Dylan Jones is executive director of Anthropos Arts, an Austin nonprofit that provides professional music lessons for low-income middle- and high-school students. When Jones started Anthropos in 1998, he was teaching 15 students in two high schools. Today, Anthropos works on 19 campuses and reaches 150 students each semester.
“My great-aunt was Ruby Almond, a prodigy musician, a fiddle player. I remember being 8 years old the first time I saw her play, and we went to the Mesquite opera house. She was 65, she came out in this sequined dress and had someone escorting her because she had a walker. She worked her way up to the mic and said, ‘Well I guess I’ll play “Orange Blossom Special,”’ and she just ripped it.
“I didn’t start playing music until I was 15. I had a great teacher, Dwayne Haggar. He was my inspiration for Anthropos, really, because I was just an angsty troubled kid, and discovered music at that point as a release, and geeked out on it and went in my room and closed the door and just practiced. And this guy was the first person to say, ‘You’re really good at this. You should do this.’ He got me a gig when I was 16 or 17, a professional gig. I was playing with 40-year-old Dallas cokeheads. I was like, ‘Why is everybody going out to their car right before the gig?’
“Near the end of college at UT, I was working a city job that taught kids construction. … I’d talk music with the kids, I remember talking about Martin Banks, a house player at the Apollo Theater, and he lived in the same neighborhood as one of these kids and they didn’t know of him. I had my bass in my car and one of the kids said, ‘What’s that?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God this is messed up.’
“So I had this idea but I didn’t really know what to do. I tried to do it without much at first. I’d pick up other musicians and take them to teach lessons. I’d cook up breakfast tacos because I was super-broke and couldn’t pay them. I’d call them and say, ‘I’m coming! I got breakfast tacos so wake your ass up! ’ After a few times of chasing them down or them not being awake or not making it home from the previous night, I knew I had to find a way to pay people for this.
“I kind of force-feed improvisation to students, and that sounds petrifying, but … improv is a skill that is crucial in life. You’re never going to know everything, you’re never going to have all the answers. You’ve got to think on your feet, and so much of that is comfort. And that’s why I want every kid from 6th grade on that I’m teaching to be on stage and do that solo. You’ve got to not be afraid to look stupid.
“People think lessons are a luxury. But it’s way beyond the music instruction. It’s the mentorship, having an adult who’s not an authority figure, but someone you can look up to who does what you’re looking to do, and does it successfully. It’s that person who’s teaching you how to learn. It’s an opportunity for us to talk to them about all the things that matter across the board. We say, ‘Hey what’s happening with your math grade?’ The more you talk about those things, the more the kids are on top of it. They know you’re going to ask, they know you give a shit. So they start to give a shit.
“The basic philosophy behind doing Anthropos is that anybody who is an adult who has any kind of success and is good at anything can go back and help younger people do it. That just seems like it’s a crucial principle to keeping a community going.”
Interview has been edited and condensed.