The apartment complex that Dewaylon McCoy, his mother Eva, and little sister Nashayla share isn't really scary--it's just a little bit overpacked and anonymous, one of those places that compel you to say "oh, it isn't that bad" when greeting first-time visitors. Residents eye each other warily from behind their windshields or windows, and occasionally a car alarm goes off. It's the kind of place where people dream of owning a house.
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.
"He went to a school where he couldn't get a program like [Priscilla Tyler's]" Sanders says. "I've started working with him again, because there hasn't been a consistent program for him...he's doing well, but if he had been studying, he'd be so much farther along."
"The toughest thing to do with kids is to keep them focused," Dr. Skinner agrees. "If Dewaylon can do that, he could be incredible."
There's a lot of support for Dewaylon out there. "Whatever I can do," Hagen says, echoing an oft-heard refrain when the subject of the young musician comes up. "Just let me know what it'd take and I'll send it," Jerry King says from California. "The music business has been very good to me, and I just want to put something back...[Dewaylon] has too much talent to go to waste."
Dewaylon himself is pretty pragmatic about the whole affair; in fact, he'd rather be a star basketball player, but "the vibes'll give me something to fall back on if I break my leg or something." He pauses for a moment. "If that doesn't work out, I can also draw pretty good."
Robert Sanders--among others--isn't about to let that happen, however. "I'll be working with him again," he says, "and we'll get him up to the speed he's capable of."
Hard Night's Day, the Beatles band that is Dallas' own reFab Four (actually five, the better to do justice to the 120-odd songs in their repertoire)--and favorite cover band (according to the Observer's Music Awards)--has signed on for an eight-state tour that will take them to the east and west coasts and beyond, all the way to Honolulu...
In case you were wondering--and even if you weren't--that was Lounge Lizard King Johnny Reno and his band playing on the soundtrack to December 16's episode of Melrose Place. The song, "El Toro de Oro," is one of two Reno licensed to the popular TV show and was named after a bullfighter's bar in Madrid, Spain, that Reno visited and was much taken with. Recorded with pal Red Young of Red and the Red Hots, the instrumental will be on his upcoming CD Swinging and Singing, due to be released on Reno's Menthol Records label sometime in January...
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Richard Baimbridge--who contributed to this week's column--and Street Beat say: "Look at me, everybody; I'm a cowboy. Howdy, howdy, howdy" at Matt_Weitz@dallas-observer.com.