Little Kids Rock Honors Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt, Who Likens Cutting Music Education to a 'Criminal Act'

Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Little Kids Rock
(L-R) Keb' Mo', Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, and Darlene Love perform onstage during the Little Kids Rock Benefit 2017 at PlayStation Theater on Oct. 18, 2017 in New York City.

On stage at New York's Playstation Theater Wednesday night, Little Kids Rock founder Dave Wish said that "in these days of discord, dissonance and distraction, I'm constantly reminded by a truth that is as old as the human family itself: music can bring people together in ways that virtually nothing else can."

That is the thesis behind Little Kids Rock and its annual benefit, which aims to provide music education to public schools. This year's benefit honored longtime supporter Bonnie Raitt, along with Elvis Costello, and the CEO of City Winery and founder of New York's Knitting Factory, Michael Dorf.

"Over the past 15 years, Little Kids Rock teachers have turned this into a national movement," said Wish of the charity he initially conceptualized in 1996 when he was a teacher frustrated with the nonexistent funding for music programs at his school, leading him to launch an after-school program that taught students how to play guitar. "Since then, Little Kids Rock has been restoring, expanding and innovating music education around the country."

For Dorf, who was honored for fostering a series of tribute shows that have raised $1.5 million dollars for music education, the cause is an important one. "With Mother Nature and Father Trump causing such havoc in our world, we are constantly putting on benefits to support the environment, health issues and protecting human rights," said Dorf to Billboard. "What gets lost with all of these on-going topical issues and cut from budgets, are music programs — especially in public education for underserved youth."

That's especially true for kids like Amanda Medina, a 10-year-old student at the Equity Project Charter School in the Bronx, who also performed at the benefit as part of her after-school music group the Tep Combos. "Singing is my life, so I'm grateful for this because they're giving money to buy kid's instruments," said Medina, who cited Beyonce as an influence. "I always look forward to rehearsing; tonight is our first performance that's not in front of our school."

Throughout the night, various luminaries attested to the importance of both music and its education. Harry Connick Jr., who introduced honoree Bonnie Raitt, said he started taking piano lessons when he was four, noting, "They say music changed my life, but for me that doesn't go far enough. Music is my life."

Raitt expressed similar sentiments. "I came from a musical family and was blessed to grow up in an era when there was school orchestra with 16 percussion players," she recalled, citing Joan Baez as an early influence. "The guitar allowed me to expressed myself. It was my voice and it helped me build (since) I had a confidence problem and a self esteemed problem. There's been study after study proving the benefits of music education and exposure to the arts makes all the difference."

Raitt, who likened the cutting back of music education a "criminal act," praised the work of Little Kids Rock. "To see from where he started with his wonderful team and all those teachers and all of those kids whose lives have changed. It's one of the most successful and well-run organizations, with every dollar going to the right place that I know."

And before launching into a spirited cover of Aretha Franklin's 1967 track "Baby I Love You," Raitt expanded on the theme of the evening: "Here's to the power of a beautiful ballad to break hearts and heal."