Fernando Pullum: Confessions of a Visionary
Fernando Pullum is a renowned musician and music teacher in Los Angeles. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan holding a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and a Masters in Trumpet Performance. As a musician, he has recorded or performed with many music legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway and contemporary stars like Justin Timberlake, Pharrell and Neyo. He has spent part of his career molding and educating young high school musicians and establishing an outstanding music program at Washington Preparatory High School in south central Los Angeles.
‘Pullum’, as his former students refer to him, has instilled a sense of pride and accomplishment, purpose and discipline for many L.A. students and is well loved for it. Many students of Washington Prep have gone on to play with national and international musicians and singers and produced Grammy award winning music themselves.
After leaving the Los Angeles Unified School District and Washington Prep, Fernando’s next major accomplishment was
founding the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center located, again, in south central Los Angeles. At this center, students have access to classes for dance, recording, film, acting, piano, guitar and jazz band. ALL CLASSES ARE ABSOLUTELY FREE. Students are provided a creative, positive outlet in a creative, safe and positive environment where they are allowed to grow and explore. They are also heavily encouraged to get their education; to go on to college after high school. This performing arts center is very necessary in the community and results from it are tangible. They manifest themselves not only in top notch musicians and creative personalities but in a raised sense of community and culture. Fernando Pullum pays his gifts forward. Pullum’s drive for the cultivation of Black youth and the retention and growth of Black culture is genuine and, speaking with him, you find that he is absolutely passionate about their preservation. Both his accomplishments and goals are noteworthy so allow me to introduce... Fernando Pullum.
PBI: I always assumed you were a native of Los Angeles but you’re not huh?
FP: No, I’m originally from Chicago. I came to L.A. by way of Michigan where I went to college at the University of Michigan. I came out to L.A. in the late 70s for a University of Michigan football game and fell in love with the city. The weather, the whole scene. Later, director Robert Altman (M*A*S*H) convinced me to come out to L.A. to try to work my way into being an industry player/arranger/composer. This was 1983. PBI: So how long have you been teaching and how’d you get your start?FP: I’ve been teaching for 22 years. How I got started is a crazy set of coincidences. It’s a story I rarely tell because it seems either unbelievable or like I’m bragging. When I got to Los Angeles I knew I wanted to teach AND play so I had taken the music subject test downtown for LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District). One night I participated in a fundraiser for the Challenger’s Boy’s Club hosted at Washington Preparatory High School. I heard the Principal at the time, George McKenna, speak and felt really inspired by what he and his mission were about. I went home thinking that teaching at Washington was the job I really wanted to have. Around this time I had been playing with my Grandmother’s choir and coincidentally one of her choir members was the head counselor at Washington. The day after I had played at Washington, she contacted me asking if I might be interested in interviewing for a music department job at Washington. I felt like it was, like, divine intervention to have gone there one day and the next day get that call.
Now when I had taken the music subject test at LAUSD, the lady there told me then that there weren’t really any openings at the time. That said, I didn’t complete the application process then. When I interviewed for the job McKenna really goaded me about not being able to handle teaching in the ‘hood. I was adamant that I could stand to the task and he decided to give me a shot. Now, McKenna was somewhat a maverick in those days and usually at odds with the LAUSD brass. So he makes the call to tell them he wants to hire me and they push back saying policy dictated they hire the next (and most qualified) person on the waiting list and not HIS handpicked selection. McKenna apologized about the whole thing after telling his secretary to find out who that person would be. As we’re walking out, his secretary says “It was someone named Fernando Pullum. He has the highest test score for teaching Music” and I happened to be standing right there. True story.
PBI: Very cool. So was it a ‘be careful what you wish for’ situation in the end?
FP: To be honest, my first year I wanted to quit every day. I thought I would be able to relate but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t reach the kids. They seemed to think automatically that if you’re a teacher you’re like a Cosby kid and that there’s no connection between you and them. I’m from the ‘hoods of West Side Chicago so one day I got courageous and opened up to them about my rough childhood and background. I honestly think we turned the corner that day respect-wise and things improved. Teaching there actually helped me and I learned that if you’re REALLY teaching you learn as much as you teach. You get as much as you give. I think that’s the beauty of teaching.
PBI: So how did the Community Arts Center come about? Was this some sort of new project that LAUSD kicked off?
FP: No. The Community Arts Center is not affiliated with LAUSD. No grants, no nothing. We are a 501 California Non-Profit organization and I raised the money for the CAC independently. And students are not charged a penny. I love it.
PBI: I get it. And you’re able to run the center as you see best benefiting the students and the community.
FP: Absolutely. I’d always wanted to be my own boss and being able to create the arts center in the heart of the Black community was a nice bonus. See, if I was a conspiracy theorist I’d think the way the arts programs are managed in our community’s schools was done on purpose. The way these resources are getting impacted by underfunded budgets. Arts and sports are the way to keep our kids engaged in school and both of these areas are suffering. Choir directors are doing double duty as band directors and they really have no experience in the realm; and vice versa. Put me in the choir room and I wouldn’t be able to teach them. They think ‘art is art’ and they don’t make any distinction. They just throw us all in a room together. It’s really a disservice to the kids and a disservice to the teachers.
PBI: And the location itself speaks volumes. How did you settle on the Leimert Park location?
FP: I’d always wanted to be in the Leimert Park area. Leimert Park is like the Black cultural hub of Los Angeles. When I first walked in Leimert Park, there were (and still are) two light posts with banners hanging from them. And each banner has the image of a positive black person. There was no place I’d ever been in the world where I could see images that looked like me that were positive. And I thought that would be great for kids to see themselves. That it would motivate them. Also, a lot of people around that area are older and I figured that we need to sustain the culture for the next generation. The only way to do that is to inject youth in it. The older people can set the example and eventually pass the torch. I’m trying to create positive images throughout the community.
PBI: Are there any requirements to study at the Community Arts Center?
FP: We push them to stick with school. We push them to go to college. Most classes are for middle-school through 12th grade students though the dance and acting classes extend to younger kids as well.
PBI: Oh so you guys are planting the seed in their brains about college also?
FP: Yeah, I find we have to stop asking kids IF they’re going to college and start asking them what college they’re going to. Asking “are you going?” makes college optional. In Beverly Hills the question is "what college
are you going to?” so we need to change the conversation in our community. Raise the expectation. Not saying that college is the end all because there are successful people that didn’t attend college. But it can possibly give you a little more leverage. It can help. It’s just one more tool in your belt that may enable you to improve your life.
PBI: Now, I know without asking that you have a lengthy music resume. Looking at all these plaques on the walls tell the tale before a word is spoken. Do you have any favorite experiences or notable firsts that come to mind throughout your musical journey?
FP: Well... playing with Ella Fitzgerald has to be at the top of my list. I played with Cab Calloway as well. The first record I arranged was for Etta James. Also, I’m teaching Don Cheadle trumpet now for an upcoming role as Miles Davis. I’m excited about this Sunday (March 26, 2014) because some of our students are going to record a PSA for the United Nations with Don playing trumpet. My most fun gigs are actually playing with some of my former students. We played together as a horn section for a couple of Bruno Mars shows. Mostly me and Washington Prep students. I played with Whitney Houston in one of her last performances. I was sitting next to one of my students that I used to yell at all the time because he couldn’t figure out the difference between second and third position. Always the wrong position!! Drove me nuts. I was up there on that stage tearing up because my former student was playing better than me. And Brian Warfield just got a Grammy for producing and writing with Miguel. And he produced with some of the Arts Center students on the John Lennon Bus.
Phil Scott, another former student, got a Grammy for his work with Frank Ocean. My students have played with George Clinton, Lionel Hampton, Winton Marsalis, and Stevie Wonder. We were part of the house band at this year’s American Music Awards and backed Justin Timberlake, Pharrell, Jamie Foxx and Stevie Wonder. I mean THEIR list is LONG!! It’s hard to wrap my mind around because my issue at the time they were students was trying to just keep people alive. It wasn’t really about the music but raising their self-esteem so they wouldn’t get caught up. It’s exciting to turn on the TV and see Keschia Potter playing sax with Beyoncé’. (What Pullum left out was that former Washington Prep alumni also formed the alternative hip hop band Wylde Bunch and signed with Sony Music as well).
PBI: Any final thoughts or message you’d like to pass on to young students or musicians?
PB: I guess it would just be kinda redundant but you just have to go for your dreams. Anything’s possible. Anything I ever thought about as a kid that seemed ridiculous at the time, I’ve done. I used to love the show Mission Impossible and that theme song was amazing. All through my youth I felt like I was preparing myself to play the theme from Mission Impossible someday. Lilo Schifrin wrote Mission Impossible’s theme and, years later, he was the conductor at the Ella Fitzgerald gig I mentioned earlier.
I’m onstage playing Mission Impossible with him at the Hollywood Bowl. I was on cloud nine because I realized my dream. He tells me that Mission Impossible is being brought back on FX and he asked me to be in his orchestra for the new score.
I am a firm believer that when you plant these seeds you lay the ground work to make your dreams come true. You just have to wake up and do the work.