With posters and signage plastering almost every window and door, it’s easy to miss the entrance to Clave Azul, a Little Village music school housed on the second floor of an unassuming brick corner building. When I first visited, owner Antonio Avila led me into the main music room, where his two sons, Josh and Pablo, sat holding their instruments. I realized that I’d interrupted a family jam session.
All three Avilas were soft-spoken. Antonio didn’t proffer any information unless asked, but as we spoke he gradually expanded on his experiences in music and the history of Clave Azul.
Antonio Avila, now fifty-six years old, said that the school originated with a childhood notion of what role music would play in his life. “It was an idea I had a long, long time ago,” he said. “Since I was twelve years old, even before that age, I knew music was my life.” Before Clave Azul opened its doors, Avila went to his students’ homes to teach. He started the school in 1985 and moved it to its current location on 26th Street in 2007.
Clave Azul offers lessons in an array of different instruments: piano, trumpet, saxophone, drums, guitar, and voice. Avila is also open to teaching many kinds of music, “from Latin music to rock to jazz to blues.” The school draws students from near and far. In fact, only about half of the students live in the city. As for the rest? “They come from different places,” said Avila. “We’ve got some guys coming from Indiana, some from Cicero, Bolingbrook, Joliet.” Some pupils even make the long drive from Rockford or Wisconsin to study under Avila.
The majority of the lessons are taught by Avila himself, but his sons now assist him with the business part-time. “We grew up around music a lot when we were kids,” said Josh. “[Our dad] was teaching most of the time, and we had instruments all around.” Antonio, however, does not expect his two sons to stay with him and his school forever. “I don’t know what they’ll do later,” he told me. “Maybe open their own studio.”
At least for now, though, the brothers seem invested in the family business. Josh, a student majoring in audio arts at Columbia College, is in charge of the new recording studio attached to the school. “I initially wanted to do music full-time, get a bachelor’s in music,” he said, “but I opted to do recording instead. I figured it would be easier to get a job or have more options—to be able to teach and also record.”
The recording studio is not yet finished, but it has already been used by a couple musicians. Josh plans to devote more time to it when he graduates in the spring. Although Avila and his sons made an album a few years ago, the three prefer to perform at local parties and events when not teaching.
Clave Azul’s success and outreach are something of an anomaly, considering how few music schools exist on the South Side. One might wonder how this particular one has survived.
As an explanation of his success, Avila cites the many years he has spent playing and teaching music in the area. “A lot of people know me because I’ve been here a long time,” he said. “It’s basically mouth to mouth, you know, people talk about the school.” But the main reason for Clave Azul’s thirty-year success, he claims, is his own passion for teaching.
“I put my heart into my work, and with any student, any kind of music they want to play, I just want to do it right,” said Avila. “Even when I don’t like some styles of music, I do my best. Especially when they are kids and they come with their parents. The thing about their parents, you know, they take their time to come over and bring their children from school. So I want to do the best I can do. I think that’s why I’m still running.”
Before I left Clave Azul, I asked the Avilas to pick up where they had left off when I arrived. They chose a midcentury Spanish tune. With Antonio singing and playing guitar, Josh on a second guitar, and Pablo on bass, the three filled the small room with a colorful and lively melody, with an understanding that could only be the product of years spent playing with one other.