Chicago songwriter organizes a Symphony of Change for local youth
In the coming years, T. L. Williams will be as much as a name to remember in this city as Common or Chance the Rapper. Like both of them, Williams has found critical acclaim for his music — most notably, the 2014 smooth R& B hit “Getting Mo Money Than You,” which has garnered nearly 1.2 million views on YouTube, led to a Chicago Music Award for Songwriter of the Year in 2015, and given Williams an opportunity to appear on multiple episodes of the FOX series “Empire.” But also like Common and Chance, Williams will be as much known for his philanthropic work benefitting Chicago youth.
Just last year, the Bellwood native ( who is also the executive vice president of Chi- Sound Records and CEO of production company and label Quiet Kingdom) started an organization called Symphony of Change, Inc., with a mission to “provide a creative outlet for students and to raise awareness about the importance and cultural significance of music programs in the schools.” Symphony of Change is a division of the national Infinite Scholars organization, which provides scholarships for underprivileged students so that they may pursue higher education and advanced degrees. Williams has been a brand ambassador for Infinite Scholars for years but also wanted to contribute to students in his own community the best way he knew how, through music.
“Not only are music and arts programs the first to go when a school has budget cuts but it’s been proven that a school that has a bloodstream of music and art coming through it is a hard school to close, and that’s important in Chicago where many schools are at risk of shutting down,” he says, claiming that through his organization’s research they have found that schools that offer music programs typically see graduation rates over 90 percent, compared to only 72 percent at schools that do not offer music programs. As well, schools also find higher attendance ( 92 percent vs. 85 percent) when there is a music program. “Music can actually make it so schools don’t deteriorate from inside out,” Williams adds.
In particular, Symphony of Change’s “Music Forward” initiative aims to restore or create band programs by assembling staff, bringing in instruments and instructional books and ensuring the evolu- tion of the music department keeps up with the field of the arts so that students can have the groundwork for a long, successful career.
There are also interactive field trips, including last fall when a group of 30 students met famed jazz musician and bandleader Wynton Marsalis during a stop at Symphony Center. As a child, Williams was a talented trumpeter and found a mentor and teacher in Marsalis. He wants to pay it forward to the students involved in Symphony of Change.
“I was blessed to be raised in a school district that had a band program and cared about it,” Williams says, “and I wanted to make sure that other kids in the Chicago area and beyond have the same opportunities and same resources I had growing up because I know how instrumental that was for me.”
The first benefactor of Symphony of Change was a pilot program with Ronald Brown Academy in the West Pullman/ Calumet Park neighborhood, which Williams calls a “great turnout” that culminated in a concert last Christmas. This year, Symphony of Change plans to expand to five more schools and eventually find a way to turn it national through partnerships.
“We are here and ready to collaborate with anyone who wants to collaborate, because it takes a village,” Williams says, hinting at the local inspiration he’s garnered from programs such as Common’s Common Ground Foundation, and Chance the Rapper’s SocialWorks nonprofit, which has generously donated to CPS. “As we continue to grow we are excited about future collaborations.”
Funding comes from multiple sources, including individual donations that can be made on the organization’s website ( www. symphonyof- change. org). Williams and his band, The Storm Chaser Orchestra, also have planned a record release show for Williams’ third album, “Love in the 3rd Wave,” at the Park West on February 15 with proceeds going to Symphony of Change.
Williams says the inspiration for “Love in the 3rd Wave” came from a book by former AOL chairman Steve Case about the “third wave” of the Internet when technology will be embedded into every fabric of daily life, and in order to survive, it will require taking elements from the first wave before the dawn of social media. “We will have to have more human contact, form more partnerships and get out there and get to know each other and help each other out,” Williams explains, “and that inspires me.”
Marilyn Carroll and T. L. Williams go over music during a band rehearsal at Ronald. H. Brown Academy.
T. L. Williams founded a band at Ronald H. Brown Academy. The musicians are preparing for a Spring Concert. | LESLIE ADKINS PHOTOS/ FOR THE SUN- TIMES