These Atlantans’ devotion to music enriches their lives — and their communities

Doug Hooker fell for the piercing intonations of the oboe during his time as a viola player growing up in Cincinnati.

The summer before 10th grade, he asked his high school band and orchestra teacher if he might switch to the double-reeded woodwind. The conversation, as Hooker remembers it, went like this:

“He said, ‘Great. Do you have one?’”

“I said, ‘No.’”

“‘Know what it looks like?’”

“‘Yes.’”

“He said, ‘There’s one in the band instrument room. Get it. Take it home and practice and come back and audition for me during band camp. But you need to know I will have no oboe before I have a bad oboe because it’s too unique of a stick-out.’”

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Today, a great many Atlantans know Hooker, 68, for his public sector career, but likely fewer are aware of his musical history, which yielded a long commitment to the oboe and to composition. He’s one of the numerous older residents who don’t earn a living with music. But they pursue it with a near-professional zeal nevertheless.

Here’s how that dedication looks in varying settings.

A love of the oboe and all things symphonic

Hooker put down the oboe after high school. A long and prominent career eventually ensued and included 10 years as executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission, a position from which he retired in March. His professional life was busy. But he never quite let the oboe go.

“At some point, my wife got tired of hearing me talk about it, and she surprised me 13 or 14 years ago with getting me an oboe for Christmas,” he said. “And after it sat there for a year, I finally got it fixed and started taking lessons, and so, I’ve been studying with a professional oboist for the last 13 years.”

He’s performed with the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Band, and he began “Oboe and Friends,” a concert benefiting the Atlanta Music Project. The nonprofit provides tuition-free music education for underserved youth. He’s an active AMP supporter and was a board member until recently.

And then, there’s the symphony. It’s not Hooker’s first composition, but it’s an intricate one most musicians — let alone one with a day job heading an agency serving 11 metro counties — might find intimidating. The process that produced “Without Regard to Sex, Race, or Color” began in 2017 at the invitation of Hooker’s longtime friend, photographer Andrew Feiler. Feiler published a book of the same name in 2015.

“He asked me to consider an artistic collaboration in which I would write a piece in response to his photography and his stories that are represented,” Hooker said.

The first movement premiered in March 2019 at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The complete piece had its premiere this past February at the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech, Hooker’s undergraduate alma mater.

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“It involves a complete symphonic ensemble — strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion — a very complex percussion setup. It involves a full choir and four vocal soloists who also act as narrators in part of the piece,” he said.

Hooker is looking forward to more time with music in his retirement. He’s never formally studied composition, but he’s now considering virtual education courses. He remembers his uncle, a professional musician, telling him to just write what came to him.

“So, I’ve been doing the writing now for the better part of 30 years — writing different things off and on — two symphonies and several instrumental and choral pieces,” he said. “But now, I want to study to find out all the rules I’ve been breaking.”

Credit: Contributed by Mary Lindsey Lewis

Credit: Contributed by Mary Lindsey Lewis

A commitment to teaching music

As the daughter of two professional musicians, it was almost inevitable that Mary Lindsey Lewis, 70, was going to do something impactful with music. For 25 years, the very young congregants at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church have looked to her as their introduction to singing.

Lewis’ love of song harkens back to her native Macon where her sight-impaired father studied music at the state-run public school that is now the Georgia Academy for the Blind.

“He did well in music, and he got a master’s degree from Columbia in New York,” she said. “That was (a) real big deal for someone who was born in 1910 … I just grew up with good music, always, not necessarily popular music … I was listening to opera when I was four.”

Her father, a church organist, taught piano lessons, and her mother was a high school choir director and church soloist. When her family moved to Atlanta and joined Glenn Memorial, her father played for Sunday school classes.

Lewis was a choir member and a Dekalb County Schools teacher when she was asked to fill in leading the preschoolers while the church looked for someone permanent. A few months in, the Glenn Memorial choir director approached her again — this time with a glowing review.

“‘The mamas are happy. The children don’t cry anymore. Do you think you would stay on and do this a little bit longer?’”

A quarter of a century later, Lewis is still conducting 30-minute weekly Cherub Choir practices.

“I love them,” she said. “The most important thing in doing anything at a church is the love you have for people … There’s never a dull moment with 4- and 5-year-olds … It’s hard to keep their attention and get them to be involved, and you have to alternate — you sing, and then you get up and you move around … Almost every kind of Bible verse has a song that goes with it, so you can teach a lot of content.”

Her week-in, week-out commitment spanned the pandemic via Zoom and then outdoor practices. She knows she’s a constant in her students’ lives.

“I take it seriously because it matters to children whether you’re there or not,” she said. “The relationship that you build with the children is key to getting them to do music.”

Credit: Contributed by Frankie Lee Robinson

Credit: Contributed by Frankie Lee Robinson

The blues: ‘A distillation of the American experience’

A weeknight call to Frankie Lee Robinson’s cellphone will likely yield live music in the background as he half yells, struggling to be heard. Robinson, 64, is in his element, and he’s on a mission to share the blues.

For nearly 20 years, he’s headed his own band, Frankie’s Blues Mission, as a guitarist and vocalist performing blues, jazz and R&B. Mostly, the group has been a trio, but lately there’s also a three-piece horn component and a rhythm section. They play the Blind Willie’s stage in Virginia Highlands monthly, and they regularly venture to Athens and various festivals.

Robinson grew up in a small town in southeast Georgia, and his father, a school principal who also enjoyed managing bands, made sure music filled their home. Robinson came up in the ‘60s hearing B.B. King, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, T-Bone Walker, and popular R&B of the day. As a teenager in Pennsylvania, he found an old guitar in the home his family had moved into. He picked it up and played it through college.

“I never was serious about it until I got in my 20s,” he said. “The blues revival was in full swing then — it was kind of a retro revival in the 80s … I joined my first blues band when I lived in Poughkeepsie, New York.”

He worked for IBM then, and in his spare time, he helped kick off a blues jam that became a regional event. He later worked for an internet startup. Today, he earns a living as a software developer, but he’s always prioritized music. He’s been an active contributor to Atlanta’s blues scene on an organizational level having served on the Atlanta Blues Society board. At this point, music has bone-deep meaning for him.

“It’s a language,” he said. “It’s not just notes. It’s a representation of a culture I come from. It’s the voice of a people. Blues is very American. It couldn’t have been really invented anyplace else. It’s a distillation of the American experience. As far as I’m concerned, Black people are the most American people there are because we’re unwilling immigrants, and we built the culture of this country.”

Over the years, Robinson’s hard work has resulted in loyal fans and status for Frankie’s Blues Mission.

“At one point in time, Blind Willie’s considered us a second house band … We would back people up,” he said. “These days, we’re pretty much semi-regulars at Willie’s once again, but we’re not backing people up. We’re the headliners now.”

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