Wesley Morris (Picture by Dominique Bonnett.)
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Wesley Morris brought home a violin at age seven. His parents had some raised eyebrows at his choice of instrument. Fast forward to present and next year, with his violin, Wesley will be taking up a four-year scholarship at Berklee School of Music in Boston.
The ambitious violin player won that scholarship during a summer internship at the same school in July of this year.
But every story has a beginning which started for the former head boy of Milton Lynch Primary (Christ Church Boys) who would watch from the sidelines as his cousins played drums, and recorders at church while he was more interested in football.
“When I brought home the violin at age seven, my parents eyebrows were raised as the violin was a strange instrument. They were skeptical at first but I surprised them when I got a distinction in my first exam. They always supported me from then.”
Wesley stuck to it and up to age 11 learnt all he could.
He continued his education at The Lodge School where he met one of his best friends, Romario Welch.
“I would pick up the violin now and again but my interest was piqued in third form when I met Romario, who was a keyboardist and drummer. So we used to jam in the music room with tutor Mr Layne. He taught us more on top of what we thought we knew and we would sometimes get gigs to play at different school events,” Wesley recollected.
The boys were tight friends, doing everything music related together, even performing at their high school graduation.
“All that time I was doing it for fun with my friend. It was when I hit fifth form and it was time to decide if to go to sixth form or to continue playing that I said this was what my career was going to be,” said the young musician.
Wesley showed his parents how serious he was when he passed the Royal School of Music (located in Canada) exams in Grade 1 to 8. The next step was the Barbados Community College (BCC). Classes were intense. Coursework. Improvisation. Ear training. Musician development. And on top of that he had to learn how to read and write music.
“My end of term exam for my associate degree in music was to play a piece for my evaluation. It was a classical piece.”
That last line is important as Wesley is a jazz musician, switching genres in his second year at BCC.
“I was a member of the Barbados National Youth Orchestra and a part of the symphony and they used to do classical tunes. While doing my research on what I wanted to specialize in, I saw some Youtube videos of this Chinese guy that plays for Madonna and he inspired me. So I went and bought an electrical violin, a nontraditional. . . . And started to play around with some songs.”
While at BCC, Wesley found himself in a band of brothers, so to speak. He joined with violinist Myles Gittens, son of well-known musician and tutor Roger Gittens, and guitarist Ashley Tang and they had a contract playing for Sandals in their first year of study.
“It was a six-month contract. But that spiralled into more gigs after and some private ones. The band is called Ever Jammin’,” Wesley explained.
Myles is now in New York furthering his studies and the band now has a drummer Serge Phillips.
With BCC out the way, Wesley had to look ahead. He doesn’t want to be a product of his environment. He and his parents live in Brittons Hill, parts of which have a “reputation”.
“I could easily have fallen into the wrong crowd. I am an only child and while my parents aren’t overly protective, they instilled in a sense of purpose and knowing right from wrong.
“I see them everyday in the area. In the earlier days, my house was directly in front of a house where prostitutes worked from . . . . Our house has been broken into more than twice,” he said, trailing off with sadness in his voice.
While happy for the jobs he was getting to play music in bars and events, he was not content to be a gig musician. Been there, done that. So a determined young musician looked overseas.
“Some guys on the music scene do very well with those gigs but I wanted to study overseas and a lot of the musicians I was meeting here had done that.”
Along came sax great Arturo Tappin, who took Wesley on some overseas gigs. Wesley wasn’t only touring with Tappin but getting some valuable lessons as Tappin had played violin. Tappin also played at Christmas Jazz, an annual event put on by Deryck Walcott and which offered a scholarship every year to a music student.
“If I am being honest, I wasn’t too keen on Berklee. I wanted to go to Humber College in Toronto. It was a lot cheaper than Berklee and I had a family friend there.”
After much persuasion, Wesley applied for the scholarship and it helped that Myles had won it the year before. And Tappin and Walcott, who were are both mentoring Wesley, past students of the college.
“I sent in two videos of myself performing two jazz pieces and an essay stating why I wanted to attend Berklee. On the night of the draw, it was myself against my friend Kareem Agard, who is a fantastic singer. And I won. We were backstage at the show and we were joking around, telling each other no hard feelings whoever won because we are really good friends.”
The summer scholarship to Berklee is for five weeks. It is a multi cultural campus and the students experience what a semester is at Berklee for that five weeks.
“Classes were, like, 40 minutes, and they crammed, like, five or six topics in that time. We had practice time, theory, and I applied myself diligently as I knew what I was there for. Some classes were difficult but I got around them.”
Wesley made friends from all over the world and there “was a lot of jam sessions. Classes were from nine and sometimes we end up getting home at 11 p.m.”
Wesley was fortunate to jam in some bars around the Boston area, where Berklee is situated, with his violin tutor Joseph Nadj. He called it “a great experience” he wants to revisit when he returns next year on his scholarship.
Speaking of that scholarship, Wesley takes that up next July. It runs for four years.
The forward-thinking violinist used the opportunity during the summer programme to audition for a spot for the bachelor degree programme.
“There were about a thousand students there vying for various scholarships. They range from $10 000 to $30 000 and then there is the full scholarship.”
Wesley said he was a “nervous wreck” on the day. The auditions were held the last week before the students ended the internship. Each student played a piece or performed a song.
“I heard them call out the winners and my name wasn’t mentioned. I was on my way to the bathroom when I heard my name called. I was in shock and started freaking out. My roommates were congratulating me. I called my parents [Cherylann and William Morris] and they freaked out,” he said.
Wesley said the scholarship doesn’t cover all of his expenses. He needs at least $20 000 more.
Wesley is looking to do three years instead of four as his results were astounding. He received an honour sheet – all A’s on the programme – and that cuts out most of the fundamental classes.
He gives thanks to Walcott and Tappin for their intense tutoring.
Music is a form of expression for Wesley, who says he is not a big talker in general.
“I am not a blabbermouth. So when I play, a lot of the stuff is my means of expression. My parents are surprised at the type of music I listen to. I gravitate towards very old jazz classics.”
While Wesley is off to Berklee next year, he is hoping to one day see superstars Rihanna or Beyonce or Bruno Mars walk into his college and pick him to be part of their band.
“That would be so cool. They normally shop there for people to join their bands. But ultimately, I want to come home and teach what I have learnt. Show how a little boy from Barbados with big dreams with a violin can make something of himself.” (NS)