School Days: Jazz All-Stars Remember CAPA

How a Philadelphia high school fostered one of jazz’s most gifted generations

Illustration for story on CAPA by Julia Chiplis

Philadelphia has a storied history of nurturing great jazz artists, but rarely has there been a more impressive concentration than could be found in the classrooms of the city’s High School for the Creative and Performing Arts – known as CAPA – in the late 1980s. The student body during those years included three already-impressive musicians who would go on to be among the most influential jazz artists of their generation: bassist Christian McBride, organist Joey DeFrancesco and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. At roughly the same time, the founding members of the hit-making R&B group Boyz II Men were in the vocal department, and drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and emcee Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter were brainstorming the group that would become the Roots. JazzTimes talked to several of those gifted alumni and their beloved mentors to convene a virtual class reunion.

Joey DeFrancesco (class of ’89): I was 14 when I started high school in 1985. I was already pretty established in the Philadelphia area as a musician. I started very young. I’d already played with Philly Joe Jones, Hank Mobley, Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts.

Christian McBride (class of ’89): I started at CAPA in September of ’85. At that time, the three main art schools in the city were CAPA, GAMP [Girard Academic Music Program] and Overbrook, which was actually much closer to my neighborhood. I loved and respected Overbrook, and they had a great band director in Dr. George Allen, but I didn’t really want to stay in my neighborhood. I wanted to get out and see a little more. Joey and I had already been friends for a year when we started.

DeFrancesco: I had met Christian—Chris, as we call him—the summer before school started. There was another music program at the time led by a man named Lovett Hines, who was with the Settlement Music School. Chris and I were involved [with the program at different] locations, but that summer we got together and did this outdoor gig. We hit it off and from that point we were friends. McBride and I might have invented jamming over the phone.

Lovett Hines (artistic director, Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz & Performing Arts): Joey D and Chris would conference call me at whatever time it was. Sometimes I would be tired after working at the school, and they would say, “Mr. Hines, listen to this!” We’d listen to Miles or Jimmy Smith or Pharoah Sanders and they would make comments back and forth. I would doze off but I would never hang up.

DeFrancesco: That summer we got together on a couple other gigs, and then I found out about CAPA. [Chris] told me, “I’m going to this school next year. You should go too.” A lot of kids were saying that.

McBride: The first day of school, I think I was just as excited as any freshman. I wasn’t scared; I was more anxious than anything else. I was glad to be going to the legendary CAPA. It was already pretty well respected in Philadelphia by that time.

DeFrancesco: It was a great environment for me because you had other young kids that had a lot of the same interests. Not just music—all different arts.

McBride: To be surrounded by that many talented people on a daily basis in all areas of the arts was pretty special. It taught me that if you want to grow as an artist or as a person, it is imperative that you surround yourself with people who are going to challenge you, people you can learn from, people who are better than you.

Kurt Rosenwinkel (class of ’88): I liked the school because everybody was really different. I had a lot of friends in the art department, the drama department, the dance department—I enjoyed the intersection between the different disciplines. I loved hanging out and talking about art in general, how the same kinds of principles would bear out in all those different disciplines. I got a lot out of the intermingling of different forms of art and different ways of thinking.

DeFrancesco: The year that we went in as freshman, the school was doing a movie for television that was very much like the movie Fame, but based on CAPA and the students there. [Dreams, produced by local CBS affiliate WCAU.] There were camera crews in the school all day. We did the soundtrack for it within weeks of being in school, so we went right in and hit the ground running.

Illustration of Joey DeFrancesco by Julia Chiplis
Illustration of Joey DeFrancesco by Julia Chiplis

Kevin Rodgers (CAPA instrumental director, 1987-2009): Their level of achievement was astonishing. Seeing as how I was still new to the school, I maybe didn’t realize how special it was. It was amazing all through my career, but there was something very special about that concentration of people. I’m not taking any kind of credit for having developed them. I really wasn’t their teacher. They all had mentors, they were all learning from community jazz programs and hanging out with musicians.

Rosenwinkel: I was [attending] Central High and they’re big on math, science and academics, but when I started really getting into music my grades started to suffer. It was reaching a crisis point, so I transferred to CAPA in 1986. I had been leading bands and writing my own music since I since 9 years old, but I was just starting to get into jazz. I was listening to [Temple University jazz radio station] WRTI every night and they were playing late Trane and Sun Ra. I was also starting to go to jam sessions [at Philly clubs like] the Blue Note, Slim Cooper’s, Bob & Barbara’s and Ortlieb’s. I came to jazz through progressive rock, electric jazz and fusion.

McBride: Kurt came to CAPA in our junior year. He was kind of an outlier because he wasn’t really a funk head and he wasn’t really a jazz head. He was into some alternative music, and we didn’t know what to make of him.

Rosenwinkel: When I got to the school I met Joey and Christian, and they were just tearing it up. Every morning at 8 a.m. they’d be playing “Giant Steps” at ridiculous tempos. I couldn’t believe it. I remember one morning Joey literally went through the history of jazz piano, as a lark. From Tatum to Herbie to Bill Evans to Chick, just as a joke. I was awestruck, really. To be around those cats was very inspiring.

DeFrancesco: We liked straight-ahead jazz, and I loved the blues a lot. Kurt came in and was a quiet kid. He had a different personality than we did. He was really into Pat Metheny and that kind of thing, which was cool, but he wasn’t part of what we were doing.

Rodgers: Kurt was always very interested in modern classical music. He once brought a score to me [that he’d written] for string ensemble and asked me to look at it. It was like a piece that had been written by a 15-year-old Bartók or something, mixing time signatures and meters. It was an incredibly advanced piece, and all I could say was, “Well, Kurt, this is fantastic.” There was no way we were going to be able to play it at the school. I don’t know if that was his intention in showing it to me or not, but I remember it was a very impressive piece. He was more introverted than the other guys, but a very nice kid.

McBride: Joey used to mess with Kurt all the time. Joey’s the heir apparent to Jimmy Smith and probably the biggest teenage music star in the whole city, and he would hear Kurt playing all this weird stuff and be like, “I don’t get it, man, why don’t you just play some blues? You need to listen to some Jimmy Smith or Wynton Kelly.” Kurt would get so frustrated, like, “Get out of my face, man!”

Rosenwinkel: Joey was a real dick to me.

DeFrancesco: That’s kid stuff. You’ve got talented artists, but at the same time everybody’s got to remember we were kids, so there was immaturity going on. By the time we were seniors everything was totally cool. Kurt played good bass, and that was when we connected. He was walking a really nice B-flat blues on the upright one day, and I said, “Now you’re talking, man.” We started playing and laughing, having a good time. We laugh about that stuff now.

Illustration of Kurt Rosenwinkel by Julia Chiplis
Illustration of Kurt Rosenwinkel by Julia Chiplis

Rosenwinkel: Joey was totally wild. He gave me a lot of shit, but I’m grateful for it because it kicked my ass. He pretended that he ran the school, basically. He had enormous talent and enormous personality, so at such a young age it was exploding all over the place. I remember I was watching Mr. Rodgers’ big-band rehearsals downstairs and Joey broke in. All of a sudden the doors flew open and Joey burst into the room, going, “How you doin’?” He goes up to this little girl playing the flute, saying, “Play that shit, play that shit!” He completely disrupted the whole class and Mr. Rodgers couldn’t control him. It was hilarious.

Rodgers: I think maybe I won’t comment on that except to say all artists have some sort of an ego.

DeFrancesco: When I was in 11th grade, I signed with Columbia Records. I remember telling the kids at school and nobody believed me. “Yeah, right.” Then a year later the Miles thing happened.

McBride: Joey missed most of our senior year because he went out on the road with Miles. That was pretty huge.

DeFrancesco: There was a local Philadelphia TV show called Time Out, hosted by a guy named Bill Boggs. They brought Miles in for an interview and wanted to have a house band for the show that day, so they naturally called the all-city Philadelphia trio: me, Chris on bass and a drummer named Stacy Dozier. That’s how it started.

Miles Davis (Time Out, 1986): What’s your organ player’s name?

Bill Boggs (Time Out, 1986): We’ve got Joey DeFranco on the keyboards.

DeFrancesco: Miles was real cool. He heard me there, said, “You can play,” and asked for my number. The following summer, after the school year finished, Miles called my house and told me I was going on the road with him. We started school that year and I let everybody know.

McBride: Every time something good happened to us there was a standing ovation. We thought we were going to rule the world.

Rodgers: Everybody was impressed, but not as much as you might have thought, because everybody [at CAPA] was accomplishing a lot—the dancers, the vocalists. We used to play community service events with the jazz trio, and I remember Christian telling me once he couldn’t do one because he had to play with Joe Henderson that night. That’s something you don’t hear much from high school kids.

Rosenwinkel: Christian was always really mature. He was a really solid dude, very helpful to me and just full of positive energy. He was the opposite of Joey, basically. And they were very close, so their energies worked together because I think he grounded Joey.

Orrin Evans (pianist; Martin Luther King High School, class of ’93): Christian always looked like a grown man to me, even when he was 12.

Illustration of Christian McBride by Julia Chiplis
Illustration of Christian McBride by Julia Chiplis

DeFrancesco: Chris was always one of those more mature-looking people. He didn’t look much different than he does now. I remember [a local TV station came to the school] and interviewed Chris about me, and they listed his name as “Joe Gorniak, the music director of the school.” He was on there with his deep voice, saying, “Joey’s in the lineage … blah blah blah,” and they thought he was the teacher.

Evans: I went to GAMP at the time, which always had a rivalry with CAPA. [I was a few years younger] and I was extremely intimidated by all of them, honestly. They were phenomenal musicians. Joey, McBride and Rosenwinkel were all extremely opinionated and well read. I was super-duper quiet around them, but it was very interesting to sit around and hear them talking. You can say there was some ego involved, but the real deal is that it was great to be around people with opinions—and the facts to back up those opinions.

Rodgers: Ahmir transferred on my first day as the instrumental director. He was the first student I ever auditioned. He was very accomplished, even at that age. I didn’t know anything about his father [singer Lee Andrews, of doo-wop group Lee Andrews & the Hearts] at that time. Ahmir always had a very extroverted sense of humor and was very hip to things from the ’60s and ’70s that a lot of the other kids didn’t know about.

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (class of ’89, from Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove): “Other high schools are dominated by jocks … CAPA was dominated by jazz kids. But even within that group, there were two distinct camps. [Christian and Joey] were traditionalists who believed that jazz had entered a fallow phase thanks to fusion, and that it needed to be rescued by purer figures like Wynton Marsalis. On the other side, there were kids like Kurt Rosenwinkel, self-styled outsiders who argued that Wynton’s music was retrograde, the kind of ‘Salt Peanuts’ bebop that had no place in the world anymore, and that the future belonged to iconoclastic rock experimentalists like Frank Zappa. The two groups were Bloods and Crips, in a way, but they were united by a common hatred for hip-hop. So here I came, wading into the middle of that divide.” 

McBride: As we were about to start our junior year, we had gotten word that there was a new drummer coming to our school. So I get to school one day and I see this guy in the music room noodling around on the bass. Under usual circumstances I wouldn’t pay that close attention, because it was obvious that he was noodling, that he wasn’t really a bass player. But what he was noodling was James Brown. Wait a minute, who’s this playing “Funky Good Time”? I walked over and said, “Hey, man, you playin’ ‘Doing It to Death’? What you know about James Brown?” And he said, “Well, what you know about James Brown?” From that response, I went, “Ah, OK. It’s on now.”

Rodgers: Somewhere in 10th or 11th grade, Ahmir heard De La Soul for the first time and was very struck by them. He started to write “De La Drum” on the drum head; “De La Wall” on the wall; “De La Music” on a piece of music. In pencil—it wasn’t graffiti.

McBride: For our junior and senior years we hung pretty tough. I became sort of a conduit for Ahmir and Joey. We’d each have our own Walkman. Ahmir would have nothing but funk and some new-school stuff on there—he was a big Prince head; he was listening to hip-hop—and Joey would have on his almost exclusively Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, a little Art Blakey. I would have a little bit of both on my Walkman, so it was fun being the middleman between the two of them.

Rosenwinkel: Ahmir and I had a band for a minute called the Nerve. It was funk stuff. We decided to throw an anti-prom and rented out an arts center and we were the band. I was into Zappa’s political stuff, and we did a lot of free improvisation in the practice room. I remember one time Joey came in and heard us and then spread this rumor around the school that we were playing devil’s music.

Questlove (interview with Philadelphia Metro, May 2017): “[I met Tariq] on the first day of school when I was in the principal’s office getting free tokens for [public transportation], and he was in the office getting suspended on the first day of school.”

Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter (class of ’89, interview with Philadelphia Metro, May 2017): “I was so much in the streets at the time. … I was exposed to a more street side of the city and running free before school, during school hours and after school. Ahmir was more sheltered and more laser-focused on becoming a professional musician.”

McBride: [Tariq] was an art major when we were in high school. He and Ahmir were hanging out, but I had no idea that he rapped until maybe our senior year. I never saw Tariq in the music room, but he came down one day and Ahmir said, “Hey, man, play the bassline to James Brown’s ‘Stoned to the Bone,’” and Tariq started rapping. Little did I know … but that was the planting of the seed of the Roots.

Black Thought (interview with the New York Times, Nov. 2017): “I wanted to be a painter or an illustrator. … [At CAPA, Ahmir and I] formed the group Square Roots, that later became the Roots. Quest was a fascinating guy to me when I first met him. He has always been a brilliant musician.”

Questlove (from Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove): “[Tariq’s] playful archnemesis at the time was a guy named Wanya Morris, and he had a singing group that was always practicing in the bathroom. … You may have heard of them: Boyz II Men.”

McBride: We didn’t really hang with the people in the vocal department, but we were in the same [academic] classes together. [Former Boyz II Men bass] Michael McCary was best friends with my sophomore-year girlfriend. One day her ex-boyfriend showed up at the school to beat me up. He was probably the only person in the history of CAPA who got expelled for disciplinary reasons; he was a bit of a thug. He finally wound up sneaking himself in the school and Michael was my sidekick that day. The ex-boyfriend wasn’t supposed to be in the building, so he tried to beat us up on the lowdown. He would lurk in the corner and push us into the locker and run, or slap our food onto the floor in the cafeteria. At some point me and Michael chased him and held him down, but he was slippery. He got away without me or Michael ever getting a punch off.

DeFrancesco: Most of the teachers were cool. They knew we were artists. You had to be able to get through your academics, and because we didn’t go to school a lot, sometimes that was an issue. Chris was late every day. We probably should have gone to class a little more, but we were jamming all the time.

McBride: The man who was in charge of the instrumental program, our musical director, was Joe Gorniak. He passed away [in 2009]. You’ll probably never see another teacher like him again. He was old school; he spoke his mind. He was this passionate teacher who would conduct with a cigarette in his mouth while he dropped an F bomb in the middle of class. That just doesn’t exist anymore.

DeFrancesco: Joe Gorniak was the one, man. He was so hip. He loved jazz, and he knew how to deal with us. When he was there, that was the best those bands and orchestras ever sounded. He really knew how to get the best out of the students, and he did it with love. He’d get on your case, too; he wasn’t quiet. But he was all heart.

Rodgers: I was the brass teacher from 1984 to 1987, and Mr. Gorniak was thinking of retiring. He was a very old-school music teacher, kind of a tough guy but very goodhearted. He had the kids’ best interests at heart and was observant in terms of their personalities and interactions. He retired in 1987 and I became the instrumental director.

McBride: Mr. Rodgers was sort of a classic teacher. He always had a short-sleeve dress shirt with a black tie, big, thick glasses, was always very by the book. Mr. Gorniak was a little more spirited, but Mr. Rodgers was no less wonderful a teacher. He just had a completely different style.

Christopher Meloni (drummer, class of ’87): Mr. Rodgers was a square, but he was a cool guy. Back in the day he had like a Volvo and some sketchy glasses, but don’t let that facade fool you. That cat was cool.

McBride: We used to put on a big variety show every year called “Sentimental Journey.” Our school big band was the house band. Ahmir’s first year, the two of us conspired to funk things up a little bit. At the end of the opening segment, we had to play “New York, New York,” and Mr. Rodgers said, “Look, guys, this has to sound the way it was originally played. It’s got to be a strict two-beat feel. Don’t get cute.” We just thought it was so corny. So right before the concert started, Ahmir and I huddled up and said, “Hey, man, you want to do our thing?” Then we pulled in Kurt and Joey as well, because it wouldn’t work without them doing it too. We figured once the concert starts, Mr. Rodgers is not going to stop it to scold us. So we got to “New York, New York” and Kurt started playing that chicken-scratch lick from “Funky Good Time,” and Joey dialed up the organ sound on the keyboard, and we funked up “New York, New York.” Mr. Rodgers turned red as an apple. You could see him quietly mouthing, “I’m gonna get you guys tomorrow.” But by the time the concert was over, he’d forgotten that we did it.

Rodgers: I think I was a little more open to the kids being freer in terms of their activities and learning styles. But I certainly tried to keep the same standards that Mr. Gorniak had in terms of performance.

McBride: There were so many great teachers there. We had a gym teacher, Kermit West, who would pull me aside and say, “So, man, what you guys playing in jazz band?” I’d say, “We’re playing a little Count Basie; we’re playing some Ellington; we got a couple of Glenn Miller charts.” And he would say, “Yeah, yeah, that’s cool—but you hip to Andrew Hill? Do you have Compulsion!!!!!?” Mr. West was the most modern jazzhead in the whole school, and he was the gym teacher.

Rodgers: The principal of the school at the time, Dr. John Vannoni, who just passed away [at 91 in October 2017], was the founder of the school and really understood the arts. He created an environment where people could flourish.

DeFrancesco: The principal was super cool. When he was in his youth he was a jazz DJ, so he had a record player in his office. When we’d get in trouble and get sent to his office, he was always very calm. He never raised his voice, but he got through to us. Then we would listen to some records afterwards.

Meloni: Dr. Vannoni, rest in peace, was the coolest cat. He turned a blind eye to a few things. We were always up to something and Dr. V, being Italian and all, gave us a break. He had to keep the straitlaced principal [image], but he was undercover cool, you know?

DeFrancesco: Chris Meloni was in 11th grade when I started, and him and I were really tight. We built a studio in the school. Dr. Vannoni let us take a room and got the petty cash out to go buy soundproofing.

Meloni: When we first started they had the music classroom upstairs on the 4th or 5th floor, but then he moved us to the basement. It was cool because going downstairs was like going to some basement club in Manhattan. It was dingy and looked like some Freddy Krueger shit. So we would cut class all the time and go down there and nobody would really break our balls. We found this little storage room and I had an Akai reel-to-reel, so we figured, “Let’s build a studio.” We rigged up a little red light saying “Recording in Progress.” It had horrible sound, echoing and shit, but we made it a cool spot to just hang out.

McBride: My senior year in high school I started to unravel. I knew Wynton by then, and he was telling me, “You’re going to audition for Juilliard or the Manhattan School; you’re going to go to New York; and you’re gonna be the workingest bass player in town—I already know it.” So I would cut class to go into the music room and practice all day long. After a while, Ahmir and all these people started begging me to come to class. Bless Ahmir’s heart. I made it out of there, but I still have nightmares about that every now and then. It did get dicey toward the end of the school year.

Rosenwinkel: In my last year I knew I was going to go to Berklee, because that seemed to be the way that a lot of my friends were going. I was playing a lot of piano during that time, because I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a pianist or a guitarist. I figured that since I’d had a lot of guitar lessons up to that point, I should just focus on piano for a year and see where that left me and then decide.

McBride: On graduation day we all were like, “We’re getting out of this joint. We’re going to pursue our dreams after today.” We didn’t get very dressed up. I think under my cap and gown I had on a Sixers T-shirt and some sweatpants.

Rosenwinkel: There’s naturally peaks and valleys, and we were all lucky to be there at the same time. I’ve been really lucky: I was at CAPA during that period, and then I was at Berklee during another peak time, with Roy Hargrove, Mark Turner, Chris Cheek, Danilo Pérez, Jorge Rossy—if you start naming people, it just goes on and on.

McBride: I think it was just some real special timing that so many of us from that one particular year became successful out in the big world.

DeFrancesco: I think it’s 100-percent coincidence. That’s not happening every year out of that school. It was just that particular time and those particular students. It was just crazy timing. What the school did was provide an environment for students to be together who had similar interests.