Alma Hightower

Music Lessons with Clarence McDonald 89.3 KPCC Off Ramp Hosted By John Rabe

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Clarence McDonald: “Any great musician in Los Angeles (black) probably studied with Alma Hightower from the 30’s to 60’s she was the standard for musical excellence. Just to name a few of the great musicians there was Dexter Gordon, Chico Hamilton and me (laugh) and I’m Clarence McDonald.”

John Rabe, Off Ramp Host: “We first met Clarence McDonald last year on Off Ramp. He’s the guy who has keyboard player, arranger, or producer whose had a hand in some of the big hits of the 1970’s and 80’s: “How Sweet it Is (To Be Loved By You),” “Sara Smile,” “Summer Breeze” and “Best Of My Love.” He also toured with Ray Charles and his mentor was Eubie Blake. Today we are beginning a series of music commentaries, really music lessons with Clarence starting at the beginning with his music teacher, Alma Hightower.”

Clarence McDonald: “In the neighborhood, everybody knew if you really wanted to get music right you went to see Alma Hightower. She was on Vernon near Avalon. They had a house in front and then in the back she had her music studio. One of the most important things she did was she made you understand, it’s not playing the notes that makes music, it’s interpreting the notes that you are playing. And a good example would be learning a song and coming back and playing it for her like this. And she would look at you with her cute smile and say, that’s very nice but you are just playing the notes. She could play every instrument so she would just take your instrument and play it for you. And she’d always say, if it didn’t feel good, you shouldn’t play it.

Alma Hightower made you understand that there were many different styles and genres of music and  that if you couldn’t play all of them you couldn’t call yourself a musician. She said there was no such thing as a jazz musician or a pop musician or a classical musician. You are a musician. And this is one of the pieces I had one of the hardest times with. Just there I missed a note! And as soon as that happened it reminded me of where she would always say, ever so gently, that’s good but I think you need to do more work on that. All of the Philip Sousa Marches, you had to learn them: “Washington Post,” “Stars and Stripes.” By learning that, you got a completely different view of what it was to play different styles of music. Okay, she said, now you’ve got to play some gospel music and there were different forms of jazz but you had to learn all of them too. Pretty much like playing what we call a polite blues or the Art Tatum.

Alma Hightower personally for me, every time I play I think of her because it was this lady who gave me the foundation to do what I am doing today. And she has done this for so many other players who have come before me and came after me.  Alma Hightower, If you can hear me, I thank you immensely.”

“For Off Ramp, I’m Clarence McDonald.”

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