Alibi V.28 No.36 • Sept 5-11, 2019 

Music Interview

A Remarkable Breeze

After school program honors and educates

Keith Sanchez (L) leads students from NMARB.
Keith Sanchez (L) leads students from NMARB.
Eric Williams Photography

This story about the local music community goes in two different directions that are remarkably intertwined.

New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues
Eric Williams Photography

From one direction, a music education program designed to serve all our city’s children rose up. From its onset, The New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues has been goal-oriented. Its stated purpose: “To make music camps and classes accessible by being low cost to the community and fully funded for families with limited resources.”

That’s why Keith Sanchez—late of seminal Albuquerque punk band Stoic Frame, now a teacher at Albuquerque Public Schools in addition to his guitar duties with Keith Sanchez and the Moon Thieves—and his wife Ana Romero founded the New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues, an immersive music and arts program that strives to teach Albuquerque’s “young people the craft of music and lyrical performance and writing.”

Breeze Watson
Breeze Watson
courtesy Nikki Watson-McDonald

Meanwhile, along a corollary path, the story of a young man named Breeze Watson—who loved and lived for musical expression, a young man whose life on Earth ended after a motorcycle wreck on Montgomery Boulevard in the summer of 2016—wound its way around the first story. When Breeze became a student at NMARB, a new narrative for the city of Albuquerque to learn from and embrace was set in motion.

The NMARB program has reached its objective and then some—it draws from an elite instructor base that pairs top-flight area musicians and poets with students as well as by holding music and lyric-writing seminars—by hosting a series of annual summer camps.

Though those yearly activities have once again passed, along with summer’s short lease, Ana and Keith recently developed a program that is designed to carry on their mission throughout the school year, while honoring their basic mission as well as embracing the memory and influence of one of their more memorable students.

New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues
Eric Williams Photography

The Breeze Watson After School Music Program—funded in part by a grant fished out of the big education funding pond by members of our own City Council—begins Sept. 9 and Romero says the program is a culmination of all they’ve hoped and worked for since founding the original program more than seven years ago.

In discussing this innovative approach to youth music education in The Duke City, Ana told me that, “Current students in the New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues (NMARB) program come from all neighborhoods of Albuquerque with diverse backgrounds. One of the most magical aspects of art is that it connects us to one another, and we have seen this again and again in our program. Our focus is to continue to build a program that is accessible to every family in our community. We have held our program at the Fusion Theatre for seven years, and are currently fiscally sponsored by the Fusion Theatre Company. NMARB is in the process of applying for a 501(c)(3) designation.”

New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues
Eric Williams Photography

And that’s where these two stories come together. Breeze Watson’s Aunt Nikki provided some history, writing to tell Weekly Alibi that the NMARB program was a game changer for the young Watson, the place where “his love for percussion began.”

Romero agreed that Watson’s passion for music would be fully represented in the new program, adding that, “In dreaming up this program, we wanted to create something unlike anything we’d seen before. We took all of our wish-list items and put them into a year-round, music education program. More than a rock band camp, this program incorporates all aspects of the musical art form, and above all, it instills the premise of living a life filled with creativity and ingenuity that can flourish in all aspects of our students lives.”

New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues
Eric Williams Photography

With those two narratives tethered together lovingly and with the proper education of Burque’s youthful music students in mind, we met with the main players, including NMARB director Ana Romero, musical director Keith Sanchez and representatives of Breeze’s family (Aunt Nikki Watson-McDonald and Uncle Brendan McDonald) in this confluence of music education, remembrance and movement forward.

New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues
Eric Williams Photography

Weekly Alibi: Let’s start by talking about the program.

Ana Romero: Keith and I lived in California for a little more than a decade, we’re from New Mexico. Keith is the musical director and main instructor in the program.

Keith Sanchez: Ana is the brains behind it all.

Ana Romero: We moved back from California to raise our children and we just wanted to be a part of the community and knew this is what we could do for our community. So we created this music program as a summer program, a series of summer camps. And we slowly started building it into a year-round program. Last year, we created the Breeze Watson After School Program and we had a one day a week after school program last year and this year were able to—because of a funding increase from the city—offer a two day per week set of classes. It’s for kids 7 through 18 and for parents, it’s pay what you wish. We also have scholarships available for families throughout the community.

New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues
Eric Williams Photography

When does the program start?

It starts on Sept. 9 and runs through May 19, just like the school year. It follows the APS calendar.

The dream power and vision for this program comes from the inspirational life of Breeze Watson, a former student at NMARB. Tell me a little about that, please, Ms. McDonald.

Nikki Watson-McDonald: Breeze loved music and wanted his career to be in music. The May after he died, in 2017, we had a fundraiser at the Launchpad to raise money for NMARB. That’s how the program started. The funding from the city will help sustain Breeze’s memory and his influence, too.

How does the program honor Breeze and his love for music?

New Mexico Academy of Rock and Blues
Eric Williams Photography

Keith Sanchez: The crux of the situation is that we wanted to offer a program that was accessible to all kids. That’s how we built it. We built it with the idea that this is more than a school of rock, it isn’t just another typical music program. We’re bringing in amazing artists, educators and thinkers from all over the community. We’re teaching everything from lyricism to creative thinking. We teach every instrument that makes up a band. Those are all aspects that would have enriched and amazed Breeze and for sure will do the same with the students who are following in his footsteps.

What kind of commitment do students who want to attend need to make?

Keith Sanchez: It’s a month to month commitment. If students flourish after a month, they’re welcome to continue. Classes meet for an hour once per week and we supply all the gear, from musical instruments to associated materials.

Ana Romero: One of the most amazing things we’ve been able to witness about this program is that, after a few years of participating, we’ve seen students actively go out and join the music community, going to open mic events together. They develop friends and connections because of music.

Brendan, how has this movement forward led you to think about Breeze’s life and legacy?

Brendan McDonald: Our family, we watched Breeze’s eyes when he became engaged with the program. The enlightenment and the joy and excitement were noticeable with him. The motivation that followed was amazing. He always loved music, listening to it. But when he realized, through the school, that there was a whole other aspect to the process—how do you create a band for instance or musically gel with others—it opened his eyes to a world that he earnestly pursued. We lost him, unfortunately when he was 18. But watching other kids go through the same evolution—with very talented individuals as their guides, people who are really their heroes—is very heartening. There is a very motivated, organic growth process that takes place in this environment. The program is really enriching, really broadening. As I said, we saw that excitement and expectation come with Breeze and we’d like to see his dream carried forth by generations to come. His dream was left unrealized, but it’s an honor to see it take root in the young people that participate in a program that carries his name into the future. We don’t think there’s anyone better in the community to carry this mission forward and we’re honored that Breeze is part of that.

Ana Romero: This is why Keith and I started the program in 2013 and this is our small way of giving back to a community that we love. We also acknowledge that we can’t and don’t do it alone. We’ve had the help of many of New Mexico’s most beloved artists. It is most certainly a community effort and we feel quite lucky to be surrounded by so many phenomenal and creative people.

The Breeze Watson After School Program
Meets at the Fusion Theatre • 708 First Street NW
Visit nmarb.org to learn more or register for classes
Classes begin Sept. 9