Harmony Grit

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In the Tonto neighborhood of south Phoenix, there's a shrill, rote-like presence of jets ascending from Sky Harbor runways. Barking dogs traipse about freely. A drug dealer's nod can be found with little difficulty on one of the streets. Mothers push babies in strollers, and children burn pavement on bikes. A few homes sit blank and uncomprehending, using scraps of metal and wood planks for life support.

Yet other homes dotting the area show promise of renewal, an optimism: restored facades in breezy hues, front-yard gardens and wind chimes, Our Lady of Guadalupe altars, grottos and murals.

And as a kind of ironic, patronizing reminder of civil priorities, the government-subsidized Bank One Ballpark sits in all of its glory just a few blocks to the north, dominating the downtown skyline from this vantage.

The Tonto neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city and is home to Arizona's oldest operating child-care center in Arizona, the Phoenix Day Child and Family Learning Center. Phoenix Day is a nonprofit child-care provider on a well-told but deceptively simple mission: To support and strengthen low-income families in south-central Phoenix. Nearly 90 percent of the children come from single-parent, female-headed households, most of them at or below the federal poverty level. The bulk of the center's funding comes from community support and United Way; the other 25 percent is DES subsidies and client fees.

Richardson, through an annual benefit he organizes called the Winter Sun Music Festival, this year raised cash and awareness for the learning center. He was drawn to the center because it incorporates a creative curriculum, one that essentially blends art and music therapy with literature, dance, science and mathematics, as well as computer learning programs intended for preschool and kindergarten-age kids. And everything is bilingual. Children coming in monolingual leave bilingual.

"It's in one of the poorest districts of Maricopa County," he says. "And they have interesting programs with the kids fusing music and arts at a very young age. So they got Mozart playing while the kids are taking nap time. They draw and they have colors. I chose that charity because I thought we need to put a voice to the charities that are actually using these kinds of tools.

"One of the selling points was an emotional thing. Some of these kids come in on Monday and they haven't had anything to eat since Friday. I stopped and dropped my jaw."

A live CD that will soon be available was recorded from the Tempe festival featuring the likes of Stephen Ashbrook, Hans Olson and Joe Meyers, among many others, who donated their time and effort. All proceeds from the sale of the disc will go to the learning center.

Janelle Degn, director of program services at Phoenix Day, describes the center's relationship with Richardson as "wonderful."

"I see him as a partner," says Karyn Parker, the center's executive director. "Being a nonprofit organization, donations come in many forms, but with Walt we get financial help and creativity from his music. He's absolutely a gift from heaven."

Walt Richardson's latest record -- made with Hannes Kvaran -- 1998's Silent Artist, is an all-acoustic blend of chimey folk and sing-songy narrative pulled by themes of self-discovery, inner peace and failed love. Richardson and Kvaran match their bright-eyed folk roots with fetching harmonies and the chemistry that gives Morning Star's live bit a whole level of sincerity.

"Mill Avenue" is the set's best song; all open chord melancholy using the destruction of old Mill Avenue as metaphor for a relationship gone south. But the song's power-positive "Still Survivin'" stamps out some of the subtlety by the end.

"Bands are just made to make people hate each other," Kvaran says. Being in a band with somebody can be a very high-stress way to know somebody. After 20 years I still love him. And . . . we are still really good friends after all this time. The chemistry wouldn't work if we didn't like each other. I wouldn't be interested in playing with him if it wasn't personally worthwhile.

"A lot of his father's side comes through and it always has," he continues. "He goes to church a lot. He's an interesting mixture of his own kind of spiritualism. And on the other hand, he's very traditional; going to Catholic church you can't get much more traditional."

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith