Berkeley High School teacher shows his soul power

Local band Soul Power is on the up: BHS teacher Scott Willson is front right.

Scott Willson has been teaching math at Berkeley High for eleven years but he thinks he’s having his best year ever right now.

That’s because he’s bringing his love of music into the classroom — he teaches a music club twice a week, and — if the crowd of BHS students that turned up to see him play with his funk R&B band Soul Power last Friday at Freight & Salvage is anything to go by — there’s something of a mutual appreciation society going on here.

If you didn’t make it to the Freight, you might have caught their 1970s Tower of Power-style groove at the Solano Stroll on September 12.

Soul Power was formed three years ago when Willson refurbished his garage into a practice space. The band line-up is Scott Willson on bass; his brother Ian Willson on tenor sax — Ian created the band and now teaches music after honing his musical chops in the highly regarded Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble; lead vocalist Tommy Banks who writes songs for radio and TV; Glenn Appell, a professor of jazz and popular music at Diablo Valley College, on trumpet; Robert Todd on baritone sax; Patrick Malabuyo on trombone; Rick Bailey on drums; Ralph Nelson on guitar; and Loren Linnard on keys.

We caught up with  Scott to see how he manages the delicate task of being both groovy and a math teacher.

When was Soul Power formed?

We had been rehearsing for a while but the final membership of the band was settled last December, and we cut a CD of cover tunes in February. March 31 was our first job at the Freight & Salvage, due in part to help from a BHS parent.

Soul Power played Freight & Salvage on October 1

Why did you get together?

We all share a love of Tower of Power, James Brown, Earth Wind & Fire and the Average White Band and my brother Ian pulled us all together by that criteria.

Where do you all come from?

Rick Bailey is from Daly City, the rest are from mostly Berkeley area or as far east as Walnut Creek. Ralph Nelson is from the Big Apple originally and Tommy Banks is from Louisiana. But we are all Bay Area folk now.

How would you describe your style?

We love a danceable funk style with sophisticated rhythms rooted in the 70s but a contemporary feel that is attractive to the younger generation.

Who is your audience?

People who grew up in the 70s and 80s, but we are catching on fast with the younger generation that has been denied truly live music for the most part (music formed on computers digitally is the radio stuff you hear these days).

How do you bring your passion for funk into the classroom?

In Math Analysis I showed the students how to graph the sound waves of two notes in various harmonic intervals.   Those curvy waves look really cool, but I don’t think students were that excited. Next time I will try to tie it to a favorite song of theirs. Because I have the instruments here in my class, and play at lunch time, often students come walking into class while some of the fantastically talented students and I are “jamming out”. Other times they ask me to “Play Your  Bass Mr. Willson!”  So I do… I started with Spirit Week, spread into little, quiet shows when the students are comfortably working in groups. I also play jazz/funk CDs in the background when it is appropriate for study time, including the Soul Power CD!

Does your rock-god reputation give you credibility among high schoolers?

Ha! They loved the new shirt I bought (especially for them) for the recent Freight night [Ed: for the record it was a sparkling crimson number], and yes it helps, but it is also harder to control the class sometimes because the students feel more at ease and are willing to speak out without raising a hand.  Students forgive me when I mess up because our teacher-student relationship is real, with a commonality,  not uptight.

What’s next for Soul Power?

We are taping a live show at KPFA later this month, followed by a month off. We are looking for gigs this winter where young folks are allowed in too. If people were to call Ashkenaz requesting us that would be a big help (hint hint)!
We are not very well known yet, and for that reason most club owners don’t call back — that and our website is still under construction.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside. Email: tracey@citysidejournalism.org.