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Huntsville music pioneer Patrice Bivins empowers women through music

In between planning festivals, teaching music and facilitating workshops, Patrice Bivins has made it her life’s mission to inspire everyone she meets through the performing arts.

Patrice Bivins is the founder and director of Valley Arts and Entertainment Inc. (Aperture Priority Interactive)

“My first and most important role is helping others to be the very best they can be through music education,” said Bivins, founder and director of Valley Arts and Entertainment (VAE).

Bivins, born in Huntsville, comes from humble beginnings with strong parents who encouraged her to thrive in every area of life.

At age 11, Bivins discovered her musical talent and gained an appreciation for music through piano lessons.

“Although I was unable to complete piano lessons, my strong drive and determination would not hinder my desire to learn music,” she said. “I began to play piano by ear for the junior and senior choirs at our church until around age 15. I also began playing clarinet in elementary school.”

Before her successful musical career, she enrolled in Springfield College in Massachusetts to pursue her dream of becoming an Olympic gymnast and physical education teacher. Upon her arrival, an Olympic coach immediately recognized her notable athletic skills and competitive nature. She was one of the first African American women on the gymnastics team. For more than three years, she would compete across New England.

The long, grueling hours called for a much-needed break and, at the advice from family, Bivins decided to visit relatives in California.

“While in California, I met my (future) husband who was part of a prominent musical family,” she said. “He largely inspired me to concentrate on music again.”

Bivins enrolled in the University of California, Los Angeles music extension and entertainment studies programs.

“Classes at UCLA played an enormous role in my life,” she said. “Randy Jackson of ‘American Idol’ among high-profile publishers, producers, record labels and artist and repertoire (A&R) spent a great deal of time in my classes discussing the music industry.”

After completing her studies at UCLA, Bivins earned a Bachelor of Science in business management from Athens State University and a Master of Public Administration and a Master of Business Administration from Florida Institute of Technology.

“I returned to Huntsville around 2003 and started working,” she said. “I became interested in the arts and that is when I decided to start a nonprofit.”

VAE, established in 2006 and based in Huntsville, is a charitable organization that supports students and women in jazz.

Valley Arts and Entertainment celebrates its membership with the Decatur Chamber of Commerce. (contributed)

Through music, VAE provides dynamic programming and services to engage and promote the careers of emerging and established artists. The organization provides meaningful musical encounters to underserved multigenerational audiences by partnering with schools and other community organizations. It assists students interested in developing careers in jazz, including vocalists, writers and composers. It also supports financial needs through a music scholarship program.

“The company has done great things in the community,” she said. “I am so proud of this music program. When I received the Internal Revenue Service (nonprofit) determination letter for VAE, it was one of my proudest moments.”

In 2014, Bivins founded the Alabama Women in Jazz Festival. She initially called it Huntsville Women in Jazz, but the following year she changed the name to reflect its statewide scope and impact.

“It is a unique program that provides performance opportunities for women performers on all levels,” she said. “I want to see more underserved students and underrepresented women in the jazz area and women in music.”

Bivins is in the process of planning the ninth annual festival, scheduled for Sept. 9-10. The event will feature musicians, composers, vocalists, educators and blues performers from across the state.

In 2017, Paula Atherton performed at the festival. Atherton is a jazz composer, saxophonist, flutist and vocalist.

In a statement after the performance, she wrote: “Music education is a vital part of anyone’s education – whether you go on to be a professional musician or not. Valley Arts is playing an important role by bringing great musical performances and workshops to the community.”

Atherton noted that University of Southern California neuroscientists found during a five-year study that “music instruction accelerates brain development in young children, particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound, language development, speech perception and reading skills. … Other studies have shown music instruction to improve math skills. You can’t argue with that.”

Bivins began her latest project, “A Tribute to Great Jazz Divas,” in 2016. The tribute kicks off with live music one week prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. The performances shine a spotlight on legendary jazz singers.

“This is an opportunity for local vocalists to experience a unique level of performance and to challenge themselves to elevate their voices and sharpen their stage experience from a different perspective,” she said. “Typically, there are six vocalists who must be able to sing and project. I am proud to have shared experiences with students and emerging artists like Brandee Younger, an African American harpist and composer from New York and protégé of Alice Coltrane. In 2018, Younger presented a roundtable workshop session at Ronald E. McNair Junior High School in Huntsville for about 30 students of whom about 10 to15 participated in a masterclass.”

Bivins was the personal artist manager to the late Charmayne “Maxee” Maxwell six months prior to Maxwell joining the contemporary rhythm and blues group Brownstone. She also co-managed Brenda Holloway, who is best known for the Motown hit  “Every Little Bit Hurts.”

Known for her hard work in the community, Bivins received the 2015 Women in Jazz Day Proclamation from the city of Huntsville and is the first African American woman to become a jazz festival promoter in Huntsville.

Throughout Bivins’ career, she has presented numerous music programs in north Alabama, and Madison and Morgan counties. She maintains partnerships with the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the Huntsville Housing Authority. VAE’s office is located on the grounds of the housing authority.

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