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GIVING: A look at those who help.

Spreading the Blues Around

It was the musical genre, ironically, that brought Dane Gillebrand happiness when he felt isolated. He's hoping it also lifts the hearts of inner-city youths.

March 08, 2000|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dane Gillebrand knew zilch about the blues and even less about philanthropy when he left South Africa for college in America at 18. That was 1993, when Gillebrand's life plan seemed so simple: He would graduate from film school at Florida State University, move to Hollywood and make great movies to entertain humanity.

Of course, real life intervened. The lanky young man, whose South African accent is still as broad as Brooklynese, couldn't have known he'd be lonely at Florida State. Or that a blind blues musician would become a kind of surrogate father. Or that he would come to love the blues as much as his mentor. He could not have predicted that his greatest goals would be fulfilled--graduation magna cum laude, a job in L.A. helping produce films--and he would suddenly find it all meaningless.

He had no idea, he says, that a river of giving ran deep within him. Or that the tumult and gloss of movies would seem dull compared with helping kids find meaningful lives through the music that inspired the likes of Elvis and the Rolling Stones. And the thought certainly never occurred to him, he says, that by the age of 25, which he is this year, he would be the founding father of the Sir Charles Blues Lab--and would qualify as one of America's new-wave volunteers.

When history is written decades from now about the revolution in American giving, it will feature hundreds of eccentric personal tales like Gillebrand's--stories of young and old who surmounted obstacles and then formed nonprofit groups to help others do the same.

Gillebrand drives an '86 Buick Skylark, lives in a small space near La Brea and Sunset, and no, Regis, he doesn't want to be a millionaire. Not this year, anyway. His mission is to "enrich the lives and minds of young people by providing them with musical instruments and helping them participate in the great cultural tradition of blues."

Why blues?

"Because you can learn to play by just listening to it. You don't have to read music," Gillebrand says. "Once you master about three chords, you can transpose them to any key. Basically, that's all you need. You can jam with professionals, with any blues group anywhere. Imagine sitting up there and being a part of that." It makes kids want to practice, he says. "They find talent they never knew they had. It changes lives."

Gillebrand ought to know. He experienced it all, firsthand, under the tutelage of "Sir Charles" Atkins in Florida. The experience changed his life, his goals and his feelings of competence, he says. So he's trying to pass it on to kids who probably need it more than he ever did.

A Bright Spot in the Inner City

Take the Harbor Freeway to 110th and San Pedro on any Tuesday. Hang a few lefts, and you arrive at Locke High School, where you can see what Gillebrand is really all about. Locke is in the heart of L.A.'s "inner city"--a euphemism that somehow deadens all hope of finding loveliness there. Even the school's soft drink machine is so heavily caged that the $1 colas can barely be extricated by human hands. But wander down the dingy hall to the cavernous music room (actually four bare walls and a floor, until gleaming new instruments emerge from a locked closet), and you are suddenly in blues heaven.

On this day, DeShawn Edmond, 15, is on drums; Norman Jackson, 18, expertly tickles the ivories; Moises Rosales, 15, plays bass guitar--all of them backing a petite Locke senior, Safiya Baidi, who sings of lost love like some kind of earthbound angel. The atmosphere is electric.

Soon, you notice others in the room, quietly practicing on the sidelines, sharing techniques and taking turns in the ensemble. This loose collaboration turns out to be what the Blues Lab is all about. A place where kids who never thought they had musical talent can discover that they do. Where kids who can't read music can learn to make it anyway. A place where master musicians drop in to show novice kids the basics of the blues. Until the lab began, most kids in the room had never heard of this music so indigenous to America--music that historians say began as field hollers on plantations, with a "call and response" style that eventually matured into the sound known worldwide as the blues.

Lester Chambers, a revered bluesman-about-town, is in the room this day, informally showing kids what he does best: play harmonica and sing. Gillebrand phoned Chambers a few months back after hearing one of his recordings on "The Geezer Show" on the Pacifica radio network.

"Dane asked me to come see what the Blues Lab is all about. I got so involved I couldn't stop," Chambers says. "It was just so right, like my prayer to God being answered--to find something beautiful to do, and beautiful people to do it with."

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