For the 60 members of the West Louisville Performing Arts Academy, singing in the choir is a clear path to getting a college education. Considering that most are from single-parent and/or at-risk homes, that’s plenty of incentive.
“We made promises in the beginning and we’ve kept them,” says McDaniel Bluitt, executive director of the organization he launched in 1990. “We sold them a bill of goods that you can perform, you can travel, and you’re going to go to college.”
Bluitt runs a well-disciplined ship, requiring members, ranging in age from 8 to 18, to attend practice four times per week. The West Louisville Boys Choir and the West Louisville Girls Choir perform approximately once per month during the school year, appearing at civic functions and for various audiences.
At the performances, the groups wear sharp uniforms and make amazing music, wowing audiences under Bluitt’s instruction. Today, most kids entreating the program know the discipline required, but that wasn’t always the case. Bluitt said some would “bring the street with them” and that included rap and hip-hop music. But he said most fall in line quickly.
“I tell them it’s not good enough to sound good,” he says. “When people pat you on the back, when you finish a concert, and you’re just grinning, I ask them a question: ‘Do you realize there are people who don’t believe you can learn, because of the color of your skin?’ Your job, when you get on the stage, is to sing the very best you know how, and if you do a good job, your second job is to dispel the myth of what people think about you.”
Bluitt, a former band and choir director in Jefferson County Public Schools, tells new members they must abide by simple rules — stay out of trouble with the law, keep a 2.5 grade point average in high school, remain active in the choir through high school, and pass the college entrance exam. If so, he can guarantee them a four-year full tuition scholarship to the University of Louisville.
That guarantee has been possible since 2001, when a group of 31 young men under Bluitt’s direction traveled to perform in London and Paris. That trip was made possible after a Courier Journal column written by Bob Hill brought in hundreds of individual contributions that made the trip possible.
When the boys returned, they were asked to perform before an audience that included the John Shumaker, then-president of the UofL, and the Board of Trustees. Bluitt said that performance so moved the audience that they guaranteed scholarships to graduates of the choir, a program that has been in place ever since and has been taken advantage of by dozens of young men and women.
Bluitt said he expanded the organization to include a group for girls after the boys returned from Europe.
“When we got back from Europe, parents said ‘What are you going to do about our girls?’ So we started a girls group real quick,” he says. “We opened the door, because parents of the boys had daughters.”
The nonprofit organization’s headquarters are in ArtsPlace on West Broadway, near the Brown Theatre. Bluitt says the group’s $120,000 budget comes from donations, concert fees, and grants. Most of the members come from West Louisville, and those who have used the choir scholarships have earned prestigious degrees.
Bluitt’s influence is felt in generations of choir members, many of whom stay in touch as they progress through their lives.
“One of the things that makes this program unique is that it’s more than just singing. It’s more than just performances,” Bluitt says. “It’s the development of children and building them up to the point where they will actually achieve. We’re using music to address a lot of social ills in society, and helping make children and families better.”