Let's begin at the beginning. Please tell us a little bit about your early life, your family, your upbringing.
Well, I was born in Atlanta. I am a native of Atlanta, which is a rarity now. I was born in Summerhill, which is Southeast Atlanta, and at that time it was probably middle class to upper middle class for African-Americans. I loved being there, because we had a big house with a porch and swing, and a big back yard, and we had ducks that ran me…chased me, and I didn't like that. But, we had a pomegranate tree, and nowadays when I see pomegranate juice going for something like $4 a bottle (laughs), I think about those pomegranates that we got for free. But at any rate, my dad owned a restaurant on Auburn Avenue, the famous “Sweet Auburn Avenue", and it was not far from Dr. King's church. At any rate, at that age, I didn't know much about that church, but as I grew older I did come to know a lot about it. My mom would pick us up from school, and take us over to the restaurant after school. Now, we were on double sessions in school. We had a morning session and then an afternoon. So, my older brother and I were always on the morning session so that we could go to the restaurant with my mom. It was a smallish restaurant, the mom-and-pop-type, but it was what my dad wanted to do. He wanted to be his own boss. I was paid to stay out of the way, and…(laughs)…so, there was the Auburn Branch Library, which was the only library for African-Americans at the time, right directly across the street. So every day, I would go over and do my homework and then just would read. Of course, I love to read anyway, and this was like the Brer Rabbit in the briar patch, because I loved it so. My brother was a year and six months older, and he was allowed to help in the restaurant, but I was not. When…oh, my father was, I guess, an amateur musician. He liked to sing. He had a beautiful baritone voice. He sang at weddings, and funerals, and sang at church, and he wanted me to take piano so that I could accompany him. So, I started taking piano when I was six. The studio was just above where my father's restaurant was, so it was very convenient. But, the piano teacher would rap you on the knuckles when you played a wrong note, and I didn't like that too much. So, I stopped taking piano after a year. My father had bought us a big old upright piano, which I kept through my college years actually, and I would play on the piano even though I was no longer taking the piano. He bought me this library of music…it's about, what…26 volumes, I think, from beginner to advanced level, and I continued to play throughout my elementary years.
So you were self-taught, almost?
Pretty much, except for that one year when I was six. Growing up was fun, but my father wanted to buy the building where the restaurant was located, and they wouldn't allow him to buy it. So, we moved to Kennedy Street, which is northwest Atlanta, and he bought a grocery store. Unfortunately, soon afterward, he died. I was age twelve at the time, and I, of course, looked to my mom. She has always been my role model, because she was a teacher in Monroe, Georgia. And she always talked about how wonderful it was to stretch young minds, and I thought, that's what I want to do, and of course it turned out I did that. She was the kind of person who wanted you to move out on your own. She kept pushing us to do things, to explore, and she was really quite an influence. My father influenced me as far as music was concerned. My mom influenced me as far as teaching was concerned. While we were growing up, of course, I have said that the schools were a double session. They were also segregated, and we never got new textbooks. We always got the hand-me-downs from a white school. I don't think I had a new textbook until I was in eleventh grade in high school. But, school was fun. I loved school. I guess I was what you call a nerd (laughs), because I liked to read and to write, and other kids liked to play out more, but I just enjoyed reading and being involved in school. My elementary teachers…I went a year early because I had gone to a pre-school, then it was called nursery, and they had a kindergarten class. I was reading by the time I went into the kindergarten class, so I was allowed to go into first grade at age five rather than six. It was funny, because my birthday is in June, so I was five, and then I went into first grade, rather than six and going into first grade. I moved so rapidly that they wanted to, what they call, promote you a year ahead when I was in the fourth grade, and my mom and dad said no, because I was already a year ahead and they didn't want socially…they didn't want me to be a REAL nerd (laughs). So, when I went to high school, I went first to Howard High School. There were only two high schools at that time for blacks. I went to Howard High School because my dad played golf, and one of his golf partners was the principal of Howard. And, of course, I said he died, so the next year I went to Washington High School. I was there for two years, and got in the chorus, but I didn't get in the band although I wanted to, because the band director wanted me to play the tuba, and I thought…
That wasn't your instrument?
I didn't want a tuba. That was too big. So, when I was in the eleventh grade, just before the eleventh grade, they built a new school called Turner High School, the same school that Charlayne Hunter went to, and Hamilton Holmes. [Hunter and Holmes were the first two African American students admitted to the University of Georgia.] Because I was going into the eleventh grade and not the twelfth, they sent all the eleventh graders who were in a certain area to Turner. My brother was still at Washington, and I went to Turner. And there, I started playing the clarinet. I was in the band, and the band director was such a charismatic person. He was very interested in his students, and I thought, “You know, I'd like to do that" because all the kids gravitated toward band. Even though it wasn't band time, we'd go to the band room. So, I decided I was going to become a band director, but in those days, that was not what ladies did. You weren't supposed to teach band, that was a man's job. I said, “I'm going to be a band director," and I did later on.