The Music Man

Educator and LAUSD band leader Tony White is inspiring the next generation of instrumentalists to follow the sound of music

By J.D. Mathes


I t was such a visceral experience,” said Anthony “Tony” White, recalling marching as a high school senior in the 1985 Rose Parade in Pasadena. “I knew I wanted to be involved with this for the rest of my life.”

White became swept away with the pageantry and energy of performing the cymbals with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) All District Honor Marching Band in front of thousands of spectators gathered to watch the iconic annual parade. True to the moment, White has been involved with the band ever since.

“This is year 38 for me, from being a lunch boy, a gopher, and now I’m running it,” he said.

After graduating from Narbonne High School in the Harbor City area of Los Angeles, White applied to UC Riverside. As the oldest of 10 children to a single mother from South Central LA, the thought of attending college was daunting. But with the love and support of his family, he accepted the offer to enroll. At first, White was a business student, because it was something practical, he said.

Tony White

“I wanted to keep being involved with music,” said White, who volunteered to help the LAUSD band on Saturdays and with the All District Honor Marching Band’s Rose Parade appearances while in college.

During his time at UCR, White performed every chance he got and in every kind of band “from rock ’n’ roll to jazz.” He confided to his grandmother that he felt he wasn’t pursuing the right major.

“I remember getting on the payphone and calling her,” he said. “She told me to follow my heart.”

White changed his major to music. He said he is grateful for his instructors, like professor emeritus Byron Adams who helped him with his piano exams when he had no prior piano experience. The music department’s faculty members, such as the late Donald C. Johns, also inspired him to add an education emphasis and pursue teaching along with honing his craft.

“I met so many great people who have become, and remain, great friends — a community who gave encouragement when it was really needed,” he said. “In the jazz program, under the direction of Bill Helms, I learned to be creative and think on my toes. He was an influential great, an ambassador who helped me through UCR.”

At graduation in 1989, White became the first member of his family to earn a degree. The university bestowed upon him a chancellor’s award, the first of many awards he would receive for his work in music and music education.

“That really boosted me,” he said. “It made me feel I was on the right track.”

After college, White got a job teaching music at John C. Fremont High School in South LA. It was important to him to get instruments into the hands of any student who wanted to play and make a positive impact on their lives. White went on to earn a teaching credential from California State University, Dominguez Hills, then a master’s degree in educational leadership and an administrative credential from Pepperdine University. Following several years teaching, he became administrative coordinator in charge of the LAUSD Beyond the Bell music and entertainment education program.

“Our program oversees projects such as the annual band and drill team championships, the Herbie Hancock Jazz Academy, and the project that started it all: The LAUSD All District Honor Marching Band.”

Through the years, White has taken his students to perform all over Los Angeles and surrounding areas, including LA’s Central Avenue Jazz Festival, the Hollywood Bowl, the former Kodak Theatre (now Dolby Theatre), Disneyland, and LA’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade, as well as across the country at the White House and the Kennedy Center. His passion for music education led to his advocacy for Prop 28: The Arts and Music in Schools Funding Guarantee and Accountability Act. The measure, signed by Gov. Newsom in June 2023, required the state to establish a new, ongoing program supporting arts instruction in schools beginning in 2023–24.

A practicing musician in his own right, White strikes a balance between his professional and creative life. He recorded his first CD, “The Tony White Project,” in 2003. In 2019, White released the EP, “Trio EWM” with percussionist Ray McNamara and guitarist John Ehlis. Now eying retirement, White thinks fondly of what he calls a “blessed career,” noting he’s hoping to record an album with his son, who is a drummer. He would also love to come back to play at UCR, like he has done in the past.

“If they call me again, I’d be there in a hurry,” he said.

Return to UCR Magazine: Winter 2024