This Academy Rocks

Before there was “Rock School” (the documentary) or “School of Rock” (the movie and musical) there was Hickman High School’s very own Academy of Rock.

It was just about 15 years ago that Hickman students approached their teacher, Phil Overeem, with an idea for an after-school club to celebrate their love of music and to learn more about it. Overeem had some experience in such matters as he was a regular contributor to Underground Rock “’zines” for years under thenom de plume “Philly Joe” and had actually sponsored a version of such a club in the 1990s at Russell Boulevard Elementary School.

Youth In Charge
From the beginning, faculty advisers Overeem and Brock Boland — and current sponsor Jonathan McFarland — have insisted that the students be in charge of the club’s vision, agenda and legacy (which would prove to be significant to our local culture). So for more than a decade, the Hickman students met regularly after school and planned sponsored events to promote the group and to support organizations such as Amnesty International. They hosted local bands in parking-lot shows and invited touring R&B acts such as the Drive-By Truckers and even the late, great Bobby Rush to speak and perform at Academy meetings.

Probably most significant of all, the club started the Columbia Public Schools Battle of the Bands contest. Over the years, this competition has featured dozens of middle and high school bands and scores of young musicians seeking (and gaining) validation at an early but crucial stage of their musical development. Besides performing for and gaining the respect of their families and their peers, the young musicians have learned the “rules of the road” for professional touring acts — showing up on time, promotions, and respecting equipment and other bands on the bill.

I’ve had the honor of “judging” a dozen or so of these contests and have been blown away not just by the talent but by the unbridled enthusiasm these kids exhibit while setting and achieving some pretty lofty organizational goals. Academy members serve in every capacity from sound to security. Besides bringing a pretty disparate crowd together, the Academy provides students with a common background and a solid infrastructure — two essential networking tools that keep kids motivated long after graduation.

Need proof? When Battle High School opened a few years ago, students approached faculty member and Academy alum Jordan Smith (his Battle of the Bands group, the Last Kings, was one of the first — and they’re still together!), asking to start an Academy of Rock chapter north of Interstate 70.

Studio Time
Shortly after, Craig Adams, Columbia Public School’s practical arts director, contacted Gentry Middle School Social Studies teacher David Aulgur (another original Academy member with the band Los Caballos) about converting a disused Hickman darkroom into a recording facility for students. Thanks in large part to Academy of Rock interest, the Hickman radio station was thriving, and the time had come to take young CPS musicians to the next level — from performing their own music to recording it.

Aulgur, with the help of McFarland, Smith and lots of eager students, got what came to be known as the Darkroom Studio up and running, only to engender another inevitable upgrade — that’s how Darkroom Records came into being.

The record label has celebrated its first release with the auspicious title, “Darkroom at The Social Room”(Academy Battle member Roxy Garcia’s parents own the joint). You can watch highlights of the party, order Volume 1 and get updates for Volume 2 at
Battle Of The Bands
This year’s Columbia Public Schools Battle of the Bands goes down at The Bridge (1020 E. Walnut St.) on the artsy near-north side of The District. Festivities get underway at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 5. The contests are part family reunion and part hipster, a block-party-entertainment-for-all event. Thanks to Columbia Public Schools for programs like this and Blues in the Schools, along with curricula at Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School. We are blessed to see the fruits of those endeavors as more and more alumni enrich our community, not only as educators but as our cultural rank and file.