Snapshot: Antonio Underwood (Serbia, 2015/16)

Jul 14, 2020
Antonio Underwood in Serbia
Standing on the Petrovaradin Bridge, Serbia. Overlooking the Fortress at the Danube River

It was so rewarding to see how many students looked forward to each weekly class! Students from more conservative societal norms learning to be open musically; learning to trust their instincts; learning to trust an African American. The young people were singing and playing the blues...and loving the collaborative learning process.


Fulbright experiences: Jazz in Serbia

Jazz is the music of a people that found their way through slavery in America: finding ways to continue certain customs, mores, and ways of living under extremely suppressive circumstances. Congo Square in New Orleans gave way each week to expression brought forth by the very situation in a new world that tried to change them, conform them. An outgrowth of struggle.

The power of Jazz is that its creative expression has influenced all walks of life. From literature, fashion, to hip hop. Ways of thinking. The power of Jazz is seen and heard in all forms of dance of the 20th century. Rock and Roll is a derivation of this vastly global art form. Everyone, whatever your daily profession, has either played in a rock band or gone to rock concerts, or are avid listeners of mainstream music. If you listen closely, you will hear them ‘riff’ on the Blues crossover! Global in the sense that so many musicians of all countries and races have taken the stage together sharing individual interpretations in collective and collaborative exchanges of spontaneous musical ideas. The bond that is formed by these “in the moment”, “on the fly” connections are magical “more than I” moments. These democratic developments change the lives of all involved. Those who have preconceived instincts or learned biases, have to find themselves in the greater world...which is much much more than one person or culture. We all have our personal struggles as a people, culture, and society. Jazz is the flow of non-restrictive patterns over the controlled-based structure or system of a life. Spoken as a musical expression of individual sadness, faith, and hope of a people. The “flow” of non-restriction in a restrictive area that makes the music rhythmically fluent and flowing over the barline, measured time with space, and loosening boundaries. A great state of mind.

My Fulbright to University of Novi Sad, in Serbia, was one of the more difficult goals in my life. It was set up over about 3 years of development. Things weren’t in place, so we created it! And the call to go was 2 days before Christmas 2015. I arrived about 1 month later. Firstly, the impact of Jazz is felt all over the world, so to go to an environment that is very nationalistic and strongly classical oriented, was a challenge. But not one I hadn’t seen before. My Yale graduate degree is in classical music and education. And at that time, there was no jazz curriculum or degree initiative.

As I began teaching these extraordinarily respectful students, I found they were very ‘cell phone’ and internet savvy. Everyone, especially the young high school and college students, had cell phones, so that meant that they had strong access to Youtube, Google, etc. It makes a teacher have to find creative ways to reach them. The interest and intrigue for the global music of Jazz was outstanding. The college students of all ages and levels came to study and learn what makes this music. Serbians are multi-faceted, multi-linguistic people, so for the most part there were less communication problems than I thought there might be. Though sometimes, I wondered if I was expected as an older African-American Male, to not feel out of place...culture shock. As the assignment continued, I was invited to meet representatives of the non-active Novi Sad Jazz Festival. They were interested in reviving the programming. The Children’s Community Choir, and others in the community that had a fond appreciation of Jazz, were enthusiastic.

Rock and Roll is very strong in Serbia, with ‘Exit’ being one of the most prominent European festivals. This festival sponsors artists and DJs of all popular genres. So you see African Americans walking the streets during this July event. I created a workshop that included history-based videos and a class to practically learn basic theory, rhythm studies, body movement, and style improvisation training. It was so rewarding to see how many students looked forward to each weekly class! Students from more conservative societal norms, learning to be open musically; learning to trust their instincts and gut reaction; learning to trust an African American. It was sad that my stay was cut short by administration problems, but the young people of college levels were singing and playing the blues...and loving the collaborative learning process. The Children’s Community Choir, of 25 young people, sang spirituals. It was heartwarming and taught me that young children can be respectful and obedient. They sang with their hearts and excited each Wednesday evening to learn - touching my heart. It was very new for them, and new for me to devise ways to present the assignments at different degree levels to young people that had no prior learning in the cultural art form… monitoring and mentoring young people. They became comfortable to express themselves, both musically, and to articulate their personal goals and feelings to me...they grew, I grew...and loved my stay there. The training of Jazz and its sensibility, changed the community in Serbia.

The Third Eye book cover

Radio Television of Serbia (RTV) filmed a documentary on Danijela Veselinovic, the top female trumpeter in Serbia, who the university had spent many hours affirming her technique. It captured one of the hour long brass quintet sessions.

I then set up a live concert to exhibit the students of all ages I taught. It was held at the Novi Sad Culture Center, and was attended by the community. What a wonderful experience for all! Pictures/ videos were taken by the American Corner, so vital an organization in Eastern Europe, teaching and exchanging with the American culture.

This past June 26th, 2020, I received an invitation letter from the Music Academy at University of Montenegro, in Cetinje. The Music Academy of Art, would like to host, as a visiting scholar in residence, to further develop my Fulbright grant topic of Music and Society. They have such a wealth of history, and literature. Montenegro has strong ties to Serbia. We understand each other. I have friends who live there (Serbia) and look forward to reconnecting. I miss them!

*Jazz, and its lineage, spans African-American Studies, United States History, World & Cultural Literature, Globalization, Multiculturalism, Diversity, Race, Gender, Ethnographics, Collaborative Learning, and Class Demographic studies.


COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter

Today, it’s a risk for any Black Male to speak out and do just what democracy is supposed to afford.

The last few weeks have impacted me tremendously. I turned 60 years old this past week and have been watching the pandemic slow the world enough to view and possibly try and understand the problems of my kind for years. Young people are now going through a re-step of what was supposed to be understood when Dr. King and others who have died representing some level of systematic justice. But somehow we’ve forgotten what is most important, and are taking more than we need. Harming others with personal justifications that only have turned to narcissistic actions and media after thoughts. Image over truth; presentation over real substance; money over honesty. Now that we have “Black Lives Matter”, how has it affected the Black Lives? It’s a risk to live, it’s been ok to mistreat and harm with no reprimand, no equality. Causing insecure upbringing and furthermore deep seeded problems. But, this is a sad occurrence in young people all over the world, with drug addictions and suicide at an all-time high.

I feel the humanities are so necessary for the youth of today to express themselves and find better outlets that don’t need a lot of public funding to survive and thrive. Or more importantly, higher family income to be a part of. They need to see more community support.

When I was in high school, I can remember preparing for a baseball game. We had a very good team...anyway, I remember how it felt to prepare for a big game and as we entered the field of play, the field had not been evened off and the lines not drawn. There were bumpy hills of dirt, so as the ball was hit to the infielders, it would take a tricky hop. It is bad to get used to that type of treatment, wouldn’t you say? The morale of the team suffered. The damage has been done over and over again, and at some point, like now, it has hit a boiling point. It is very dangerous to our society as a whole. It has impacted me for much of my life.

So, when I arrived back at the high school that I’d graduated from, I started an ethnic percussion program. I felt, because there was no jazz program to speak of, the students would group into musicianship training easier. We bought steel pans and began circular keyboard learning in a percussive collaborative learning fashion. This program was started with a quarter of inch of dirt on the floor, broken chairs, light fixtures, and health inspection stickers 2 years expired. There would be no cost to the parents, but we could develop a budget to take care of the drums. The students learnt classical arrangements, and all ethnic styles. Students were ages 10 to 18 year old seniors. We gave benefit concerts at the Waldorf Astoria, in New York, for the International Radio and Television Society, we were invited by a New Jersey Commission to perform for the first New Jersey/New York World Cup event, at the Meadowlands Stadium, and many university and corporate concerts. These engagements were scholarship funding for seniors. It was important to the young people’s self-awareness and esteem as African American young men and women. This training and concerts made them comfortable in many settings.

Everything I have and have developed has been hard-won. So, taking a risk is the only way to change things. To change your personal life, to grow, and to live an example that may, over time, change the perspective of others. To be put in positions to change policy and other important legislation for the greater good. Our music of Jazz was born out of these restraints. Chains that hold back everything but tears...this is where my research on music in society will develop new bonds, connect to new people, and exchange ideas that can change the understandings of those involved. Fulbright has been great to enable those to reach each other under the blanket of education and research. Broadening the eyes and ears of the world.


Tone East Music LLC

Tone East Music

My company, Tone East Music LLC, is in the process of developing children’s camps in West Virginia [USA] and Serbia. Community outreach initiatives. We are working on funding.

We look forward to the travel bans being lifted on foreign lands, so we can reach more in our mission and understanding. Our radio station, RadioAirPlay-Jango, is worldwide and is connected to the very best artists in all genres throughout America and the world. Our music arrangements are of all styles and featuring the tuba, as a solo voice. We feature additional artists, as well.

Tone East Music CD Recordings

Once in a Wish CD cover

Our latest feature CD is: TP XII: Once in a Wish (Find on Jango, Spotify, Amazon).

We are also preparing a feature film to showcase a coming of age story.

Tone East Music LLC Film Music Productions

1) Animation film, "Eeya's Story" (PowerLight Studio/Danimation Entertainment/Inclusion Films, Burbank, California)
Story written by Dr. George Nickel, Speech-Language Pathologist, Staten Island, New York (2010). Joe Travolta directed/created by the handicapped members of Inclusion Films.

2) "Shadows of The Dead" (Feature)
(Horizon Pictures Entertainment/First Look Home Entertainment-First Look Media) (2004)

God blessed me with opportunities to express musically very early in my life. I was recognized by wonderful teachers in high school and put on track to go into the New York City scene, in music and theatre. Studying with some of the best teachers in the brass field, such as: Dr. David A Uber, Robert Nagel, Abe Torchinsky, Toby Hanks, John Swallow, Ray Mase, Ray Draper, Howard Johnson, Willie Ruff. Studying composition & production with: Joan Panetti, Dr. David A Uber, Norman Dale “Buddy” Baker, David Raksin, Chris Young. And Entertainment Law with ; Frederick ‘Denny’ Greene , David A Braun.


Proudest memories

My professional career spans several decades and one of my proudest moments was looking at my late mother’s face when I won the Alumni Award for outstanding contribution to the Yale environment. See, I didn’t come from a neighborhood where that was even thought of. Though my late father was an Honor Guard and Medic in the Korean War (“Hell on Wheels” infantry). He spoke 4 languages and was clearly out of place in our neighborhood, suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)...so, I guess it wasn’t that strange for me to go to Yale, by way of the College of New Jersey with a father that smart. At that time, when you win an award you never see it as a first. But, I might have been the first African-American to win that particular award. When Norman “Buddy” Baker came to New York City to meet me, I just thought it was another school thing. In fact when I got to the University of Southern California, I was the first African American in the scoring for motion pictures and television program, as a visiting scholar! Thanks to George Lucas for having his people contact the university to endorse the event. I was playing off-broadway with Julie Taymor (Best Director Tony Award) and Elliot Goldenthal (Academy Award) in their first theatre production, Juan Darien, when Buddy Baker arrived to meet me. I was creating the tuba part for Julie & Elliot. The show had a short run, and won an Obie and was nominated for a Tony Award. Then, got the call to help the off-broadway play, Further Mo’-a New Orleans style show-developing the tuba part, also.

It’s a New York thing. You play a lot of different music, if you can. I did a short concert series in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Washington D.C with the New Brass Ensemble. An African American Classical Brass Quintet. French Hornist Bob Watt of the LA Philharmonic, contacted me for these Black History events [about 4-5 months]

I remember writing music and producing demos when I got the call that one project was picked up by Pony Canyon Records in Japan. The great Saxophonist, John Purcell had performed the tracks and got the deal. We called the top players to do that CD. Lisa Fischer (Rolling Stones/Luther Vandross), Katreese Barnes (Arsenio Hall Show and other television sitcoms), Steve Jordan (John Mayer), Anthony Jackson (created the 6 string bass), and Rodney Jones (Outstanding guitarist). I produced and performed about 5 songs on the demo.

It was the beginning of me writing and producing recordings for major labs. I have done string arrangements for the legendary gospel singer BeBe Winans (Arista), Jazz compositions for the legendary World Saxophone Quartet (Justin Time records), helped create tuba effects for the wonderful, colorful ensembles of Henry Threadgill (Music of Kurt Weill on A & M Records), was a part of the Grammy Award Winning All-Star Big Band of the late legendary pianist McCoy Tyner...my good friend and support as I developed all of this. The years with the late Great drummer, Max Roach connected me to my greatest influence in the music of jazz, the late great saxophonist ‘Charlie’ Parker. Max Roach is considered by many to be the very best Jazz drummer and his affiliation with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus, is considered the greatest musician exchange ever.

Just did BeBe Winans arrangements and developed the project from negotiation of 802 Union on down to coordinating the session with Arista. They pretty much gave me full reign to hire the musicians I wanted and write the orchestrations. That recording session was at the Hit Factory in NYC. Stressful, but exciting and fast moving...all in one day. So, I had just gotten the call to do another for a new artist for Warner Bros., Terry Dexter. I was just about to write the orchestra arrangement and conduct it down at Philadelphia Sound Studios, in Philadelphia. I was ready. The phone rang about 9PM Eastern Standard Time, on a Tuesday. I pick-up and chatted with Max Roach for about 5 minutes. He had plans for a brass quintet playing jazz around the world. I was all in. After the Terry Dexter thing, I went back to playing live. McCoy’s big band thing was great too, but I didn’t have the creative freedom to improvise all the time. Max let me loose! It was wonderful to play with Dr. Eddie Henderson again-we played for many years with McCoy. Delfeayo Marsalis was with us on Max’s job and we all created some wonderful music. And Max Roach was a ‘griot’ of information on the past history of Jazz. He played with the best from Ellington, at 17 years old, to every top name who ever lived. What a blessing to grow with that experience.

To this date, my proudest moment of them all, is playing gigs and recording with the son I raised from the age of 1 ½ years old here in West Virginia. Bassell is grown now and has a son of his own. A good trumpeter schooled at the Interlochen Arts Academy, he named his son Miles.


Musician, author and business owner Antonio D. Underwood, A Fulbright Scholar/Lecturer in Serbia and the first African-American to become a George Lucas scholar with the Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program at the University of Southern California. Possibly 1st African-American given the Alumni Award (Yale School of Music in 1987), Antonio won the Yale University African American Cultural Center Award, Francis Louis Kirchoff Tap, and NY Philharmonic/Aspen Music Festival Scholar. Original Cast member, Obie/Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Development/Tony Award nominated, Juan Darien, by Director Julie Taymor.

Antonio, a 20 year member of the Grammy Award Winning McCoy Tyner All-Star Big Band, beginning his career playing in NYC clubs, in 1979. Featured soloist with Jazz Legend, the late Max Roach, before moving to Los Angeles to compose/produce music for his company, Tone East Music LLC.


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