To Lara Bolton’s sons, he was Mr. Phil, the helper in their St. Paul school lunchroom.
“My middle child has celiac disease, and he dropped his lunch one day. And Mr. Phil found him a hot dog to eat and made sure it was gluten-free,” Bolton recalled. “He was just the tenderest man.”
Ever since Mr. Phil — aka Philando Castile — was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights in 2016, Bolton has wanted to do something to promote conversation about gun violence.
A vocal teacher at the University of Minnesota, she heard a public-radio story last year about the Instrument of Hope — a trumpet, made of bullet casings, created in the wake of a 2018 shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 students dead.
It gave her an idea. She’d bring that trumpet to the Twin Cities to perform with her group, Voxspex.
“This instrument spoke to me,” Bolton said. The people behind it “don’t care what side you’re on politically. They want as many people — and artists — to have access to the instrument as possible to continue the dialogue about gun violence. It’s an urgent matter.”
Since last spring, the Instrument of Hope has traveled around the country. It’s been played on Broadway and in recording studios, in concerts by the Who, Mannheim Steamroller and Panic at the Disco, by big names like Randy Brecker and little-known ones like Voxspex, which mashes up classical arias with soul-jazz-rock arrangements.
The trumpet maker
When New York City brass-instrument maker Josh Landress was asked to craft a trumpet out of bullet casings, he thought the request was “interesting but a little bit silly.” Until he found out why.
Publicis, a worldwide marketing agency, was representing Shine MSD, a nonprofit formed to promote healing in the arts after the February 2018 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. (It is named after a song, “Shine,” written by two drama students at the school.)
Working with AR-15 bullet casings (not from the Parkland shooting), Landress created the trumpet’s buttons, long pipe and part of the bracing.
“I went through maybe 50 to 60 bullets,” he said. “Going from an idea on paper to something that would work, there were a lot of mistakes and errors along the way. But working with brass is working with brass.”
A former Marine from St. Petersburg, Fla., he spent about 30 hours making the horn, which is typical of the 57 other trumpets he’s made. (Mostly, though, he does brass repairs for top-flight musicians such as Chris Botti.)
This project, however, required “a little more finesse and care.” There were two other special requests: To add a medallion, made of melted-down bullet shells and engraved with the Shine MSD logo, and to coat the trumpet in black lacquer so the brass shell casings would stand out.
The importance of this project hit home for Landress when about 15 students from Stoneman Douglas High came to his New York shop last March to see the finished instrument.
He urged each to blow the horn.
“Seeing the reaction of these kids trying to play and making a noise for the first time, it was sheer joy, but with sadness and a sense of accomplishment and reward all tied up in one,” he said. “It was really a powerful moment.”
Kim Scharnberg was the supervising orchestrator for benefit concerts tied to the mass shootings at Stoneman Douglas High, Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. That eventually led the Connecticut-based conductor/composer/producer to become the de facto agent — or shepherd — for the Instrument of Hope.
That volunteer job takes an average of 15 hours a week. He’s done a little marketing for the instrument, reaching out to the likes of Doc Severinsen and Wynton Marsalis, who’ve yet to play it. But mostly he’s been responsible for making sure the horn gets where it’s supposed to be.
“After Minnesota, it’s going down to Austin, Texas, for a couple of weeks for a big educators festival,” Scharnberg said. “It just went to Newtown. One of the students, a trumpeter in the high school, lost his brother in the shooting at Sandy Hook.”
A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who’s worked extensively with Minnesota-bred singer Linda Eder, Scharnberg enlisted 66 trumpeters — half in New York, half in Los Angeles — to record a version of “Shine.”
“Everybody had some connection, either directly or once-removed, to the issue of gun violence,” he said of the recordings, which haven’t been released yet.
“One of my friends in Los Angeles, when I asked him to play on the recording, he asked: ‘Is this about taking away my guns?’ He thought it was a Second Amendment issue. I said, ‘Both sides of the fence have their ideas how to solve the problem. We’re here to use music to heal from tragedy and get the conversation going.’ ”
Although it’s “tricky” to play someone else’s horn, Minneapolis trumpeter Omar Abdulkarim feels honored to blow the Instrument of Hope with Voxspex this week.
The trumpet is heavier — literally and figuratively — than a normal instrument.
That difference of a few ounces “would probably give it a darker sound,” said Abdulkarim, who’ll perform on two tunes. “That extra weight helps with the projection of the horn. If you’re not using a microphone, it really cuts through the whole building without having to use a lot of effort.”
Abdulkarim knows the trumpetmaker well. Landress was his go-to repairman when he spent a decade in New York, playing with the likes of Lauryn Hill, Method Man and Jose James.
The Minneapolis native knows old schoolmates who were caught up in gun violence.
“It’s come to the point where people are desensitized to it. I feel like we need to do more and be better at talking about how to solve the issue, because it’s way out of control.”
Bolton has secured private investors to cover expenses for this week’s concerts, including $150 shipping each way for the Instrument of Hope. It will arrive the day before the concert, hopefully in time for a rehearsal and a chance for her two young sons to play it.
A fan of rock, funk and jazz as well as classical, she will play keyboards at the shows. She considers Voxspex — vox for voice, spex for a spectrum of sounds — more a concept than a group.
“These arrangements don’t belong on an opera stage. They belong in a club,” said Bolton, who has worked at Mill City Opera and companies in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Seattle. “I like making the vibe more casual. You don’t have to sit there silent for three hours. My singers won’t wear gowns and tuxedos.”
She’s produced two previous performances by Voxspex — at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis and the 75 Club in New York City.
The vocalists for this week’s concerts have Minnesota connections. Brittany Renee is from the Twin Cities, though she is currently living in New York, where she just performed “Porgy and Bess” with the Met Opera. Sweden-based tenor Dominique Wooten started his career in the Twin Cities at Theater Latté Da and Bloomington Civic Theater (now Artistry). And baritone Nicholas Davis has credits with Minnesota Opera and Twin Cities theater groups.
Bolton said she talked with her sons, who are now 11 and 9, about guns and police after the Castile shooting.
“I don’t know how my kids processed it,” she remembered. “I think the school [J.J. Hill Montessori, where Castile worked] did a really good job of trying to be mindful of the students’ needs. Someone made handwoven Mr. Phil dolls and gave them to each of the students. My kids still have theirs and they kind of sleep with them.”
At the Instrument of Hope concerts, Bolton will talk about the trumpet’s story and mission — and maybe her sons and Mr. Phil.
“When [gun violence] comes into your life in a close-up way, that was a defining moment for me,” she said. “I just cannot do nothing forever after this.”