The Prodigious Son

Buddy Strong will be a famous musician someday. Will he cross over, or cling to the cross?

After the princess steps into the school, Diaz and some of his class assess the performance.

"All things considered, it went pretty smoothly," the teacher says. "You guys didn't choke one bit under the pressure."

"C'mon, man," Buddy says, tongue mostly in cheek, "she just a princess."
That earns a chuckle from Diaz, who considers Buddy a prodigy but cuts him little slack. Diaz has taught music for more than 25 years, the past decade at South Mountain.

A few weeks earlier, Diaz had lambasted the choir after an attempt at "Chattanooga Choo Choo" that bore little resemblance to the smooth performance it would give the princess.

"You got to make a commitment to the note," he told them then. "If you're wrong, you're wrong. Thousands of people are not waiting to hear what you have in mind. You blow a note into the [music] stand, you sing into the stand, where's it gonna go?"

"Into the stand," Buddy Strong answered.
"Where do we want it to go?"
"Into the air, into the crowd, through the air, through the crowd."

Diaz asked the students to sing their last note in the tune for as long as possible. Buddy lasted about twice as long as anyone else.

"You sure you weren't a pearl diver in the Pacific in a past life?" Diaz asked him. Everyone cracked up.

They tried the song again, getting through it without a glitch, but with little elan. Buddy, the de facto teacher's aide, provided an instant critique to his peers.

"That sounded stale," he said testily. "We need to sound almost drunk a little bit. We need to do a blues, to feel it a little more."

Buddy improvised a line, sounding like an ancient blues singer: "My baby, I said, my baaaaby left me, left me feelin' so very baaaad."

His classmates lapped it up.
"You guys got to practice, practice, practice," Diaz told the class, "so you don't end up on the streets. It's hot out there. There are riots out there."

The students roared at Diaz's intentionally ironic comment. Every few years, it seems, South Mountain High is thrust into the media spotlight after a school fight turns into an alleged race riot. Daily life at the school, however, is more benign and sedate than outsiders may suspect. Kids are learning.

Diaz says no one he's taught has more natural skill than Buddy, and that he expects the teen to become famous in whatever musical style he embraces.

Buddy's ear is astonishing. Not long ago, he and a piano-playing pal, Jeff Arnold, learned Charlie Parker's complex bebop classic, "Donna Lee," from a recording during a few lunch breaks. The tune is a litmus test for advanced jazz students; anyone who can negotiate Parker's lightning-fast changes without caving in qualifies as a serious player.

But Diaz has had trouble getting Buddy interested in music-theory classes, and suspects he knows why.

"I think his dad thinks that Buddy will lose some of natural feeling if he knows technically what's behind the stuff he's playing," Diaz says. "I don't think Buddy has been encouraged in that one area."

Pastor Strong doesn't deny it.
"Sometimes, Buddy's teachers just don't understand that the music just come out of him," he says. "In the old days, we didn't know keys. We'd just sing and play, and sometimes it sounded beautiful."

He pauses.
"I had a musical gift, too," he says, "playing piano from when I was a little boy. But when I was a young teenager, a lady asked me to play something in the key of C-sharp. I didn't know C-sharp from B-sharp. I was humiliated, and I quit music for a long time. I went through a lot of frustration about this."

Sometime later, Strong says, he asked God to give one of his children the gift of music that he believes he squandered. The pastor, by the way, sings beautifully and plays a mean piano. Buddy's sisters--Kathy, Kerry and Kimberly--and adopted brother Earl Gray also are steeped in music.

"All of my childrens have music in them," Arthur Strong says, "but when my baby son came along, it didn't take long before you could hear the rhythms in him. I mean, 8 or 9 months old, he was banging on stuff, but with a reason, a purpose. He was able to play drum music in church services at the age of 2--real music. Then, when he was 7 or so, he came to me and said, 'Daddy, I want to try the organ. Please.' I prayed for him, then I anointed him and said, 'Play, son!' Within six months, he played with the choir."

Buddy's version adds detail:
"[An organist] showed me something really small on the B-3, a three-chord thing. For a long time, I kept playing those same chords over and over. I got comfortable on those black keys pretty quick. Then it started coming to me. I've always worked on my left hand--figured my left better can do what my right does. I come out of it with what people say is a great left hand."

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