May 6, 2006, I walk across the stage at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, and I graduate receiving the degree of Bachelors of Fine Arts in Jazz Studies from The Juilliard School. In one respect, I feel I have arrived. My mother, father, sister and fiancée are sitting in the audience beaming with pride, all saying, "He did it" and accomplished what he set out to achieve and we are here to witness it. On the other hand, we leave graduation, have a nice dinner and when I get back to my apartment, I literally have an anxiety attack. I am pacing back in forth in my Harlem apartment while my parents are trying to sleep, thinking: What the hell am I going to do next? I make some calls, and I decide to temporarily move back to Jacksonville, Florida because I literally have no gigs nor any real prospects of making money as a drummer.
I have now come to understand that silence and inactivity does not reflect lack of ability, but more so a redirection from the Creator. When God quiets things in your life, in my humble opinion, it’s because He wants you to let Him move you in the direction that has already been pre-destined for you. Many times, it's only when our backs are against the wall and we’re forced to see only His plan, that we surrender.
So, August 2006 I’m in Jacksonville, teaching at Jacksonville University, and I have opened a teaching studio at my parent’s home for local students of all ages, just to make enough money to eat. Soon after I opened the studio, my students start to tell me how much of a difference I'm making in their lives. My family and I have always been very dedicated to building Arts and Business ministries within Churches. But every time we would put our efforts towards building a ministry, something would happen within the function of the church that would reveal the lack of business integrity involved on their end. At this time however, I finally suggested to my family that we build our own empire under our name, and with our own vision as the focus so we could make a maximum impact in the city of Jacksonville for kids
To be transparent, in 2006 I was surrounded in student loan and credit card debt (trying to survive), and had minimal income. I remember having a dinner with Dr. Billy Taylor (Jazz Legend) and Loren Schoenberg (Director of the Jazz Museum in Harlem), and told them about this dream I had to start a foundation for children. But, I asked them how can a person actually start a business when they are in the “red” financially. They laughed at me, and Dr. Taylor said, “Son, everything I do, is in the red”.
So in 2007 my family and I began this vision of Don’t Miss a Beat (I’m abbreviating this story). I remember my fiancée even asking me, "How are you going to start something where you have to travel back and forth, and give to kids, when you can barely afford your rent? And when will I see you? How will we build our lives together when you are trying to save everyone else’s life?" (That’s for another blog:)
I have always had this feeling that everything was going to work out. Oddly enough, every time I gave to my kids, destiny would give back to me the unspoken desires of my heart and mind. Maintaining that balance of giving, while knowing that all of what I needed hadn’t completely been worked out yet, was and still can be hard.
Another difficult thing for me in the beginning was really giving my all. I remember having two conversations that shifted my commitment to my kids and the organization. The first was with my mother and she confronted me on how I was giving my time, but very begrudgingly. I sort of had the attitude of, these kids should be happy that we are taking the time to give to them. She said to me, "Well if we didn't choose to be there for the kids, God would have used someone else". Basically, she put me in check and helped me understand that though it is a blessing for my kids to have us, it is equally a blessing for us to have them. More than a blessing, it is a privilege that we were chosen to give and do this great work.
The other conversation was with my friend Breanna. I had a Holiday fundraising benefit where I had gone on stage that night and spoke to the parents about how my life had radically changed because of the arts. I used the example of my life as a success story and the reason they should enroll their kids into our arts program, so their lives would be happily ever after, too. I got home that night and "Bre" said to me, "Ulysses, your speech was great, but it lacked something. I said, "What? I thought the parents could feel the kind of success I anticipate for their kids." She explained to me that I was disconnected from those parents and their needs, most of whom could barely feed their kids daily. She said that I was telling them about how great my life is now but that I needed to connect with their lives beyond the agenda I had for their kids.
I was so humbled by these two conversations and I literally opened my heart and gave EVERYTHING as a result! I started booking my personal life and tour schedule around my kids and the organization. I turned down countless events and things that would have been more self-serving, and instead trusted that what is for me, is for me. I also began tithing fully to my organization. I went beyond to connect with the families of the children: showing up to homes, parent-teacher meetings and helping children with difficult moments in their lives. And it was beyond fulfilling. I decided, that starting the organization wasn't enough, I had to fully commit.
My family treated me differently when I changed my behavior. They saw my sweat equity. And the organization transformed. We are a family and a team transforming the community collectively because we are thankful to have been chosen to give to these children and families, which ultimately serves our community.
Now, Don’t Miss a Beat has grown to having two full community art centers, multiple teams of staff, sponsors, grants and private donors. And just last month, April 19th through the 23rd, my children performed at my alma mater The Juilliard School and recorded their first album in New York City. We have touched over 1000 children with the work that we do and I am so proud of my kids.
One of my friends recently asked me, “How do you do it all?” I responded with "because I have to." I believe we must constantly be sowing in life, not just reaping. Creating and committing to Don't Miss A Beat was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life, and I hope my story empowers you to make your own difference.