For David Ladd Anderson, long time Santa Clara Unified School District music director, the central thing about performing music isn’t technique. “It’s not about how good you are,” he says. “It’s about how good you make people feel.”
Anderson received this year’s Austin Warburton Award, given each year by the Mission City Community Fund to recognize Santa Clara residents with significant leadership in community service.
Known for his accomplished bands, Déjà vu Jazz and the Ambassadors, Ladd has another mission beyond polished performances: inclusion.
He’s a pioneer in including people with disabilities in music-making magic. His band for people with developmental disabilities is called the Magic Makers.
“I have a love for those guys and try to include them every way I can,” he said.
A native of Joliet, Ill., Anderson began playing the flute in elementary school. After moving to California is high school, he had been accepted into a Northern California Honor Band and helped build a marching band.
Anderson left school to perform, playing flute and saxophone with the South Bay Experimental Flash rock band.
“We opened for all the San Francisco bands — Grateful Dead, Santana,” he said. “We played the Fillmore. We played with a group called the Golliwogs. They became Credence Clearwater.”
After Flash opened for Janice Joplin at San José’s Civic Auditorium, “she stopped me and said, ‘you really play the flute well. You should play jazz.’ That changed my life,” he said.
“I was a classically trained musician,” he continued. “I had all this technique, but this was a new way to use it.”
He started learning from jazz musicians, while the band began listening to jazz, playing along with records and experimenting.
Anderson soon got a scholarship to San José State University, majoring in radio, TV and film and began composing soundtracks, and film scores. He followed that with a Masters in composition.
He also started directing school bands and one day Villa Montalvo invited Anderson’s student band to play.
“They were combining with Hope Services and wanted to create a group for disabled people,” Anderson explained. The result was the Magic Makers.
It takes special approaches to direct musicians with disabilities — above all patience, Anderson said, “and a lot of repetition. You arrange around limitations. You have to go slow and be very positive.
“I tend to be a taskmaster and they taught me how to be gentle,” he continued, adding, “Every group teaches. If we shut up and listen, those we’re teaching can teach us way more.”
Since retiring from Santa Clara Unified, Anderson is anything but retired — it’s “change, not retirement,” he said.
He’s directing bands at San José’s Second Start Continuation School at Pine Hill School, a school for teens who are disruptive in conventional school settings. Teaching there is “wonderful,” Anderson said. “They want to be there, they want to play music and want to sing music. It gives them an important way to express themselves.”
Through his non-profit Music is Special, Anderson continues to direct the Magic Makers. His music production business has released 15 jazz CDs (they can be found on Amazon) and his professional David Ladd’s Downtown All-Stars band performs widely.
Anderson also has a new project — an autobiography, “Struck By Lightning: My Life in Music.” The title refers to his days opening for bands that later became big — hit by the “lightning” of recording contracts.
For Anderson, his decades teaching thousands of students is “where I got struck by lightning. That’s where I was meant to be.”