Columbia’s pretty rad. We’ve got things going on and, better yet, things to do and take part in. Since my last two CBT articles...
After a busy workday, some people go home and relax. Others perform on stage. Or make a leather briefcase. Or play the saxophone. Meet Kevin Brown, Lawrence Simonson, and Michele Curry — three professionals with a passion for off-the-clock creativity.
A saxophonist and a superintendent…and all that jazz.
Dr. Kevin Brown, Columbia Public Schools’ new assistant superintendent, never goes anywhere without his saxophone. He plays both tenor and soprano sax, and he started when he was 23, fresh out of grad school and teaching at Southern University of Baton Rouge.
“I was teaching kids at the university basically my same age,” Brown says. “I went to a pawn shop, and I just wanted to look around, and I saw some instruments, and I had a master’s degree and everything, and I decided not to teach summer school — I wanted to learn how to play the saxophone.”
He started out teaching himself, squeaking out the notes to “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” He baffled his parents by playing “Jingle Bells” repetitively in July.
Eventually, he got a private teacher, and once he got good enough, he studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, in Milwaukee, under instructor Berkley Fudge, a famed Wisconsin saxophonist.
Brown taught in the daytime and played in the nighttime.
“To be honest, I’m glad it happened late in life for me because most people put their instruments down, but I had gotten my education out of the way, so I wasn’t depending on the instrument to make money,” Brown said. “You know, I had a teaching job, but I surrounded myself with other people who knew far more than I did, so I was able to gather stuff from them and practice for hours and hours, and I did, and I’ve been playing ever since.”
Brown thinks learning music can be an important part of education, and he appreciates the emotional side of learning music.
“Being a jazz musician, or an improviser, has sometimes helped me on the job in dealing with things that I’ve never dealt with before,” he says. “But on the other side of that, it’s a great outlet. It allows for relaxation.
Brown has taught psychology, sociology, government, and history at collegiate and secondary levels, and this is his first year as assistant superintendent for secondary schools. In his role, he will ensure that middle and high schools align to the CPS vision for student success.
“This includes making sure that your principals are savvy and that they are strong, instructional leaders with the capacity to lead their faculty and staff, and ensuring that the teachers are doing what is best for all students every 50 minutes throughout the day,” Brown says. He specifically would like to focus on equity and achievement gap concerns.
For Brown, education and music are both passions. Every once in a while, he wonders what his life would be like if he had pursued music professionally.
“Every time I hear Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, every time I hear the great jazz people that no longer live – and still live, such as Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton – I have strong desires and wishes to play at that capacity.”
But you can only professionally pick one, Brown says; “You can’t straddle the fence.”
After playing with two bands in the past in Wisconsin, Brown is looking forward to meeting musicians in Columbia. He has played at Murry’s before. Brown was out to dinner at the restaurant while interviewing for his position in Columbia, and he asked if he could sit in with the band.
“They said, ‘You have your instrument with you?’” Brown remembers.
Luckily, he had it in his car.
Leather and bikes. Looking sharp on wheels.
Sometimes, a job can lead to a hobby, as is the case for Lawrence Simonson. Simonson is the assistant director at PedNet Coalition, encouraging bikeable, walkable, user-friendly transit.
PedNet has had success in urging city council’s approval of several major biking and walking trails in Columbia. They have helped pass biker protection ordinances, and they offer programming on bike safety, youth biking, and general access to bikes.
“I was always really into an active lifestyle,” Simonson says. “I always really liked bikes. You know, in college, I didn’t have a car; that’s how I got around.”
Not surprisingly, Simonson bikes to work every day.
“I really, truly believe that if you give me any kind of problem in the world, I can always solve it with a bike in some way or another,” he says.
While biking to meetings, he ran into a problem. He felt his canvas bag that he biked with didn’t match the caliber of the suit he was wearing or the meetings he was attending. Eventually, he found a bike-friendly briefcase he liked online, but it wasn’t sold in the United States.
“As I got to looking at it, I thought, You know, it doesn’t look like it would be that hard to make,” he says.
Simonson started out making small leather items. He researched materials and ordered them online: small cutting tools, natural leather, dyes, and a green, lined, cutting mat. He started by making a belt. It took him three days.
Now, Simonson makes tote bags, women’s purses, wallets, belts, key chains, briefcases, and, of course, bike accessories. He has a leather saddle bag with wood detailing beneath his bike seat. His current briefcase can clip on his bike, and it looks much better than a canvas bag.
Making a belt now takes him about an hour.
The leather comes in large, thick sheets, or what Simonson describes as “half a cow.” It’s not dyed; it’s a creamy, white color. Simonson dyes it, cuts it, punches holes in it, stitches it, then rivets it all together. He does it all by hand.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll have arthritis in the next five years,” he jokes.
Simonson gets lost in the craft. What feels like 30 minutes of working can actually be five hours.
“I don’t use any kind of predesigned thing, and so I look at pictures,” he says. “I find things I like about different pieces, and then I have to — in my head — kind of come up with a plan of how I’m going to create that. I really like that part about thinking about it.”
Simonson gave away one of the first briefcases he made as a graduation gift, and he continues to prefer gifting the items over selling them. He’s given plenty leather products away, some to coworkers.
“I do think people find it surprising, occasionally, when they find out that this is something I do,” Simonson says, “mostly because it’s, you know, something I do on a little card table in my basement.”
Sometimes friends offer to cover the cost of materials, but otherwise, Simonson is not really interested in selling his work; it might take the fun out of it. His hobby, which stemmed from biking, can be a nice break from work.
“I’m very passionate about the work we do, and so it feels less like a job and more like a lifestyle, so it really is almost like a 24-hour job,” Simonson says. “This is one way for me to kind of get a bit of an escape.”
Working 9 to 5. On stage and at the bank.
When Michele Curry was in high school, she decided to try something new. She auditioned for her first musical, “My Fair Lady,” and landed a chorus role. She fell in love. Her first starring role in a musical was in “9 to 5,” which originally featured Dolly Parton, and she has had several leading roles since. Most recently, she was up in wires as Mary Poppins in a Columbia Entertainment Company production.
“I went straight from doing high school productions to wanting to continue this passion of theater,” she says. “So I just jumped, two feet in.”
She researched various theaters and roles in Columbia, post-graduation, and found a home at Columbia Entertainment Company. She’s been performing with them for 10 years, and last year, she joined the CEC board.
Curry plays many roles (on and off stage) at the theater. She is secretary of the board, volunteer coordinator, social media liaison, and assistant marketing chair.
In addition, she’s a treasury services implementation specialist at Commerce Bank. She assists commercial clients with incoming and outgoing cash flow, providing products and services to make cash exchanges more efficient and cost effective.
“I can do theater because of the bank,” Curry says. “I couldn’t do 15 to 20 hours of volunteer labor if I didn’t have something to fall back on as wonderful and as flexible as the banking industry.”
Columbia Entertainment Company is solely volunteer based, with no paid actors. Curry likes this aspect of it.
“It’s just all members of the community coming together for something that they all love to do.” Curry says. “So you could go see your neighbor up there, somebody’s who’s had a hidden passion, or that you didn’t even know did this sort of thing.” Or perhaps even your banker.
Time management, Curry says, is her biggest challenge. Even when a show is coming up, she tries to devote all of her attention to the bank when at work. She has a large support system at the bank; a group of her co-workers come to every show.
“I believe I do possess a very strong skill set of data analytics and things like that, organization-wise, so I feed off of that during the day, and then at night, when I do the creative stuff, it’s a whole other world,” Curry says.
However, sometimes those worlds overlap. Both require speaking and communication skills.
“My job is customer facing, and having acting skills and performing skills helps you become a better speaker in general, no matter what crowd you’re in front of or who you’re trying to talk to,” she says.
Curry has a knack for memorizing lines. Sometimes, this parallels communication with clients. She says, “My particular trick is learning the whole conversation first, so if you know you’re trying to get from point A to point B, it doesn’t matter what you say, you’ve just got to get there, and then you just kind of refine, refine, refine until you get the lines just right.”
Curry has several dream roles, one of which she has already fulfilled (as Little Red Riding Hood, in “Into the Woods” at MU). Curry prefers more contemporary musicals, and she would love a chance to be Elle Woods in the “Legally Blonde” musical, or Jo, from “Little Women, The Musical.”
“Being a Disney princess always works too,” Curry says. She will be on stage next as Ariel, in “The Little Mermaid,” opening September 1.
The show will run September 1 through 5, 8 through 11, and 15 through 18.