Class act 

Steven Van Zandt harnesses his Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul tour to bring music education into schools.

click to enlarge E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt created - a music history curriculum for use in public schools. - JO LOPEZ / PROVIDED
  • Jo Lopez / provided
  • E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt created a music history curriculum for use in public schools.

Steven Van Zandt always has his eyes on the culture around him. When he sees something falling apart, whether it’s on a global or local level, he finds a way to address it. Two decades after he took on the apartheid government of South Africa with the Artists United Against Apartheid single “Sun City,” the E Street Band guitarist recognized a slow-motion disaster happening in America’s public schools: the dissolution of music programs.

As a product of Middletown Township, New Jersey’s public schools in the ’50s and ’60s, Van Zandt received a more thorough music education than most children receive today, the kind of instruction that allowed him to take his obsession with The Beatles and other British Invasion bands and formalize it into a real pursuit of music. Sensing a growing crisis in the late 2000s, he reached out to government leaders like U.S. Senators Teddy Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to make a case for increasing funding. 

Unfortunately, Van Zandt’s pleas fell on deaf ears.

“I thought about it, and I went back to the teachers and said, ‘Look, we’re not going to put instruments in kids’ hands for awhile,’” Van Zandt said in a recent Oklahoma Gazette interview. “‘We’ll have to find another way to do that. But let’s do something else; let’s build a music history curriculum.’”

In the effort to create what would become Teachrock.org, a massive online curriculum available for free to all schools, Van Zandt visited classrooms and found that music subjects were often still taught using the same methods he experienced back in Middletown Township.

“I said, ‘You know, we need to adjust to this modern world. These kids are smarter and faster. You can’t tell them to learn this now and someday you’ll use it,’” he said.

Van Zandt and a team of educators spent the next 10 years developing Teachrock.org. While his initial goal was to create 100 lessons, the curriculum has swelled to over 140 lessons. Some sections address broad subjects like the birth and rise of rock ’n’ roll or music’s role in the civil rights movement, but they can also be extremely specific. One lesson focuses on Lana Del Rey’s song “Young and Beautiful” and whether it successfully humanizes the character of Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

“Keeping music alive in people’s lives is important, but the main thing is that it engages the kids immediately,” Van Zandt said. “We’re going to them and saying, ‘What kind of music do you listen to? Do you like Ariana Grande? Well, she grew up listening to Aretha Franklin. Never heard of Aretha Franklin? Well, let’s tell you about Aretha Franklin and let’s tell you about Detroit and the civil rights movement.’”

When Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul perform at 7 p.m. Nov. 26 at Tower Theatre, 425 NW 23rd St., the performance will coincide with Van Zandt’s Teachrock.org campaign. He will set aside a large number of tickets so teachers can attend for free. In addition, Van Zandt will meet with local school officials to discuss incorporating Teachrock.org’s curriculum, and at 2 p.m. that day, he will conduct a master class with Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma executive director Scott Booker at the school, 25 S. Oklahoma Ave. Admission to the master class is free.

“We combined the foundation’s work with the tour,” Van Zandt said. “It’s our way of showing gratitude to the most underappreciated, underfunded and underpaid members of our working class.”

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul’s latest album, 2018’s Soulfire Live! - PROVIDED
  • provided
  • Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul’s latest album, 2018’s Soulfire Live!

Old friends

Van Zandt was performing with his teenage band The Shadows in 1967 at a concert in Middletown Township when Bruce Springsteen walked into the club. A friendship soon turned into a collaboration, with Van Zandt joining Springsteen’s band Steel Mill and then Bruce Springsteen Band. In the early ’70s, Van Zandt split off from Springsteen to cofound the legendary rock and soul outfit Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, which combined a guitar-rock aesthetic with soul horns.

In short order, Van Zandt began splitting his time between Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and touring with the E Street Band, and then he became a permanent member when his arranging skills were brought to bear on Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” from 1975’s Born to Run.

His love of big bands with horn sections never abated, and when Springsteen took a break from the E Street Band to record Nebraska, his stark and mostly acoustic album built on a four-track recorder, Van Zandt took the opportunity to launch Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, which originally featured former Plasmatics guitarist Jean Beauvoir, Rascals drummer Dino Danelli and Southside Johnny’s horn section. The resulting album, 1982’s Men Without Women, gave Van Zandt a new and separate identity from Springsteen and received rave reviews. The current version of the Disciples of Soul features 15 members, including three backup singers, and is touring in support of 2018’s Soulfire Live! The album features live versions of all tracks from 2017’s Soulfire, and the extended box set includes guest appearances from Springsteen and former J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf.

“We created it organically; we didn’t think too much about it,” he said. “We had the rock guitar because I’m a rock guitar player, and we had the horns. I just felt like this is my thing.”

After co-producing and recording the 1984 Springsteen breakthrough album Born in the U.S.A., Van Zandt left the group and focused on his own projects like Artists United Against Apartheid, a project that featured contributions from Bono, Peter Gabriel, George Clinton, Lou Reed, Darlene Love, hip-hop originator DJ Kool Herc, Bob Dylan and others. His solo career took priority until the late 1990s, when he permanently rejoined the E Street Band and took an unexpected turn toward acting, playing mobster Silvio Dante on HBO’s The Sopranos. More recently, he starred in the Netflix series Lilyhammer as an American mobster hiding out in Norway.

Springsteen is expected to complete his Springsteen on Broadway residency next month, after which Van Zandt said he will likely take some time to rest after the 14-month stand at New York City’s Walter Kerr Theatre. Then the wheels will start turning again and the old friends will reunite, first in the studio and then on the stage.

“We’re still the same best friends we always were, and onstage, it’s still all the same,” Van Zandt said. “Making the records has slightly changed, but we might go back to the old way one of these days.

“I know he’s got a lot on the shelf that he wants to deal with. He wants to just relax for a minute and check out where he’s at. He’s incredibly prolific, and he probably has a lot of stuff that he wants to get out, so I’m sure there will be some kind of content in 2019, but as far as the E Street Band goes, that could be 2020.” 

Teachers interested in attending Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul concert at Tower Theatre are encouraged to email christine@teachrock.org to register. Visit towertheatreokc.com and acm.uco.edu.

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