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Not exactly the most nurturing surroundings, but that hasn't deterred 13-year-old Dewaylon from pursuing his gift--an uncanny musical ear that makes him not only a skilled mimic, but a potential artist, and which last year took him to the stage of the prestigious Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho. It would take a lot to deter the shy, polite kid who laughs with embarrassment when he's the subject of questions: in 1994 he'd been invited to the festival, but a funding snafu cancelled the trip at the last minute. More recently, the loss of the family car forced an interruption in his training--something that concerned those who had mentored the lad.
Dewaylon's talent first became apparent at the Priscilla Tyler Learning Center in Dallas, where jazz pianist Robert Sanders--then a teacher in the school's Basic Skills Core Program--noticed the speed with which the youth acquired musical ability.
"He's definitely not a novelty," Sanders says. "I started him playing in the second grade, [and] he was like a prodigy...he has a tremendous talent and a big ear."
"Here's the story on the kid," noted area vibraphonist Ed Hagen, who taught Dewaylon briefly before his appearance in Idaho--"he's a tremendous talent, just amazing."
"He's phenomenal," agrees Dr. Lynn Skinner, executive director of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, where Hampton himself joined Dewaylon on stage in 1995. "He has an incredible ear. In music, you can have good hands, good eyes, good feet, but it doesn't amount to much unless you've got a good ear to go with them...Lionel would play a riff, and [Dewaylon] would hear it and play it right back and just nail it."
Dewaylon is on stage again, this time a couple of weeks ago at Sammons Jazz, the monthly concert series put on at the Sammons Center for the Performing Arts. Opening for vocalist Jeanette Brantley, Dewaylon is playing with Robert Sanders and Drew Phelps, small, round head down and lip bitten in concentration. He seems a bit self-conscious--occasionally his eyes dart around the room--but not really what you could call nervous. At other times he seems to disappear completely into the warm, pulsating tones of his instrument. Although the skill of his bandmates at times makes his approach seem a tad rudimentary, they really aren't holding back noticeably; if you couldn't see Dewaylon, you wouldn't think that they were playing with a child.
They cruise through standards like "Autumn Leaves" and "Serenade for Charlie," and Dewaylon picks up speed and confidence, grinning broadly--just for a second--when he clears some particularly challenging hurdle.
"These are guys who I play with," Sanders notes after the show, denying that any punches were pulled. "And he kept right up with us."
"They'd play me a little bit [of a song], and I'd learn it, and then they'd teach me a little bit more and I'd learn that," Dewaylon says later at home, explaining the incredibly scant rehearsal time the trio put in before the show. He looks up briefly, laughs a "no biggie" laugh, and goes back to studying his sneakers.
Sanders first noticed that same "big ear" at the learning center when the boy was playing percussion; he got ahold of some tone resonator bells and found that Dewaylon was as adept with tone as he was with rhythm. Program Administrator Charles Winslow mentioned Dewaylon to Idaho's Dr. Skinner, and the festival invited him up in 1994. That year's loss of funding--arranged through the DISD--occurred so close to the event itself that there was no time to arrange an alternative means of attending. In 1995, Hampton himself underwrote the trip, playing with Dewaylon onstage and presenting him with a set of vibes that a retired jazz musician on the West Coast donated to him.
Jerry King had been introduced to Hampton years before by Gene Krupa, back in the days when King was working as a drummer and arranger for acts like Patty Page and Mel Torme; he later went on to work with Disney, playing over 35,000 shows with the Golden Horseshoe Revue in Frontier Land before retiring. Catching the last bit of a newscast about the festival on TV, he heard just enough of Dewaylon to be fascinated with, then focused on, the idea of helping him.
"The little bit I heard, you could tell that for someone so small, he had a great ear," King explains. "I just decided to do whatever I could to help." A friend contacted Dr. Skinner in Moscow, and it was decided that King's old Musser vibraphone--which he had used in his studio for years--would go to Dewaylon (new vibraphones range in cost from $3,500 to $6,400).
1995 had been a promising year for Dewaylon. Then-Dallas Morning News reporter and sometime jazz critic Johnathan Eig (a "helluva guy," King says) helped Dewaylon out immensely, giving up time before the festival and ferrying him to and from Ed Hagen, who had been paid by King to teach Dewaylon how to read music. Then the youth fell off the map; Hagen hasn't heard from his pupil since.