Just about every musician in Maine is familiar with the grant process. You fill out some forms, make up some important-sounding stuff about why your “project” is worthy of money from on high, and then cross your fingers.
Sometimes it even works and a couple grand land in your lap, enough to pay for some studio time and print 500 CDs.
When word got out that MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and now distributor of half his billions, had given $2.5 million to the Portland-based Maine Community Foundation’s Maine Expansion Arts Fund and $1.5 million to 317 Main Community Music Center in Yarmouth, any number of Maine artists picked their heads up: Where do I apply?
But that’s not quite how it works.
“Two weeks ago Wednesday I got this email …,” said John Williams, 317’s executive director since 2009, speaking late last week on his music school’s back steps. “Someone who represented a donor-advised fund wanted to get in touch about a gift they want to make. I get that kind of stuff, not all the time, but sometimes. It didn’t even seem legit, to be honest with you.”
But he replied back that he’d be happy to chat about it and they gave him a number to call and so he called it.
“The first discussion was very private and confidential,” he said, no mention of what the fund was or who wanted to make the gift, “and then they told me the number and my jaw about hit the table. And then they said it was from MacKenzie and (husband Dan Jewett) and I had to think quickly about who that was and I thought, ‘Could it be THAT MacKenzie?’”
The conditions were pretty simple: 317 Main could spend the money however they wanted, but they’d have to file a report once a year for three years on what they’d done with the money and what the impact was.
Sworn to confidentiality, Williams asked if he could tell a few people. They said to keep it close to the vest. With his board chair unavailable on vacation, he reached out to a leader of their current capital campaign. Could he believe it?
“We both thought it sounded like a crank call,” Williams said. “It doesn’t sound real. And then they wanted some other information, like our Employer Information Number and I’m Googling, ‘Is it OK to give out your EIN number?’”
Ultimately, though, it came to brass tacks: They wanted 317’s bank account and routing number so they could transfer the funds. Williams, still unsure, gave them an account with not very much money in it, just to be safe. He honestly wasn’t sure what would happen, or when.
Then, on Tuesday last week, his board chair called to say he’d seen it on the news: The press release was live, an announcement had been made. Two hours later, the money was in the bank.
“I’ve never really gotten a call like this,” Williams said. “I said, ‘Can you give me any feedback as to how you heard about us?’ They said they had advisers and researchers and 317 had been identified by several and that led to wanting to make a gift. … It feels like an incredible validation of our work.”
It’s work done by the likes of Carter Logan, among the deans of Maine’s bluegrass community as the long-time banjo and dobro player for Jerks of Grass and the only one of 317’s 40 music instructors who has been with the organization since the beginning, 15 years ago. And, sure, it’s the teaching of music to young and old that’s important, but it’s also the support that 317’s music instructors get that’s truly rare.
While so many music instructors are essentially on their own – renting a space or giving lessons in their home – 317 is the rare true full-time gig for a music instructor.
“It’s the whole community thing for me,” Logan said. “I can do groups; it’s not just the private one-on-one thing. I have three different ensembles and the room to do it and the kids to do it with. … It’s just a great place to teach and it has been for a long time and it allows me to do just that. I just teach.”
Plus, health insurance. And during the pandemic 317 was able to keep the whole faculty on, using Paycheck Protection Program loans.
But it’s also that ensemble-focused and collaborative philosophy that makes 317 Main rare. It basically forces students into playing with others.
“For me,” Logan said, “the purpose of taking lessons is to put you in an ensemble. You have to use what you learn. You might learn ‘Blackberry Blossom’ and play the lead really well, but you have no real reason to learn the chords if you’re playing by yourself.
“But in an ensemble, you realize that 75 percent of the time you’re going to play rhythm and you learn how to play with other people, what you have to do to work together as a team, and you learn how important that is.
“If you mess up a solo, that’s OK,” he said. “If you mess up the rhythm, you bring the whole group down with you.”
Somehow, it’s easy to see that philosophy resonating with Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Jennifer Porter, “Sun Come and Shine” — The title track off Porter’s new full-length is a mix of New England singer-songwriter and New Orleans big-band jazz, Porter’s resonant mezzo-soprano and piano anchoring leads from harmonica and gospel backing vocals.
• Cruel Hand, “Sink (and Swim Down)” — Portland’s heavy rock heroes are back with new material some might even call more accessible, a throwback to nu-metal sounds of the ’90s and early 2000s. Make sure to check out the new EP, “Dark Side of the Cage.”
• We Demand Parachutes, “She Lost Her Mind” — Portland’s pop-punk renaissance continues with a highly catchy piece, invigorated by a streak of vocals from Olivia Castriota that just about slashes the song in half.
• An Overnight Low, “Terminal D” — Coming late on the brand-new full-length “Connolly, Part Two,” this is the sort of playful and historical piece that frontman Chad Walls revels in, silly and Dixie and folksy and fun.
• Love by Numb3rs, “Red Sun” — Big and expansive, with gritty throwback guitar sounds, a melody-driving bass line, this moves past the first album, getting ever more organic and cohesive. Shades of Emmylou Harris and Graham Parsons.
— Sam Pfeifle