This article was written by BenitoLink intern Andrew Pearson.
The strain of the COVID-19 shutdown has prompted Joe and Frances Ostenson to close Mr. O’s Academy of the Arts at 360 Sixth Street in Hollister on July 31 after a 10-year run.
Bruce Gilsenan, the academy’s first music teacher, said the Ostensons created a local musical space just as a previous one, the Hollister Music instrument shop, was closing down in 2010-11. The then-new academy compensated for public schools’ cuts to music programs by giving kids private music lessons and experience as members of Mr. O’s Jazz Band.
Lucy Rodriguez, mariachi dance teacher for the troupes Alma de México and Folklórico, was one of Mr. O’s first practice studio rental clients.
“We were able to bring students in and introduce them to music, which was Mr. O’s love along with teaching kids,” she said.
Gilsenan and Rodriguez contacted the academy during San Benito County’s Stage Three reopening, expecting to resume lessons, but they learned that Mr. O’s was to close.
John Rialson, trumpeter for the jazz band and mariachi groups that rehearsed at the academy, said that Mr. O’s “helped to get everyone involved with music. There were private lessons going on here in just about every instrument.”
Though the academy is closing, Rialson said that young musicians haven’t gone anywhere: “We’ve got some 50 mariachi students. Some teachers are using Zoom to give their lessons.”
Mr. O’s Jazz Band met every Thursday night to play big band and fusion jazz tunes. The group added color to many local events.
“We played for Christmas concerts, we played for spring activities, and the Fourth of July, the Saddle Horse Show. We were busy,” said Joe Ostenson.
Noelle Sladon, one of the jazz band’s singers, said that the people of San Benito County got great “pro bono” entertainment from the performances, which held no auditions and admitted players of any skill level.
The wide variety of people in the academy and the band made a strong impression. Gilsenan explained that the jazz band attracted many now-grown musicians whom Ostenson had taught in his 45 years as a band teacher. Some were even “kids that were just starting out playing in the school band who got a lot more experience playing with him.” Musicians “from eight to 80” were in the band and taking lessons, said the 78-year-old Ostenson.
Sladon, who also taught piano and voice at the academy, agreed. “There were a couple guys who were in their late 70s, even 80s, and then there were junior high kids” in the jazz band.
Colleagues praised the way the Ostensons presided over the music academy. “You don’t get to hear about Frances a lot, but she ran that place,” Gilsenan confided. Rodriguez said that “they were both very cooperative, very understanding, they loved the kids coming around, and we really enjoyed being there.”
Of the academy itself, Gilsenan said, “All the other teachers there were really cordial, everyone was really friendly, easy to work with too. I’ve worked at places where the teachers were more competitive, trying to steal students, or complaining a lot—no one seemed to be doing that much there.” And in Rialson’s opinion, “they offered a wonderful service having this here for people, and I think it’s enriched a lot of lives.”
While Mr. O’s Academy of the Arts and the jazz band have been engines of the local music scene, they are not the only ones. Ostenson plays cornet for the Pacific Brass Band and trumpet for the Watsonville Community Band. Gilsenan teaches guitar, bass and ukulele out of the Rosas House in San Juan Bautista.
“Obviously, there aren’t any gigs,” Gilsenan said, adding he also stays busy by playing guitar for the bands Somos, the Kelly McDonald Band, and Con Corazon.
“And don’t forget,” Ostenson said, “we’ve got mariachi groups going on here in town,” like Rialson’s bands and Rodriguez’s dance group Folklórico.
Mr. O’s Jazz Band will continue—its members are meeting on Zoom. Right now they’re “going to try to record something, and then practice first outside and then maybe we’ll find another place to play,” Sladon said.
“We have all the music ready to go, when we can go back together. There have been a number of places that have offered us places to rehearse,” said Rialson.
The academy still has several instruments which are available to anyone who makes a donation and is able to cart them away. Call the Academy at (831) 524-0812, ask about the remaining instruments and come for the ones you want between 1 and 3 p.m. by July 31.
Asked about the future of music after the pandemic, Ostenson said “We’ve got to settle down before we have people playing in bands.” He said he’s hoping public music will resume “by maybe Christmas, January. I don’t know. Soon, I hope.”
Gilsenan projected that “When it blows over, people are gonna be really hungry to go out and listen to music, and you know that there’s going to be floods of new music coming out, because everyone’s at home writing songs and recording.” Still, “There will maybe be fewer venues, because a lot of places probably won’t be able to afford to stay open” after the shutdown.
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