by Martha Groves Perry | WSP Alumni Parent, Former Board President, and Bay Area Musician
Like many in our community, I could not process Rich Armstrong’s recent passing. After receiving the phone call that morning, I walked around all day feeling like I had been kicked in the stomach. Finding a fitting way to fully articulate him and what he brought to the WSP community is impossible, but I will try.
I blogged about Rich’s influence on my musical life when I released my album in March 2020:
“In addition to a ridiculous measure of musical gifts (to list them would take up this entire blog post), Rich has the most sweeping and genuine gift of encouragement that I have ever experienced, musical or otherwise. Making music himself (his trumpet playing is swoon-worthy) may be the only thing he loves more than teaching and, most importantly, empowering others to make and love music.”
Rich’s passion for music was almost more than his body could hold. I saw him weep more than once with a blazing desire to make music himself and to bring music-making to his students. His prodigious, intensely imaginative and creative mind conjured project after project to utilize and develop the musical chops of those around him.
A middle school rock band, in which my son, Dillon (Schneider 2011), played the drums for three years, held annual concerts with national level music professionals such as Tony Lindsay of Santana – who were all Rich’s friends. The Soul Providers, a dance cover band originally composed of WSP parents, for which I was a lead singer, played for the WSP Gala for three consecutive years. The high school jazz band, the middle school wind ensemble, the most recent manifestation of the high school handbell ensemble, the Holiday Faire brass caroling ensemble, among many others, were all products of his visionary imagination and initiative.
My son once summed up his experience with Rich by saying that Rich treated him like an equal, musically speaking. Rich requested and expected Dillon, even at the tender age of twelve, to rise to the best of his drumming ability, as if nothing was impossible, and as if he had full faith that Dillon could do anything if he tried. Rich was exacting and relentless in his drive to bring his ensembles to a standard that did the music justice, and he had a firm, unshakeable belief that anyone who wanted to could and should not only make music, but make excellent music.
In the spring of 2009, I had decided never to sing again because of an unfortunate musical experience. That fall, Rich hauled me out of that musical pit when he recruited me as the lead singer of The Soul Providers. Later, he recruited me to go on tour with him, playing cello and singing back-up for Michelle Shocked. Not only did he believe in me and demand that I believe in myself, he reminded me that doing music is fun … insanely so. (photo at left of Rich and author performing with The Soul Providers at the WSP Holiday Faire in 2009)
Now, I have two releases of my original music (an EP and an album) with a new album coming in April 2023. I would absolutely *never* have had the audacity to do any of this without Rich’s direct influence. He was a fanatic for music, and I like to think that some of his intensity rubbed off on me. I know it rubbed off on many of you.
So whatever instrument you may have played with and for Rich, pull it out today and play or sing a song or two in his honor. And maybe do it again tomorrow. And maybe the next day, too. Rich would have liked it that way.
Rich Armstrong was one of the Bay Area’s most sought-after multi-instrumentalists, switching effortlessly between vocals, trumpet, percussion, and guitar. He had a storied career, having played, toured, and recorded with Boz Scaggs, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Thomas Dolby, Lydia Pense & Cold Blood, Lyrics Born, Train, and Josh Groban. He also did stints with Petula Clarke, Spoon, and Jody Watley, and most recently he was touring Europe with Groundation. He was a 15-year band member and musical director for the now infamous but still extremely talented Michelle Shocked, having toured almost every state and country with her.
Rich was the founder and band leader of one of SF’s most elite variety/pop/dance bands, The 415s, which received the “Best of the Bay” award from San Francisco Magazine. He was also a member of SF’s famed Jazz Mafia and a founding member of the Crossroads Live Music Experience that brought high level music to Burning Man for five years running. Rich Armstrong passed away in early October after more than twelve years teaching music at WSP. His daughter Anika is a WSP high school graduate, and his parents Peter and Akiko are long-time members of the WSP community.
Martha Groves Perry is the parent of two WSP high school alumni (Dillon Perry & Bryn Perry), she served on the WSP Board including one term as President, and she worked for WSP as Interim Publications Coordinator, Mountain View Campus Coordinator, and Interim School Administrator. Learn more about her music at marthagrovesperry.com.