entourage told us he was a real jazz fan. So we played jazz through the night. For the finale, we played songs from the Gil Evan's album Miles Ahead.
The King was surprised. We played to the house.
What kind of music did the former US presidents enjoy listening to?
President Kennedy liked classical and jazz. Johnson would ask for jazz and pop. I remember playing at a dinner, the night before Kennedy was assassinated. He and Jackie (Jacqueline Kennedy), along with another couple and the kids were sitting for dinner up in the private residency and we were playing in a trio.
I saw the two Kennedy kids, John John and Caroline as toddlers. John John would wriggle under my bass drum and I'd pretend kick him.
Was it difficult breaking in to the music scene in New York?
Well, it was easier back then than it is now. I'd met several well-known musicians and worked as a freelance musician.
When did you take up teaching?
I would play at jazz clubs and do recordings, but it was sporadic. By that time, I had a wife and kid to think about, so I took up a teaching job to make sure I had a fixed paycheck at the end of the month. I enjoyed it and it gave me the flexibility to play with the Rochester Philharmonic and
moonlight at jazz clubs.
How did the partnership with the TSM come about?
In February, Ashutosh (Pathak — ad, film composer and founder of TSM) visited me in New York and told me about the music school they were planning to start. He wanted me to help structure a curriculum and create a programme where teachers could visit.
What was most exciting for me was to bring the Western aesthetic of contemporary music to a country that possesses such a strong indigenous music tradition of learning under a guru.
They call you the 'musician's teacher'.
I believe in creating the complete artist- musician of the 21st century. He should be a performer, composer and pedagogue. That's my magic formula for a long, successful career in music.
Many consider Western classical music an elitist concept.
The lack of formal schools that teach Western music in India is what pushes up the cost since you have to go abroad to study. The annual fees at the Manhattan School of Music is $58,000, this includes course fee and lodging but not books, instruments and travel. Each degree is a four-year programme. I'm scared to even convert that figure in to rupees (We weren't, it's Rs36 lakh per year). Studying at TSM costs a fraction of this cost and includes some of the best faculty from New York, if I may say that about myself (laughs).
I want to create a scholarship for students in India, so they can study here for two years and then come to New York for the remainder of the term.
In about ten years, we will have an industry of highly trained teachers right here and then students won’t need to travel to Europe or pay in euros and may be that standpoint will change.