SEVEN MINUTES WITH FLEA OF CHILI PEPPERS
Give it away
Through the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, rock bassist Flea offers musical opportunities to everyone
By Carl Kozlowski
When Michael Balzary was a self-proclaimed "wild child" growing up in LA in the late 1970s, he found much-needed direction and inspiration through the music education programs at Fairfax High School. It was there that he also found his lifelong best friend, Anthony Kiedis, adopted the nickname of "Flea" as his public moniker and started his life's work as rock's premier bassist when the two teamed up to create the mega-selling rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers.
But when Flea, who's now 45, went back to speak to Fairfax High students several years ago, he made a discovery that shocked him.
"They used to have a marching band, orchestra, jazz band and all sorts of student productions to play in, but now they had basically no music program at all, just a volunteer teacher and a few instruments," Flea recalls. "They used to give you the instruments and teach you how to play, and now it was all gone. Then I read a book called "Songs of the Unsung" by Horace Tapscott, a great musician who started a music school in South Central in the '60s. I was really inspired by him and, after reading it, decided to start a school."
Thanks to the fact that the Chili Peppers have sold well over 40 million albums, Flea had the wherewithal to put his intentions into action. He put up the money and oversaw the planning for the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, and even personally knew and enlisted the teachers before it opened in 2001. And for the past three years, he's recruited the Chili Peppers along with some of rock's biggest names — from Patti Smith to Tracy Chapman to this year's special guest, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam — to perform a fiery fund-raiser called Hullabaloo to raise most of the school's annual budget.
This year's Hullabaloo is being held Saturday night at the Henry Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, offering fans the chance to see one of the best live bands on the planet rock it out in a venue that holds just 1,400 people. The prices range from $250 for regular admission to the show and an open bar and appetizer spread beforehand, to $500 for VIP tickets that entitle buyers to attend an exclusive rooftop after-party at a Hollywood hotspot with a special performance by popular local scenester Mickey Avalon.
All the money goes to a great cause, as the Silverlake Conservatory of Music currently teaches 600 Angelenos of every age and background among the six studios that rotate users all day long, including free lessons for those who can't afford them. Keeping with Flea's old public school tradition, the Conservatory also provides the instruments for the students to use — "that's why we need a fund-raiser," Flea says, laughing.
"We just ask that you take care of the instrument we give you and that you show up on time," says Flea. "I don't know if music programs are coming back to the schools. I would hope that would be a priority in a kid's education, but who knows? Maybe if we get a decent leader in this country."
The Conservatory doesn't just focus on rock music. Emanating from its studio walls on a recent Tuesday afternoon were piano riffs from famous classical pieces, the squawk of a tuba and assorted other jazz instruments. While it may seem surprising, the mix of sounds is totally apropos for a school run by Flea, who also is a proficient trumpet player. He studied the trumpet as well as bass guitar at Fairfax High, but also was heavily influenced by his stepfather, acclaimed jazz musician Walter Urban, Jr.
"I just love music, period," says Flea. "Jazz is one of the most sophisticated forms of music in terms of harmonics, covering the spiritual and emotional as well."
And with that spirit of musical adventure helping guide the Chili Peppers to ever more sophisticated albums and critical acclaim — including a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year for their 2006 double-CD "Stadium Arcadium" — Flea can look toward his own future with excitement, but, more importantly, can see the futures of a new generation of musical talent blossom.
"I was a street kid out of control. Having music was the one thing that was a discipline that was essential to me. It gave me something to do and something to believe in," he explains. "School music programs were everything to me; they gave me a path away from self-destruction and toward giving good energy to the world. There are a lot of kids like me who need this. I just wanna give back. That's the whole thing."