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Some Jazz, a tribute to fathers and a little gumbo are how founders James and Pamela Johnson plan to commemorate the Afro American Music Institute’s 30th birthday.
“I never thought AAMI would not be around,” Pam Johnson said. “My husband and I are a team and that makes it a success. With us, what you see is what you get. We use love and Southern hospitality—we’re from Louisiana—and that has an impact on people. People can see when you are being sincere.”
Started in 1982, the institute’s mission is to provide systematic specialized instructional training in all styles of African-American music traditions including Jazz, Gospel, Blues and Negro Spirituals. It also provides a forum in performing for undiscovered talent in the Pittsburgh area.
People from all walks of life have the opportunity to learn music from an African-American perspective.
The institute began at St. James AME Church’s Sumpter Hall in East Liberty and within six years of its inception, moved to the Alma Illery Annex in Homewood. It remained at the Annex until 2003 when the Johnson’s were able to purchase the school’s current location on Hamilton Avenue in Homewood.
“AAMI was built on a revolving ball of flexibility,” said James Johnson who is affectionately known as “Dr. J” to his AAMI students, faculty and volunteers. “It doesn’t matter what genre of music it is, everything has to be positive. The Africa-American community has always been a music making community. That’s how we got through things.
“We want to preserve that legacy and show the younger generation that African-Americans have so much to bring to this world. We are not locked into the past but the traditions have to be maintained for our kids to know where they come from.”
AAMI offers music instruction on numerous musical instruments including trumpet, saxophone guitar, bass, drums and piano. There are also classes in music theory, voice training, ear training and music industry instruction. Classes are available for beginners, intermediate and advanced music enthusiasts.
The institute offers two 16-week fall and winter semester classes and an eight-week spring term. According to the Johnsons, the Afro American Music Institute typically averages roughly 125-130 students per semester and about 300 students a year.
“We assign you a teacher and the teacher takes you from where you are to where you want to be,” Dr. J. said. “Some people come to AAMI because they want to make it in the music world, some want to learn more about music now that their children are grown and gone. AAMI is open to everyone. It doesn’t matter what you know or don’t know.”
As a part of Women’s Health Month and to help celebrate AAMI’s three decades in business, the Spelman College 16-piece All Female Jazz Ensemble will be performing at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater on March 11 at 7 p.m. The opening act for the world renowned Jazz group will be the AAMI youth Jazz Instrumental and Vocal Ensembles.
“We wanted to show that more than just men can preserve this music,” Dr. J. said.
During the first Sunday in April, AAMI will be going back to its roots by holding Louisi-Ann’s Gumbo Fest at St. James’ Sumpter Hall. Participants will be treated to an afternoon of delicious, home cooked gumbo while being serenaded by Jimmy Sapienza of Five Guys Named Moe fame.
The idea for the Gumbo fest came about when Dr. J. took a group of people to the French Quarter in Louisiana.
“I don’t know if the restaurant wasn’t prepared for such a large group or what, but the gumbo was terrible and when we came back to Pittsburgh I said we should have an event to let people taste real gumbo,” Dr. J. said.
Pam’s sister cooked the gumbo and the event became an instant hit. When Pam’s sister passed away 10 years ago, she passed the gumbo cooking-baton to Pam’s daughter who cooks the gumbo for the popular event.
Another one of the institute’s popular events is the Father’s Day tribute, which features the AAMI boys’ choir. It will be held on Father’s Day at a yet-to-be determined location.
Pam started the boys’ choir more than 20 years ago as a way to bring attention to AAMI. She pulled everyone who was taking music lessons at the institute and created the choir, which has become one of the school’s most popular groups.
Both Pam and James have high hopes for AAMI’s next 30 years.
“I hope the next generation takes AAMI over. When we started this we were in our early 30’s,” Pam said. “Half of our lives have been spent with this.”
For more information on the Afro American Music Institute visit www.afromaericanmusic.org or call 412-241-6775.
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