Making beautiful music on a hot Austin night

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Eighteen-year-old Deonte Baker grabs the microphone. Looking sharp in a black tux and bow tie, Baker smoothly starts to croon, “My Cherie Amour, lovely as a summer’s day . . . ”

Close your eyes, and you’d think it was Stevie. Stevie Wonder, that is.

The talented Baker was one of seven accomplished students performing at the Chicago West Community Music Center’s first annual fundraiser with their band, N2oon, which made its debut to a full house April 30 at the Columbus Park Refectory.

The benefit performance was held to help send three band members who are graduating seniors – Baker, Randiss Hopkins and Jamaal Crowder – off to college, where they’ll major in music.

“It’s a big night for us as well as Chicago West,” said Baker, lead singer of the band and a senior at the ACT Charter School in West Garfield Park who hopes to attend Columbia College Chicago in the fall.

“It’s the first night the band debuted, and we’re working hard to put together an amazing show for the audience.”

Since its inception in 1999, Chicago West Community Music Center (CWCMC) at 100 N. Central Park Ave., has been teaching its students just that: how to put together amazing shows. The center works with schools, churches, community centers and other partners to make sure that Chicago’s kids and adults, are making beautiful music.

This summer, the center is offering an advanced music program for 30 musicians free of charge thanks to one of its partners, After School Matters.

“One reason we do what we do is because there aren’t any community music schools in this area,” said Howard Sandifer, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher who founded the center along with his wife, Darlene. “It’s important. We have to be there. It’s an obligation.

“As a teacher, I want to help educate those in the community,” said Sandifer, who has also partnered with several schools and other organizations including the Chicago Park District, Berklee College of Music, and the Chicago Public and Learn Charter schools, where he has done teaching projects for the last decade.

“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Sandifer has established the Chicago West Community Music Scholarship Fund, and he hopes to help more than the 1,200 kids who already take lessons at his center throughout the year. Interested students audition for spots and not only learn to make music but also the business of music, such as producing events, marketing, and legalities like contracts and publishing rights. People of all ages take lessons at the center.

“From the womb to the tomb, we like to say,” said Sandifer.

Sandifer is not only proud of what he has accomplished thus far, but he is also thrilled at the direction the center is headed, including a partnership with Berklee College of Music in Boston in implementing “City Music,” a year-round program using Web-based, cutting edge and real-time curriculum.

A piano lab is also in the works, and Sandifer’s pride and joy, his Suzuki method violin classes, will be expanded during the summer programs to include cello, bass and guitar, taught by Music Institute of Chicago instructors trained in the method, in which parents take lesson with their kids.

Music is not just a pastime, it’s a profession as well as a disciplinarian tool, said Michael Ross, director of music studies at the center.

“Preparing with music allows you to make decisions on life goals and allows you to become very structured, and it gives direct focus,” said Ross, who worked with N2oon band members for two years putting together a full ensemble with horns, a rhythm section and dancers.

“The more young people that see these kids perform on this level . . . they’ll be an inspiration to see there are other options besides just being out on the streets.”

Nineteen-year-old N2oon singer Rana House comes from the streets of the South Side to the West Side center for classes, “because I love the idea of making music with these people.”

“They are really on fire,” said House, a powerhouse of a singer who attends the South Side-based Vandercook College of Music. “The music center embraces you as a musician and helps you better yourself as a musician. It just builds me up.”

That’s what it seems to do for a lot of the teens. Ralph Hopkins, father of N2oon leader and college-bound Randiss Hopkins, said he has seen “a tremendous growth” in his 18-year-old son’s musical abilities.

“He has more discipline and just overall a love for music,” said Hopkins. “It’s just a great place where youth come and enhance their skills.”

On May 9, the center will be featured on the new show Next TV, at 8 a.m. on the FOX Channel and at noon on Channel 50. That day, Sandifer’s dream, vision, will be on display for all Chicago to see.

“It was just something that needed to be done,” Sandifer said of opening the center, more than a decade ago. “They took music and art out of the schools, and a lot of people still don’t have access to music.

“That’s almost a God-given right,” he said.

Musicians interested in the free advanced music program should contact Darlene Sandifer at (708) 386-5315. Other upcoming events at the center include a bake sale May 15 at the Garfield Park Fieldhouse, 100 N. Central Ave., and a bowling party fundraiser June 19 at the Diversey River Bowl, 2211 W. Diversey Parkway.

For more information call (708) 386-5315.

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