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Peter Archer: The True Inspiration of "Soul"

Peter Archer: The True Inspiration of "Soul"

Courtesy Disney / PIXAR


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Disney / PIXAR's jazz-flavored movie Soul has garnered rave reviews and buzz worldwide. That's because in addition to its spectacular animation and meticulous production values, there's an honest and accurate representation of jazz and jazz musicians. What's behind that is the fact that the film was inspired by a dedicated Queens music teacher, Dr. Peter Archer. Archer's story and his involvement with the production is in itself a fascinating tale.

All About Jazz: Dr. Archer, on behalf of All About Jazz, welcome.

Peter Archer: Thank you, it's a pleasure.

AAJ: I had the pleasure of watching Soul (Disney / PIXAR, 2020) last night. And we'll talk a lot more about that, but I think that our readers would be very interested in learning a little bit about you, and your background. Can you tell us a little bit about your music career?

PA: Sure, certainly. I'm a trumpeter and music educator. I majored in trumpet performance at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. Following my undergrad years, I found myself in the music education realm, which was purely by accident. I signed up for the Queens College Music Education Internship, which was offered at that time. The college placed me at the Marie Curie Junior High school, 158, in Bayside, Queens, and the requirements stipulated that I report at that school for three days per week to do observations and learn from the music teacher, and contribute something musically to the school. What I did not know and come to realize—and paralleling this to the movie in a way—is that I developed a love for teaching, a spark, if you will. My intention initially was to graduate as a performance major, which I did, and the next step for me was to seek employment in one of the major symphony orchestras. Music education essentially was never something that entered my mind. I was a part of the chorus of music performance majors who frowned upon music education majors at the college. Back then, I ascribed to the adage, "those who can't, teach." Something I, of course, regretted after becoming an educator, and found out that I really loved it and enjoyed it, to the point where I taught at my school for 34 years.

AAJ: You taught at the same school that you did student teaching at?

PA: Actually, I student taught at the same school where I did the music education internship. I learned from Tony Somma, who was the band teacher there. I credit him for my teaching career. He was an outstanding, straightforward music teacher. He told me basically, "you have to be consistent with your discipline; you have to know what you're teaching and learn all of the instruments." And that's exactly what I did.

In spring of '86, he informed me that the band teacher over at MS 74 (the neighboring middle school) would be retiring and I should go over there in hope that I would be hired. And they did. And I've been there for 34 years, and I just left in June; this past June 26th of 2020. I've enjoyed every single day there, I gave it my all; I miss the kids already. It's just been a glorious 34 years.

AAJ: Once you were teaching, in all those 34 years of experience, how did your philosophy of music education change, if at all?

PA: My philosophy of music education evolved to the realization that every one of my students was unique and by engaging them fully in learning music, they were able to succeed. I made sure that the band room environment was safe for them and that they were able to learn from their mistakes. Keeping them motivated became a very important component to all of this; as well as ensuring that they met their full potential. Also, instrumental music is best taught sequentially and students should receive class instructions no less than four times per week in order to render favorable outcomes.

AAJ: Now, did you continue to play? Did you continue to perform while you were educated?

PA: Absolutely. I did not stop playing. I'm still playing now, I've performed in various venues here and abroad, I have my own band, I performed with Everton Bailey on numerous occasions; Your friend ... I did recitals at St. Patrick's Cathedral and at the Cadets Chapel at West Point. I am the principal trumpeter for the Terra Symphony Orchestra, a Brazilian New York-based Symphony Orchestra.

AAJ: You have a doctorate in performance?

PA: No, my doctorate is in music education. I received my doctorate from Boston University, and my dissertation chronicles the History of the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College of the City University of New York from 1938 until 2010. I did my bachelor's at Queens' College, and my Master of Science at Queens College as well.

AAJ: All right, now to get to the meat of the matter, the movie! How did it all come about? How did they find you? What's the genesis of that? What's the genesis of Soul?

PA: What you just asked me is the number one question people ask me all the time. It was not my doing at all. Pete Docter sent me an email, which I didn't read initially. He titled it...I think, "Seemingly out of the blue email," or something to that nature, I actually did not read it, because I was cleaning out my spam mail during that time.

AAJ: And you got this at school?

PA: Yes. At school.

AAJ: Okay.

PA: The next day at school, which was a Tuesday, I was teaching class and the phone rang, and one of my students picked up the phone for me, and informed me it was the main office on the line. I stopped the class from playing, picked up the phone, and the secretary said, "Hi, Dr. Archer, there's a gentleman from Disney on the line. Would you take the call?" I said, "Sure."

PA: The gentleman, I don't recall his name said, "Dr. Archer, I work with Pete Docter over at PIXAR. Pete sent you an email and did not get a response. Pete's next movie is about a middle school band teacher. And we did a search and we found you. Pete is very excited, and we want to come and speak to you about the movie." So I'm listening to all this, and responded, "Well, are you sure you got the right person?" He said, "Oh yes, we do." And he said, "Our team would like to fly to New York and meet you on Friday." Apparently, they dug up things about me. So they were pleased with what they discovered.

AAJ: What did the school think of this?

PA: The administration at school was very thrilled about that prospect,. They were delighted.

AAJ: I would think so.

PA: Pete Docter, Dana Murray, and others came that Friday and met with the principal initially. It was May, 2018, and my concert band was rehearsing for their spring concert in the auditorium. They observed the rehearsal. The band was sounding great! Once the kids get to that point during the school year, I essentially adopt a high school level curriculum as a means of challenging their learning.

AAJ: Sure.

PA: After the rehearsal, they took pictures of the hallways, outside of the school and many shots of the band room. My band room, as you know is in the opening scene in the movie. The team spoke to me for a good while and they were very impressed.

PA: During our conversation, I informed Pete that my core is essentially, fulfilling my musical passion, doing what's right and helping other people.

AAJ: Did you know at that time that Peter and the other producer were also musicians? Did they tell you that?

PA: No, I did not. I learned that when I visited PIXAR the first time.

AAJ: Oh yeah, he's got two kids that are top level musicians.

PA: Correct.

AAJ: Go ahead, anyway. So what happened next?

PA: Well, we spoke for a while. Pete listened carefully to every word I said and he wrote everything down. He didn't miss anything, I think what they were most impressed with, was what I just told you regarding my core. I informed him of how I got involved in music education. Before music education, everything was all about me. I wanted to play in the symphonies, I was hung up with my performances and while on the surface, there's nothing wrong with fulfilling such passion, everything was just about me.

PA: The whole thing that honestly drove me to this Music Ed. was that the college paid for my masters. It was a free tuition internship program. And also on top of that, they gave me a stipend of $800 a semester. So I was being paid essentially to go to school. But I initially was not thrilled with the idea of teaching kids. Little did I know that I would eventually develop a love for teaching. I found my spark!

AAJ: At that stage when they were doing their onsite research, did they have, let's say the screenplay? Or ... Because what you've just told me about how you went from, "I want to be an orchestra trumpeter," to music educator, I mean, that's exactly what's presented in the movie.

PA: Correct, that's primarily the reason why they sought me as a consultant

AAJ: So they actually used that. So the screenplay may not have been written at that point in time.

PA: They continued to gather information to refine the story. I helped to provide insights and inspiration so that they could tell the most authentic, and universal story, everything from the aesthetic of a middle school band classroom to the emotional tug of balancing a passion for music and a love of teaching. They concluded that I was a great inspiration for Joe Gardner.

AAJ: What happened when you went out to LA?

PA: I visited PIXAR multiple times while the film was in production, to look at artwork and in progress scenes to give notes on everything from the visual design to how Joe might react in certain moments. They sketched out my room very nicely.

AAJ: Oh yeah, absolutely.

PA: That's my classroom, actually. That's my band room at school, they did a phenomenal job with that. It's modified slightly; they put in a chalkboard in place of the flat screen. But of course, like everything else, there are edits that they do from time to time, after every viewing. In October of 2018, I received an email from Dana Murray, informing me that the first three reels were ready. I visited the studios in December of that year. I was joined with Herbie Hancock, Terri Lynne Carrington, Earl McIntyre, and others. We toured the place, and received a PowerPoint presentation by Pete Docter on how PIXAR goes about making their movies.

AAJ: Wow.

PA: I thought it was phenomenal, brilliant. I soaked in everything and I enjoyed it, and it was enlightening for me and educational as well.

Prior to viewing the reels in the auditorium, Pete flashed the globe and a ball of light on the screen. He informed us that as we watched the film to bear in mind that the movie takes place primarily in the afterworld.

AAJ: So go ahead, that's good.

PA: After viewing the film, we gathered to review notes and viewed colorful pictures of the characters.

AAJ: When you say the characters, meaning the voice-over actors?

PA: No. What we watched in the auditorium was in drawing form. We did not know what the characters really looked like until the colorful posters of them were presented to us in the conference room.

AAJ: It's so interesting that they involved you at that level.

PA: Yes. That was very profound. Pete Docter and the others on the production team wanted to make sure that they got everything right. There were a number of musical and cultural consultants on the film as I mentioned, and you can really feel the authenticity in the finished work. I'm very proud to have been a part of that.

AAJ: And what was the next step? What happened after that?

PA: I came back home after a few days, and just was in awe.

AAJ: Yeah, you floated home.

PA: I did return to the studios in October of 2019 for another screening prior to releasing the first teaser trailer.

AAJ: So you were literally involved almost in every step of-

PA: Yes.

AAJ: That's amazing. What about the music? What happened? How did that happen?

PA: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the music for the film. The jazz compositions are originals and arranged by Jon Batiste. We were informed during the first visit that they were considering Jamie Foxx to do the lead voice for the main character.

AAJ: In other words, they asked you your recommendations for the voice actors?

PA: No, they didn't ask for my recommendation actually, but informed us of people they were considering. After the first teaser trailer came out, the interest about the movie intensified.

AAJ: Were you present at the soundtrack recording? I'm sure the recording was probably the last step in the process, is that how they did it?

PA: Which recording?

AAJ: The music.

PA: Oh, the music. I was not involved with the music. Jon Batiste made a few trips there at the studios. I was not involved with that particular aspect.

AAJ: Did you have any interaction with Jon?

PA: Actually no, even though he did give me a gracious shout out during the PIXAR Soul sponsored Essence Essential Heroes award, which I received.

The animators patterned Jon Batiste's fingers to Joe Gardner's fingers playing the piano. They patterned his body movements as well. Kemp Powers, one of the writers, pointed out that the opening scene in my band room where we see Joe Gardner demonstrating on the piano to the children was inspired almost entirely by Jon.

AAJ: Why do you think they went pianists versus trumpet? Just out of curiosity.

PA: Although I'm not sure, I thought a jazz pianist was a wonderful idea.

AAJ: So the movie is done, ready to go, and at that point in time, were you still involved with Disney? In other words, after it was started to be presented?

PA: Yes. In a sense... Well, first of all, you have to backup a little bit. keep in mind in spring of 2020, the two PIXAR films set to be released in the theaters were Onward in March and Soul on June 19th. Onward came out as planned, and if you recalled, in March, we had the shutdown due to the pandemic, theaters shut down as well and remained closed.

: During the summer, the production team informed me of November 20th as the new release date.. And of course, as you know, things got worse with the pandemic, and theaters did not reopen in the fall. Producer Dana Murray informed me that Disney executives decided to release the movie on Christmas Day on Disney+ instead.

AAJ: What's been the reaction from the critics about the movie so far?

PA: So far, the reactions from the critics are positive—worldwide for that matter. We had a virtual Red Carpet followed by a private screening just a few days before to the movie's December 25th release.

AAJ: So that was in person, or that was online?

PA: Everything was virtual.

AAJ: Let me ask you a question. Now that you've had a lot of this notoriety, and now that you've so-called retired, at least for music education, what's your plan for the future?

PA: Well, a couple of things, actually. Number one, I'm still playing and that's not going to stop. I've been doing a lot of recordings with brass quintets. I did a lot of that during the holiday season.

AAJ: Are you doing those from a home studio?

PA: No. I've done a lot of recordings here at home, and of course sent it out to an engineer for mixing. I did something on a church rooftop across from Carnegie Hall with a brass quintet.. Maybe I'll share that with you.

AAJ: Please.

PA: Unfortunately, my personal band has not been active during the pandemic. Our performances primarily include wedding, bar mitzvahs, and corporate events. I will continue teaching private lessons on Zoom and hope to get back to my research.

AAJ: In what area?

PA: Music Education. I'm an historian as well, which formed the basis of my historical dissertation. I am also a missionary, and my missionary team has not, unfortunately, been active since COVID. As you can tell, COVID is really restricting everybody in so many ways. So I plan on resuming my missionary activities as well.

AAJ: Do you bring your music into your missionary activities?

PA: Absolutely, yes. My team services about 500 orphans in Port-au-Prince, and my job essentially, is to do bucket drumming/recorder flute with about 100 of them. It's a church-based team here from New York City, and it's been such an overwhelming and rewarding experience. So I'd like to get back into that as well once we're passed COVID.

AAJ: Well, Dr. Peter Archer, this has been absolutely fascinating speaking with you. And I'm going to tell you this, and please don't take this as any way patronizing. I don't think they could have found a better model for Joe Gardner than what you have done in your story.

PA: Thank you so much.

AAJ: In every way, I think it's a movie for adults and kids. It has a wonderful message. And in researching Pete Docter, the theme in a lot of his movies is a person who cares for a child, or someone who needs some support and you've shown that in your music education career and personal life. On behalf of All About Jazz, thank you.

PA: Thank you and All About Jazz.

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