An interview by Connor Lukes, University of Denver Journalism Intern
March is “Music in Our Schools Month.” To commemorate, Colorado Music Hall of Fame is celebrating one of our inductees — the East High School Music Program – by interviewing one of the Denver school’s historians, Dr. Marcia T. Goldstein of the East High Alumni Network.
East High, Denver’s largest public high school, is considered a “descendant” of Denver’s first one-room school, The Union School, which opened in 1859; East moved into its current location at 1600 City Park Esplanade in 1925. Over the years, East has produced some of the world’s finest musicians, including the late Ron Miles; Philip Bailey, Larry Dunn and Andrew Woolfolk of Earth, Wind & Fire; Bill Frisell; Judy Collins; and Paul Whiteman.
Can you tell us about some notable East High alumni who became professional musicians?
Oh, yes, Alan Titus. He was an opera singer, world-renowned. He’s still alive. He’s older, of course, and I believe he lives in Germany. He was right out of high school and went to Germany and became this really young up-and-coming opera star.
His music teacher [at East] was Marion Padboy, and she was also the inspiration for Philip Bailey. I’ve read a few interviews with [Bailey], and he recalls she taught him how to do falsetto. She encouraged him to try it. He got good at it, which, as you know, is one of his trademarks. Taught him breath control, intonation and pitch which lifted his soaring, four-octave voice.
Judy Collins is another. She was a classical musician and highly trained. Her father encouraged her to study piano. She did have the opportunity to have professional music lessons and, well, she had her own private teacher, and that was Antonia Brico. Antonia Brico was an early woman symphony conductor in our country, but she was here in Denver. A highly, highly acclaimed musician, she took Judy under her wing as a piano teacher. But she didn’t teach at East High. So [Collins] was in high school as an [already trained] classical musician, but while at East High, she took up the guitar instead of the piano. This was sort of her early days of folk music.
What is the history of the music program and why do you think it has inspired so many talented musicians?
I think one of the things was the…music teachers at East High. As with a lot of the faculty, they were there for many years — decades, some of them. So they had an influence on a lot of different people. From what I can tell with the ones who are more prominent that I’ve researched, they were really good at mentoring. They’d see a talented person, and they put them in a special category and made sure they were encouraged. Part of that is they maybe knew [the student’s] family couldn’t afford music lessons.
But don’t forget, because East has been around so long as an institution, a lot of times in those earlier years — the late 1800s and early 1900s and even through the ’20s and ‘30s — this might have been one of the only places people went to school.
What are some unique features about this Denver Historic Landmark?
[The small room in the clocktower] has been used for rehearsals. It’s a really beautiful room with windows on all four sides, and you get a 360-degree view of Denver. It’s an example of how the building itself — the architecture and the history of the building — can be inspirational.
The choir room is up on the third floor, and the windows open out onto the front of the school. So if they’re having choir practice, in front of the school…you just hear this beautiful music coming out. The kids all hear it. The physical architecture is very storied, historic and inspirational. It’s top-quality design. The auditorium has been renovated in recent years, but it’s a classic auditorium stage for performing.
Currently there are seven East High alumni in the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. Are there any others that you think should be considered as future inductees?
Pernell Steen. He plays all the time at Dazzle. He’s sort of the Five Points jazz history buff. If you ever have the occasion to induct him, he would be a good candidate. He plays piano and sings, and he has a group called Le Jazz Machine. He graduated in 1950. He’s in his eighties now, but he still performs regularly.
And then…Hattie McDaniel. She’s exceedingly important. She was the first African-American to win an Academy Award for Gone With the Wind. She is best known as a film star, and she was even on the radio and TV as an actress. But she got her start as a musician in her father’s traveling jazz show. She actually dropped out of high High school to join her brother and her father. [East has] since given her an honorary diploma. Anyway, the point about Hattie is that she got her start as a musician, a jazz singer and performer.
Above photo of East High Jazz Band with Ron Miles and Don Cheadle, 1981; Courtesy of East High Tower Museum Archives