By David Perry
Singer-rapper Wyclef Jean recently turned to his tour manager and asked, "Hey Rachel, why don't we go to your school?"
Jean, who had a performance scheduled for March 1 in Boston, has been giving occasional master classes at colleges, universities and high schools while on tour. He knew Driscoll, who graduated from UMass Lowell in May with a bachelor's in music business, had gone to school in the area.
So Driscoll got in touch with Amy Dinsmore, coordinator for the Music Department, to see what could be arranged.
One week later, there was the former Fugee, three-time Grammy winner, writer, performer and producer, bobbing his head and tapping his hands on the arms of a chair on the stage of Durgin Hall. He listened with rapt attention to songs by three groups of student music majors and offered positive comments and constructive criticism.
The visit was part of his "Wyclef Goes Back to School" project. In addition to master classes, he's searching for new talent - singers, players. The best will end up on a mix tape.
He was particularly taken with the intricate solo acoustic performance by junior music business major Andrew Nugent on his original, "It's Time to Fly."
"Where I come from, we go hard," said Jean, when the applause finally subsided. "That was hard, bro." He called Nugent, "incredible," "fearless" and - referring to his lumberjack-like facial hair - "the beard god."
Sensing correctly that Nugent was a John Mayer fan, Jean told him, "You definitely got more swag than John Mayer."
Nugent seemed to float after the class.
"That was cool," he said, grinning. "I mean, he's been up doing that for so long, and with so many people. For him to like my stuff … amazing."
For an hour, Jean belonged to the students. Quality music lasts, he told them. Do what you're passionate about. Find the groove.
The music students serenaded him. Then Jean grabbed his guitar, plucked a lead guitarist, bassist and drummer from the students in the crowd and led them in a jam.
“It’s a very rare thing in school to have an international-level musician come play and work with students. It was incredible.”
-SRT major Chris Winters
They found a groove and the Haitian-born artist slid into his hit, "If I Was the President."
He chatted with and freestyled raps with students after the class was over and offered guitar tips. Driscoll nearly had to drag him away.
"This is definitely the best recital I've ever been to," said Chris Winters, a sophomore major in sound recording technology (SRT). "It's a very rare thing in school to have an international-level musician come play and work with students. It was incredible."
He was thrilled to see his friend Daniel Prothete join Jean on lead guitar.
"It was amazing," said Prothete, who, like Jean, is Haitian. "To play with a Haitian artist like him?"
Sometimes those seemingly chance meetings lead to something bigger. One student he plucked from such an afternoon last year at the University of Southern California, Moira Mark, joined Jean on the track "Sak Kap Fet" (a Haitian term for "what's good"), released yesterday.
Jean carries a pretty good resume. He has worked with Michael Jackson, Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Beyonce and Mick Jagger, to name a few. He produced Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie," which shook the charts.
"I look at this as the reverse of the reality show concept," he said of his visits to schools and colleges. "There's no ratings, no one needs big numbers, no network, no people voting and texting. It's the reverse. It's the way I got discovered. It's the way Jay-Z got discovered. And we're still in the game, 30 years later.
"When I was 17, 18, I met Quincy Jones. He said something to me: 'Look, you can run a 50-yard dash or you can run a marathon. You look like you want the marathon.'
"I look for raw. Raw talent. The people who make you feel something."
"That," said music department chair Alan Williams after the master class, "was amazing. He totally and completely read the scene and understood who these students are. He is a consummate musician and a consummate professional. It was effortless. He totally gets it, in a way I've never seen."
Three years ago to the day, Melissa Manchester was in a three-day UML residency, and Billy Joel served up a lively master class from the same Durgin Hall stage in December 2011. Musicians regularly stop by to offer advice, as do producers and recording engineers in the Sound Recording Technology Department.
Driscoll knows how valuable and memorable these master classes can be. She fondly recalls the Manchester residency - she sang a beautiful version of "Happy Endings" onstage during the finale.
"Oh, my God," she said backstage during Jean's UML gig. "I loved that."
"I had the most amazing time going to school here," she said. "And I am so glad to give something back."
"Rachel is like a gift," Jean said during a morning telephone interview. "People like her don't come around very often. We picked a good one. She is sharp."
Heads Music, a female-founded and -run label that signed Jean, took on Driscoll as an intern in the fall of 2016.
"She did such a good job, they hired her," said Williams. That was in June. "She is already tour-managing Wyclef Jean."
"She's running a full-blown tour," Jean said. "And she's a great singer on top of it. One of these nights, I'm going to bring her out onstage. She knows. I told her, 'I'm not telling you when, but I will.'"
In fact, Driscoll sang an original, "Distance," to kick off the performances at Durgin.
"I've got to say, if that's what UMass Lowell does, provides people like Rachel, then I might have to camp out there for like a month. She does a great job," Jean said.
"It's funny," said Williams. "Suddenly, it's rock stars dropping in. And I think this may keep happening as our students keep going out into the world and making it in different aspects of the music business."
"Rachel wanted to show us off to Wyclef," he said. "That's a pretty cool thing."
As the program came to a close, Williams presented the star with a River Hawks hockey jersey.
"Wyclef" it said, over the number "1."
The singer slipped it on with ease.
It was a good fit. It had been all afternoon.