By Darlene Donloe, Contributing Writer
LEIMERT PARK — Music saved Fernando Pullum’s life.
Today he is a successful musician who has toured the world playing with or collaborating with a host of high-profile artists. He has become a beloved educator and chiseled out his own niche as the founder of the Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center, but if it hadn’t been for a chance encounter with a horn, things may have turned out a lot differently.
It all began when Pullum discovered the horn at the age of 5. It was a welcome addition to what, at such a tender age, had already been a hard knock life growing up on the south side of Chicago.
“My mother, who was 15 when she had me, was a drug addict and a prostitute and was in and out of jail,” recalls Pullum, who carried a gun at a young age. “My father’s mother started the Vice Lords in Chicago. My grandmother was a drug dealer. She was the queen of the Vice Lords.
“My grandfather was a minister. There was violence all around me. I was in church seven days a week. They thought I would turn out like my mother. Everyone thought I would eventually be incarcerated. Where I grew up, you had to grow up really, really fast.”
Pullum found solace by putting all of his energy into the horn.
“It just spoke to me,” he said. “I would practice for eight hours a day. The trumpet and music became my life. It was my heart, my breath and my soul. It was how I expressed myself.”
It wasn’t long before he started playing in various bands, in street alleys, in a salsa band, and even in nightclubs at the age of 15. He never considered going to college until he visited a friend at Chicago State University, who introduced him to one of his teachers, Marcellus Brown, who would prove to be one of his closest allies.
Brown helped Pullum get a full-ride scholarship to the University of Michigan where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
“He told me to pay it forward and make room for someone else after me,” Pullum said. “I was told to help 10 people and we’d be even.”
Resolute in his beliefs and follow through, Pullum, who has a calming spirit, continues to pay it forward.
His Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center provides free quality arts instructions to underserved students in South Los Angeles.
“Some people think everyone is at risk in our community,” Pullum said. “I don’t want to sound like a poverty pimp. The kids I have are heroes. When you come through my door, you’re turning down that alternative life.”
Through a program of structured instruction and curriculum, students (ages 5-20) build self-esteem, develop civic responsibility through regular community service projects and learn to apply the same dedication and commitment to academic achievement.
The Community Arts Center, which also partners with five local schools, offers free classes in piano, drama, film, drums, guitar, dance, music recording, beginning instruments, junior and senior jazz band, and choir.
Due to COVID-19, classes, which started July 6, are now conducted virtually.
Pullum, who has worked with Cab Callaway, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Pharrell, John Legend, Bruno Mars, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, and many more, called upon his friends in the music business to conduct some of the Zoom classes. Thus far, Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, John Mayer, George Bohannon, Amy Allen and Kamasi Washington have all taught a one-hour Zoom session.
Currently, there are 850 students currently enrolled. All levels of musicianship are accepted. All are welcome.
“You do not have to already play,” said Pullum, a single father of three. “We want kids who want an opportunity. We take everybody. There is no audition for my jazz band. We have a lot of different bands. The point is to keep the kids busy. They can stay forever.”
Pullum said his hope is that music does for the kids what it did for him.
“I want to help kids find their voice,” he said. “I want to raise the self-confidence and self-esteem of the kids in the community and make them responsible for the community they live in. We can make major changes in how we live. Our hope is that our kids will be agents of change. Some lives have already been changed.”
Pullum, 62, is referring to his students who, over the years, have performed for a number of dignitaries, including President Gerald Ford and Prince Charles. They also have played at Ringo Starr’s birthday party and performed with Al Jarreau, Herbie Hancock, John Legend, Lionel Hampton, Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, Wynton Marsalis, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and many others. They even have a record coming out this year with singer Aloe Blacc.
Pullum’s student musicians have opened the Playboy Jazz Festival four times and traveled to Spain, New York, Cuba and Brazil.
When Pullum talks about the kids in his program, he speaks like a proud father.
“Most of my kids go on to college,” he said. “There have been times when it’s been 100% of the kids graduating high school. A lot of them get it.”
By “get it,” Pullum is referring to the importance and influence of education and music.
“If you teach them just to play, they have to stand in line to get a gig,” Pullum said. “If you teach them how to create the art, they can control their own destiny.”
Teaching the next generation has always been at the top of Pullum’s list. For more than 20 years, he was the band director for a successful high school music program at L.A.’s Washington Preparatory High School.
“My kids opened the Playboy Jazz Festival a couple of times and six of my students have won a Grammy,” Pullum said.
He calls his Community Art Center a place of refuge for his students.
“We don’t have many places in the community to hang out,” Pullum said. “The music is so strong it can make a community into a safe haven. We get to create this home within the center.”
Pullum’s decision to put his performing arts center in Leimert Park was deliberate.
“I was driving down Degnan [Boulevard] and there was the sound of a trombone,” Pullum said. “It was the worst I had ever heard. It was a little kid, sitting on the curb with Billy Higgins (jazz drummer). This guy has played with Charlie Parker and [John] Coltrane and he’s taking time out to help a kid.
“His spirit was so strong. When [Higgins] died, I wanted to maintain that kind of energy. I knew in order to keep the music alive, I would have to inject young people. For me, it’s always about sustaining the arts. ”
A confirmation that starting his center in Leimert Park was the right move, came when he saw an eviction notice on the building that now houses the Community Arts Center.
“It was a sign from God,” Pullum said. “The owner, Fred Calloway, gave me the keys two months before I had a lease. It was supposed to be. I was supposed to teach these kids and they were supposed to have a place to come to that supported their dreams.”
Pullum insists his role and goal in life “is to help people understand that they are responsible for themselves and their community.”
“People helped me when I was a kid,” Pullum said. “We have the power to help ourselves. I can help the next person be something. My expectation is, whatever I do, they should do it better than me.”
Pullum is currently working on the center’s annual gala, which is set to take place virtually in October.
“So far, Jackson Browne and Michael McDonald will be participating,” he said.