AMN mentors Composers Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Talking about Music Workshops

Meet Harpist Destiny Muhammad

Wait, isn’t the harp a classical instrument? How does that fit into the history and practice of jazz?

Harpist Destiny Muhammad looks forward to telling you all about it in her workshop on Saturday, September 18. Destiny has been inspired by her musical “mothers” Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby to forge her unique identity as a jazz musician and creative artist. 

Destiny will share her passion for the fundamentals of jazz embodied in the “standards” repertoire that was her musical springboard, launching her creative journey from performing with her jazz trio to curating programs for the San Francisco Symphony. She recently received a prestigious digital residency grant from Chamber Music America, and the journey continues!

Get a preview of our workshop as Destiny talks with AMN Founder Lolly Lewis about her influences and what she hopes people will take away from the experience.

Destiny’s Teaching Artist Concert at SFJAZZ .

AMN mentors Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Workshops

Meet Violinist, Fiddler, and Composer Alisa Rose

Are you a classical violinist looking to extend your musical horizons? A bluegrass musician who wants to go deeper? Then our March 13 online workshop with Alisa Rose is for you. Alisa trained as a classical violinist and branched out into bluegrass; her compositions blend elements of both genres. We spoke with her to learn more about her background and interests.

Alisa Rose

When did you start playing music?

I grew up in Verona, Wisconsin, near Madison, with two older sisters who played the violin. I insisted on playing the violin too, and my mother was nice enough to accommodate me! I started with the Suzuki method when I was 3, and when I was 5 I began entering local fiddle contests at little fairs, Hometown Days, that sort of thing.

What did you play in your first contest?

I remember playing “Boil Them Cabbages Down.” We were also supposed to play a waltz, but I hadn’t learned one, so I played “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

What came next?

I played in a high school string quartet and the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra. I was also in the Southwest Wisconsin Oldtime Fiddlers Association. Then I came to California to attend the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. At that point I was interested in folk music but not bluegrass specifically, but within a couple of years I’d joined a bluegrass band. I liked the melodics of bluegrass, and also how social it is—people hung out and played together. I liked that energy.

Who were your musical influences?

Darol Anger [the American fiddler, composer, and founding member of the David Grisman Quintet] was a big influence—he really brought me into bluegrass. I didn’t take lessons, I just listened and picked things up. At one point I lived near the beach in a big house with a bunch of Conservatory kids who were interested in bluegrass. We had a weekly jam—I learned so much from that. And I went to festivals like the Strawberry Music Festival [in Grass Valley, California], the Grass Valley Father’s Day Music Festival, and my favorite, the RockyGrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado.

We haven’t been able to attend festivals or concerts for a year now. How have you been spending that time?

I’ve been teaching Zoom classes—I’m glad that’s possible. And I’ve been composing. I got a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to write a concerto on the theme of inclusivity, based on interviews I did with members of Bluegrass Pride. There will also be a string-quintet version. The concerto was supposed to be performed by the Bay Area Rainbow Orchestra at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco in June, but it may have to be rescheduled.

What can participants expect to learn in your March 13 workshop?

I’m going to teach a great fiddle tune by ear. They’ll learn how to use the bow in a more rhythmic way—the bow is what drives the music in bluegrass, as opposed to that beautiful singing lyrical tone of classical music. The left hand is important, too: you can get a lot of expression from slides and double-stops.



While doing background research for this interview we found a story in the July 3, 1988, edition of the Wisconsin State Journal that mentioned young Alisa’s performance at a Dane County, Wisconsin, fiddle festival. “The 9-year-old Rose, wearing red bows in her long black hair, fiddled, while Herb Swingen, on string bass, and Ron Kittleson, on guitar, both of rural Mount Horeb, accompanied her. She captivated listeners when she played ‘Boil Them Cabbages Down,’ her favorite. Rose, who was fiddling at her 5th festival said she has been playing the violin since she was 3 and fiddling since she was 5. She said she prefers fiddling to playing classics by Mozart or Bach. ‘It’s fun,’ Rose said with a grin. ‘I guess the other things seem pretty regular.’”

AMN mentors Composers Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Workshops

Six things you should know about Lisa Mezzacappa

Our February 13 online workshop, “At Home with Lisa Mezzacappa: A Jazz Listening Session,” is a guided tour of jazz history conducted by one of the Bay Area’s most inventive and versatile musicians. An acclaimed composer, bassist, bandleader, and producer, Lisa Mezzacappa has collaborated with filmmakers, dancers, visual artists, and neuroscientists, and has worked with groups from duos to large ensembles.

But there’s a lot more to Lisa Mezzacappa than that brief introduction. Here are six more things you should know about her.

Lisa Mezzacappa. Photo: Heike Liss.

She grew up in a working-class family in Staten Island, New York.

Lisa started playing the clarinet in fourth grade and became a youth symphony star. In junior high school she took up the electric bass, dyed her hair blue, and “jammed with dudes in garages,” as she puts it.

She planned to become a biologist.

She majored in biology at the University of Virginia before adding a second major in music. Eventually, though, science took a back seat to music: Lisa came to the Bay Area and received an MA in ethnomusicology in 2003. Science still informs many of her compositions, most notably “Organelle,” which Mezzacappa calls “a ‘set’ of pieces inspired by diverse scientific processes – some enormous and unfathomable, others impossibly microscopic – that form a whole through the insights and explorations of master improvisers.” In 2019, “Organelle” was awarded the Pauline Oliveros New Genres award from the International Alliance for Women in Music.

The score for “Cambium,” one of the movements of “Organelle.” Cambium is a tissue layer in plants.

In 2005, she toured with 1960s folk-rock star Donovan.

Writing in the San Jose Mercury News in 2014, Richard Sheinin called the tour “a rare above-ground gig” for this prolific underground musician.

She based an album on themes from film noir and detective fiction.

Written for her sextet, avantNOIR (2017)—an homage to the crime stories of Dashiell Hammet and Paul Auster—uses clues, imagery, and quotations from the novels as well as acoustic and electric sounds, field recordings, and composed and improvised material. From the liner notes: “The musicians find themselves in a room at the Alexandria Hotel on Kearney Street, where they are encouraged to sit and have a drink with the wily Caspar Gutman, explore various objects and personages in the room, ride the elevator, make a phone call, holler to someone in the street below for help, or get the heck out of there.” (Listen to “The Ballad of Big Flora” from avantNOIR.)

She won a 2020 Bay Area Jazz Award.

San Jose Mercury News jazz writer Andrew Gilbert bestowed the puckishly titled In Case NASA Needs a Resident Composer Award” on Lisafor her “antic, playful, and often poignant settings for the album Cosmicomics,” a project inspired by “the whimsical celestial fables of the Italian writer Italo Calvino.”(Listen to the Lisa Mezzacappa Six play “Solar Storms” from CosmiComics.)

Her latest project is a radio opera.

“The Electronic Lover” was released as a podcast in nine episodes. Listen to the first episode here.

Community Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Strings: Violin, Viola, Cello, Bass Talking about Music

Meet Ken Smith, guitarist, guitar-builder, and singer-songwriter

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer, who writes:

“I’ve known Ken Smith as a friend and a photographer for many years, and I’ve enjoyed his Instagram posts and music videos. When I learned that he’d posted a listing on the AMN website, I saw an opportunity to learn more about his musical life and to share our converstion with the AMN community.”

Your listing says you’re a singer-songwriter and rhythm guitar and fingerstyle player. What led to these interests? Did you grow up in a musical family?

My father was in the US Air Force, so we traveled around a lot. My family wasn’t musical, but there was music in the house—mostly Big Band records and country-western radio.

When I was in fourth grade, in Hutchinson, Kansas, students had the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. I thought it would be cool to play drums, but my mother said no. I ended up with a clarinet, but I hated the taste of those reeds! I switched to French horn, but carrying it back and forth to school was too much for me, so I gave up.

By the time I was in high school we were living on the air force base in Newfoundland, Canada. Some guys I knew had formed a band, which sounded like fun. I bought a $13 guitar from the Sears catalog and taught myself to play some chords. But the guys needed a bass player, so I went back to the Sears catalog, bought a bass guitar, and told the guys they’d have to teach me how to play it. We got good enough to play Saturday nights at the teen club on the base. The four of us made $55 a gig. So I guess I was a professional musician for a while!

Are you mostly self-taught? Have you taken any formal lessons?

In high school, we taught each other. It was like the famous story about the Beatles traveling across Liverpool to learn the B7 chord. Wow, a new chord!

In the late 1990s I started taking individual and group classes in jazz guitar and lead guitar at the Blue Bear School of Music in Fort Mason. My teachers there included Jim Peterson; Joe Cunningham, a great guitarist and quiltmaker;

and the late Johnny Nitro of the San Francisco band Johnny Nitro & the Doorslammers. More recently, I’ve twice traveled to Portland, Oregon, to take workshops from the fingerstyle blues guitarist Mary Flower—a wonderful musician and generous teacher. Mary introduced me to the music of Duke Robillard, Albanie Falletta, Guy Davis, and other terrific blues guitarists.

When did you start writing your own songs? What inspires you?

I started writing lyrics in 1974 or 1975, when my first marriage was breaking up. But it took me more than 40 years to put them to music. I learned by listening to songs I liked and studying their structure. I have a limited vocal range—maybe an octave at most—so I pick keys I can sing in.

In 2017, we were displaced for 10 days by the fires here in Santa Rosa. During that time I started writing about the experience, and what came out was “Firefighter in the Smoke.” For the lyrics, I wrote down every word I associated with fires and firefighting, and then started putting them into couplets.

I earned a living for many years as a corporate photographer and videographer, so it was only natural that I’d start making music videos—my own songs, like “Raven Blues,” and traditional songs, like the Irish folk tune “Drill You Drillers,” which was inspired by the soil-sampling crew in my Santa Rosa community!

Tell us about the guitars you’ve built and restored.

I’ve made five guitars from scratch and repaired about 35. I’m self-taught in that area, too—I watched a bunch of online videos. My first guitar was made from Adirondack spruce, mahogany, and, for the neck, pau ferro. I made another guitar from Tennessee sweet gum, Engelmann spruce, walnut, and rosewood. I don’t do inlays—it’s too persnickety.

And then there are all the guitars I’ve repaired and kept. In the room I’m sitting in right now there are 31 guitars.

I haven’t yet made the perfect guitar, and I don’t think I ever will. But that doesn’t keep me from being obsessed.

Raven Blues by Ken Smith from Ken Smith on Vimeo.

AMN mentors Jazz and Beyond - Non-Classical Music Piano

Meet Dee Spencer, Jazz professor and music director

This is a guest post by Nancy Friedman, an AMN volunteer.

Dee celebrates Mardi Gras on March 9 at the Cafe in the Castro

On August 15, the multitalented Dee Spencer—teacher, performer, music director—will offer an online workshop in jazz-piano improvisation through our Amateur Music Network at Home series. We caught up with her by phone just before she headed out to an evening gig at San Francisco’s Catch restaurant, which had recently reopened for outdoor dining.

What was your early musical life like?

I grew up in a musical family in Wilmington, Delaware. My dad sang, my mom sang. Dad was a huge opera fan, Mom listened to gospel music, my sisters listened to Motown. One of my uncles came to live with us, and he introduced me to jazz. When I was 7 or 8, my mother bought an upright piano and said, “Here you go.” I took classical piano lessons and became the designated accompanist for the family. In junior high and high school I wanted to be in the band, so I switched to woodwinds. I got a four-year oboe scholarship to Florida A&M University, in Tallahassee, and then ended up doing more keyboards than oboe! I became a piano minor, and while I was still in college I got a job at Epcot playing keyboards with a jazz/rock combo and accompanying the singers in the stage shows.

How has the COVID quarantine affected your performing and teaching life?

I teach jazz and musical theater in San Francisco State University’s School of Theatre and Dance. Fortunately, I’d already taught online. What’s changed is that all 18 weeks of instruction have to be complete before I click and launch on August 22. It’s intense! Also, obviously, we can’t do our productions in person yet—everything’s going to be online. It’s a different game, applauding for someone you can’t really see. But a lot of people are doing a really good job with virtual productions.

I’ve used the quarantine to do some songwriting, too. I was music director of One Mo’ Time, and my favorite song from the show is “Cake Walking Babies (from Home).” That was my inspiration for “Quarantine Cakewalk.” It’s a sheet-music exercise—you have to play it exactly as written. It’s not an improvisational exercise at all! [Editor’s note: Read about the history of the cakewalk. Go to our Workshop Resources page to listen to and download the sheet music for Dee Spencer’s “Quarantine Cakewalk.]

Tell us something people may not know about you.

I wrote our high school class song, “What Do We Have to Offer?” It got mixed reviews—my classmates said it “wasn’t happy enough.” But the band director and the choir director liked it, and that was good enough for me!

Something else people may not know is that I play third clarinet in the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band. I really like playing third clarinet—you get the lower notes, and you get to hear what the other instruments are doing. I like sitting in the back row—it’s so interesting to blend in with the trombones.

What can participants expect from your AMN workshop?

I’m an improviser, so I can go just about anywhere. I have various game plans, and I’ll see what everyone’s expecting. Are they new to improvisation? Do they already have experience? I want my audience to be engaged—to work hard and have a robust experience and also an enjoyable one.

It seems like COVID has forced all of us to become improvisers. Can you give us some professional advice?

Learning to improvise is a good thing! You discover things about yourself and the world. You’re taking a risk, and that’s good. It’s always good to stretch.

Register now for At Home with Dee Spencer, August 15 at 2 p.m. We may have time for one or two people to play for the group during the workshop. Please contact us at for more information.