Guns ‘N’ Roses drummer brings music classes to Westminster Avenue Elementary

Matt Sorum, center, and donor Carter Lay get the rock star treatment at Westminster Avenue Elementary School Photo by Michael Aushenker

Matt Sorum, center, and donor Carter Lay get the rock star treatment at Westminster Avenue Elementary School
Photo by Michael Aushenker

By Michael Aushenker

There they were last Thursday on the field at Westminster Avenue Elementary School: 30 shiny brand-new guitars, 25 keyboards, microphones, a drum kit, and one drummer formerly of the legendary hard rock group Guns ‘N’ Roses.

The instruments were made possible by Fender Foundation, Casio, Yamaha, Zildjian Cymbals and a roster of music-industry donors. Drummer Matt Sorum was there as ambassador of Adopt the Arts, a nonprofit organization he co-founded with designer Abby Berman.

Adopt the Arts will pay for a music teacher to work four to five days per week at the Venice school, refurbish a classroom and invite Sorum’s musician brethren in as mentors or guest speakers.

“They really don’t have a clue who I am. They’re so young,” Sorum said as he surveyed the hundreds of elementary school children waiting on the field to hear him speak. “But their parents may have heard of me.”

Sorum was the second person behind the drum kit during Guns ‘N’ Roses’ heyday. He followed founding drummer Steve Adler in time to record with singer Axl Rose and lead guitarist Slash on the seven-times-platinum “Use Your Illusion I & II,” the double-album release that spawned early 1990s hits “You Could Be Mine” and “November Rain.”

After the L.A. rockers’ dissolution in the mid-1990s, Sorum, Slash and GNR bassist Duff McKagan joined Velvet Revolver, fronted by Scott Wieland, in 2002. Sorum currently tours with Kings of Chaos, a super-group featuring McKagan, GNR’s Gilby Clarke, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons and former Extreme frontman Nuno Bettencourt.

A response to drastic cuts in LAUSD arts education programs, Adopt the Arts formed five years ago when a neighbor asked Sorum to find a way to help Rosewood Avenue Elementary School in West Hollywood.

Westminster Avenue Elementary is Adopt the Arts’ second school.

“I can’t believe they let me in the building,” said Sorum, who does not have kids of his own. “Ten years ago, I wouldn’t be allowed in this building.”

Artist Carter Lay, whose Carter Lay Charitable Foundation is underwriting the program at Westminster Avenue Elementary for the next five years, stood beside Sorum during the Feb. 5 assembly. Also there were Berman, Adopt the Arts’ teacher Abby Loces and El Segundo musician Gary Cahill.

The second music instructor to be hired by Adopt the Arts, Cahill began teaching music classes at Westminster Avenue Elementary on Tuesday.

Lay credits a fine arts magnet program he attended while growing up in Texas with helping him get through his struggles with dyslexia and the loss of his brother at a young age. After helping Oscar-winning filmmaker Paul Haggis and his Embrace Haiti Now program, Lay was looking for another way to give back — this time, locally.

Loces, who helped build the Adopt the Arts curriculum in West Hollywood, stressed how it keeps children engaged in school and even improves their performance in math, science and social studies — all of which are incorporated into her lessons.

Cahill crossed paths with Sorum as the drummer became a fan of Cahill’s rock group, Illumination Road.

Last month Sorum raised $106,000 for Adopt the Arts through a benefit concert at the Roxy featuring Slash, McKagan, Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, and Toto’s Steve Lukather.

During the assembly at Westminster Avenue Elementary, Sorum got kids excited about the program with a few words of encouragement.

“You can create! What do you think of that?! Is that fun or what?!” he exclaimed just before Loces led her Rosewood Avenue Elementary student choir into an R&B number.

Westminster Avenue Elementary Principal Barry Cohen praised Sorum for his enthusiasm and dedication.

“I watched in amazement as Matt tuned all 30 of the acoustic guitars himself,” Cohen said.

If the donated instruments seemed more rock ‘n’ roll than classical, consider the source.

“Violins, they don’t sound great when they’re out of tune,” said Sorum, laughing.