Greensboro, North Carolina is more than 8,000 miles from Liuzhou, China. But when Justin Poindexter (HS ’01, BM ‘06) has a guitar in his hands, the two worlds are only a song away.
In 2014, Poindexter and his band, The Amigos (now Silver City Bound), were selected by the U.S. State Department to participate in the American Music Abroad program, a diplomatic mission that’s been sending American artists overseas since the days of Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Poindexter and his bandmates — who play everything from bluegrass to folk to New Orleans zydeco — played 200 shows across 6 countries and 20 states as goodwill cultural ambassadors.
In every far-flung city they visited, Poindexter and The Amigos worked with local guides and translators to find the best musicians and invite them to play together. In Myanmar, villagers arrived with Burmese harps, a traditional stringed instrument. In Cambodia, The Amigos collaborated with classically trained musicians. But one of the most surreal and remarkable moments of the tour came on the streets of Liuzhou, a Chinese city of three million people on the banks of the Liu River.
“A group of ethnic Chinese students approached us,” says Poindexter, “and they didn’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin, so our translator was useless. But they could say one thing in English, ‘Country Roads.’”
The Amigos launched into the John Denver classic about the singer’s roots in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the smiling Chinese students — a choir, it turns out, dressed in traditional garb — joined in the chorus. You have to see the video to believe it.
Poindexter grew up in Greensboro, not far from the foothills of those fabled Blue Ridge Mountains. He was raised in a house full of music and Southern storytellers. His father played guitar in a country band and his grandparents sang jazz and gospel. A Sunday afternoon in the Poindexter house meant gathering in the big living room to play through classics of the Americana songbook.
“As a teenager, I really gravitated toward blues and roots music, but also jazz and classical,” says Poindexter, who formed a band with high school friends and gigged around town. As Poindexter dove deeper and deeper into his music, the University of North Carolina School of the Arts was always on his radar.
“Both of my parents are from Winston-Salem and some of my older friends went to UNCSA,” says Poindexter, who visited the campus early in high school. “I loved the open, collaborative environment and really wanted to be part of that culture.”
Poindexter was accepted into the high school program at UNCSA in classical guitar. He loved the rigorous classical training in guitar, but knew he wanted a college program that would allow him to fully explore his eclectic range of musical tastes and influence. That’s when he discovered the UNCSA composition program and the extraordinary composition teacher Ken Frazelle.
“All students love Ken — his energy and creativity,” says Poindexter, who switched from guitar to composition his freshman year at UNCSA. “He didn’t talk to us like we were kids, and he expected a lot out of us both musically and culturally, to be aware of the history and complex connections behind the music. Ken was a huge influence on me and really opened my eyes to the educational power of music.”
Frazelle encouraged Poindexter to explore his love for American roots music in his writing and to take full advantage of the opportunity to collaborate with so many talented young artists from so many campus disciplines.
“I wrote pieces for the UNCSA jazz ensemble and the orchestra, but also for dancers, visual artists and theatrical productions,” says Poindexter. “The way UNCSA is set up, you’re living side-by-side with all of these amazingly creative people. I really wanted to be part of everything.”
Poindexter formed a five-piece jazz ensemble with some of his best friends at UNCSA, and the school sent them gigging all across Winston-Salem, writing and arranging their own music and having the time of their lives.
It felt like The Beatles in their early years,” says Poindexter, who still works with the guys from his UNCSA quintet. “We were all super silly yet super serious about music.
It felt like The Beatles in their early years. We were all super silly yet super serious about music.Justin Poindexter
Poindexter could have stayed in North Carolina forever, playing jazz and writing new music for other artists and ensembles, but an opportunity presented itself in New York City that the adventurous young musician couldn’t resist. In 2007, Poindexter won the Kenan Performing Arts Fellowship to spend a year at Lincoln Center’s education and outreach division, now called Lincoln Center Education.
“What’s really incredible about UNCSA is that there are guys like Tom Kenan, who helped found the school,and who are still very active in creating these opportunities for young artists,” says Poindexter, whose fellowship turned into a full-time job with Jazz at Lincoln Center. “I always tell Tom that he’s responsible for everything good that’s ever happened to me.”
Since 2008, Poindexter has been the assistant director of education programming at Jazz at Lincoln Center, home to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by the inimitable Wynton Marsalis. Poindexter’s job is to take the amazing artists associated with Jazz at Lincoln Center — including his own band, Silver City Bound — and visit communities across America with a powerful message connecting American music to American ideals like democracy and social justice.
“Our curriculum is based on a series of conversations that Wynton had with former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Conner,” says Poindexter. “We go to schools, community centers and concert halls around the world and play shows that tie the history of jazz to the civil rights movement and demonstrate how improvisation, the foundation of jazz, is also essential to democracy.”
Poindexter knows that he’s living a rare version of the artist’s dream. Instead of having to choose between performing with his band and devoting himself to community outreach and education, he gets paid to do both. Silver City Bound is one of the official house bands at Lincoln Center and — in addition to their own busy touring schedule — perform at least 50 concerts in New York public schools every year delivering foot-stomping lessons on freedom, improvisation and cultural heritage.
“Back at UNCSA, Ken Frazelle taught us that great artists are aware of the history of their art, and can be capable ambassadors for their craft.. All art is educational. So when you listen to the Rolling Stones or Louis Armstrong or opera, you’re getting cultural education,” says Poindexter. “I see my job as being a spokesperson for the music, providing historical and cultural context, and using the powerful experience of live music as an opportunity to better understand each other and ourselves.”