Bryard Huggins '13 & Alexandria Churchwell '13 recently collaborated on a children's book album together. We caught up with these two talented alumni and asked them about their project.
You both collaborated on a children’s book album, “The Music of Robert Churchwell: Writing News, Making History (A Savannah Green Story).” What led to your working together?
Alexandria Churchwell '13:
My mother introduced the idea of adding music as another element to the book series. Originally, she asked if I could create a theme song she could use when presenting the books to larger audiences. This way younger and older audiences would be able to associate the song with the Savannah name giving her a stronger voice. I mentioned I could write the lyrics and provide the vocals, but I would see if I could find anyone interested in composing the music. I remembered from USN how Bryard composed his own music and decided to get in contact with him. I asked if he was interested in the project and the rest is history!
Bryard Huggins '13:
I have known the Churchwell family for a while now. I first met them when I came to USN and ever since then they have been nothing but nice and helpful and supportive of me and my music career. I accompanied Alexandria on a few songs at some events. Last summer, Ms. Churchwell called me up and told me she was starting a children’s book series and she wanted me to compose the theme song for the series…it is called “Savannah & Me” and it just introduces the world of Savannah Green, the main character of the series, to us. When I found out that Alexandria was going to be writing the lyrics to the song as well as singing them, I was so excited. She is so talented and a great friend and I thought it would be nice to work together with them again, especially since they had recently moved out of Nashville. After the theme song, Ms. Churchwell then proposed the idea that we start collaborating on a full mini-album to accompany the debut book about Robert Churchwell. I would write the music and Alex would write the lyrics and sing. That’s how this CD came about and this collaboration that I am so incredibly grateful for and humbled to be a part of.
What about the project did you find most interesting? Can you tell us a little about Mr. Churchwell?
I think what I find most interesting about the project is that this is the first time I’ve created something this close to home. Even though there can be a pressure to create something worthy of Robert Churchwell’s legacy I still have a freedom to express my own voice through the eyes of Savannah. The songs open an entirely different way of learning about history. Especially in this day and age, where orthodox learning methods are becoming outdated, in order to appeal to this generation we must adapt to their different learning needs by providing new and innovative ways to teach.
Mr. Churchwell is commonly known as the “Jackie Robinson of Journalism” in the South by being the first African American to work at a major newspaper publication (The Nashville Banner, 1950-1981). Working at the Banner had its challenges. For instance, Mr. Churchwell wasn’t even given a proper desk until five years after his employment. Before then, he was forced to write his articles at home and bring the finished products to the Banner. However, through Mr. Churchwell’s resilience and determination he ended up serving three decades at the Banner. His knack for turning adversity into opportunity inspired generations of aspiring African American journalists to be confident in their dreams. Personally my grandfather has instilled a legacy that will always be present in my life. He inspires my siblings and me to work hard every day and to never give up. Like he used to say, “Failure isn’t an option.”
For me personally, working on this project gave me a chance to put my production skills that I learned here at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati to the test. I had offered to produce the album (as well as the theme song) in my home studio. I really learned a lot and discovered new things while recording vocals (for the first time) and I know my professors would be proud. Another thing that was interesting about this project was writing the music. I am a jazz fusion/smooth jazz instrumentalist. I had never written a children’s song in my life; however, there have been many people that have told me a few of my jazz tunes sound like they could be a TV theme song or in a movie. To be completely honest, I never would have imagined myself writing music for children. It’s such a big market and it becomes popular because kids talk, share, listen, and enjoy. Now, it has opened up so many doors for me and I feel like I’m very good at writing children’s music because if there's one thing we know from Barney, Clifford, and all the other theme songs for kids out there, they sell!
Before I came to USN, I had no idea who Robert Churchwell was. One of the many perks of being at such a culturally diverse school is that there’s an appreciation for not only African American pioneers but any pioneer of any color, any hero of any race, any historical figure or event of any magnitude. This may be more of a question for Alexandria since she’s the granddaughter, but I will tell you what I know about Robert Churchwell, the “man behind the pen.” He was born in 1917 to a poor family in Clifton, Tennessee. He went through many hardships in his life and lived through tumultuous times in the US: The Great Depression, both World War eras, the Civil Rights Movement. I call Robert Churchwell “the man the behind the pen” (as the song “1917” from our CD states) because he was the first African American man to write for a daily Southern newspaper, the Nashville Banner. During the climax of his career in the brewing racial unrest in the South, Mr. Churchwell was forced to write at home. He was not presented with a nice office or state of the art tools he could use to work with. Because of the color of his skin, his office was his kitchen table. He may not have had an office, but even just sitting at home at his table, his words ignited a light that spread all over, telling people about the unrest, the war, the Civil Rights Movement, and other big events. He was known as the “Jackie Robinson of Journalism”, the first man to break the color line and write for a daily Southern newspaper, which is pretty impressive.
What was it like to work together? Did you do it remotely?
I feel that Bryard and I work well with one another. With both of us being well versed in our crafts, the process of creating the music is quick and efficient. Since both of us have busy schedules and only a set number of days where we can actually meet, we’ve learned how to play to each other's strengths and weaknesses to get the job done right. The recording takes place in Bryard’s home studio located here in Nashville.
Alex is any musician’s dream. She is easy to work with, fun, enthusiastic, and always very detailed and particular about how things are supposed to sound, a quality I have as well. We make a great team! I’ve worked with many amateur performers, people who aren’t serious about their craft, people who just don’t care. Alex has a passion for singing, it’s a God-given gift and to work with a person of such versatility and vibrancy in her deliverance helps me as a musician and producer in that I can get to know how she works, how her voice works from a technology perspective and production aspect, and what environments she works best in, etc. As a musician, when you record with anyone, I feel like it’s best to get to know the person’s vibe so that working together is all that much easier. We recorded together at my home studio in Nashville. She and her mom flew down from Boston and we got the songs done in a matter of a few days. It really was a fun experience and I can’t wait to do more with this!
Mr. Churchwell is such a fantastic role model. Growing up, who were some of your role models?
From my family, besides my grandfather, I really looked up to my parents and my cousin Crystal. To this day I’m amazed how my parents have been able to keep our family running like a well-oiled machine. Raising four kids that are all interested in sports and a million other extracurricular activities is no small task. I always looked up to how they treated each other as partners and always knew that they could count on one other. I strive to achieve that same loyalty and respect in my own relationships with friends and family. My cousin Crystal was a huge role model for me because she, being the oldest of the grandkids, has pretty much paved the path for all of us. Being the first is never easy, but she has done so with such strength and grace that I only hope to follow in her footsteps.
My parents were definitely the main role models in my life. They taught me from a very early age how hard work and determination are the keys to success. Another role model was Dr. Martin Luther King, one of the most prominent figures in the Civil Rights Movement. I admired how he stood up for what was right and spoke his mind, something we can’t let up on today. We have a voice, let’s use it.
Who were some of your teachers at USN that you feel really made an impact on you?
A teacher who’s made an impact on me from USN would have to be Mr. Bakari King. It’s amazing that there’s a teacher whose mission is to educate the bright-eyed middle school students about the world of the arts. Mr. King taught me that a life in the arts is just as important as any other career. He taught us how to be fearless and to own any room you walk into, whether it is a theatre, business meeting or even the bustling cafeteria during lunch. He taught me to have confidence and to be disciplined in all the work I do, whether on stage or off. I think the most important thing I learned from him is that it’s ok to be yourself. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a chance to say how grateful I am for having him as a teacher, but I know that it’s because of him that I’m where I am today. So if you’re reading this, Mr. King, I would just like to say Thank You.
Mr. Getsi had a huge impact on me as a musician. When I came to USN, I was in the process of looking for another piano teacher. I had been taking classical lessons since the age of 6 and I felt it was time for a change. I wanted to explore jazz music more and make that the main genre that I played. After meeting Mr. Getsi and seeing how involved he was in the Nashville jazz scene, I asked him for some contacts of some private lessons teachers in the Nashville area that taught jazz. He immediately put me in touch with one of his friends, Billy Kirsch, a jazz pianist and singer/songwriter and a former USN dad. He gave me an excellent write up as a potential new student for Billy—who only takes five students—and because of this and his willingness to help me, I was accepted as a student of Billy! Mr. Getsi has always appreciated my musical talents, whether it was putting me in touch with a Grammy-nominated musician as a permanent piano teacher or featuring me on jazz band tunes or playing on my latest album. If Mr. Getsi had not done what he did to help me succeed as a musician, I honestly can say I do not know if I would be doing music as a degree and as a career today.
Do you have any plans to work together again in the future? What is up next for you both?
Yes! As the Savannah Series continues we hope to come out with CDs that will accompany each book. The CDs will continue to reflect on various themes that happen within the different books.
Right now you can find me at New York University: Tisch School of the Arts (Playwrights Horizons Theatre School) studying Theatre and Economics. This semester I will be in two shows, The Skriker by Caryl Churchill, which is opening at the end of March, and a reading of a student play, The THUD, happening in late April. Both are in conjunction with Playwrights Horizons Theatre School.
There are definitely plans in the works for us to continue to work together. There are a whole lot of Savannah Green stories yet to be published and with every story there will be an accompanying album. Ms. Churchwell would like to continue down this path of writing music to accompany her children’s books. One of the most important things in regards to this project is advertisement. We have radio interviews lined up, book/album release events in the works, and perhaps the biggest accomplishment will come when our album reaches the gift shop of the new Smithsonian African American History Museum in Washington, D.C., along with the Churchwell book and some artifacts belonging to Mr. Churchwell. I believe the next book is in the works…perhaps we will have a new album done by next year??
The album, “The Music of Robert Churchwell: Writing News, Making History (A Savannah Green Story),” can be found on iTunes, Amazon, etc. and the book can be found on Amazon as well.
You may email Alexandria Churchwell '13 at email@example.com. Bryard Huggins '13 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.