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The band Smashing Banjos, from left, Jason Villa, Mike Upton, and Mark Milazzo. Upton is the founder of ukulele maker Kala Brand Music in Petaluma, where Villa and Milazzo also work. Milazzo works with Bread and Roses to bring live music to prisons and other institutions. (SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat)

The band Smashing Banjos, from left, Jason Villa, Mike Upton, and Mark Milazzo. Upton is the founder of ukulele maker Kala Brand Music in Petaluma, where Villa and Milazzo also work. Milazzo works with Bread and Roses to bring live music to prisons and other institutions. (SCOTT MANCHESTER / The Press Democrat)

By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent

Mark Milazzo is spending the morning doing something he loves, teaching people how to play the ukulele.

At work, he is the branding manager for Kala Brand, one of the country’s largest ukulele manufacturers, but today he is plink-plank-plunking with three volunteers from Bread and Roses, a musical nonprofit that’s close to his heart.

The late musician Mimi Farina started the organization 39 years ago. She wanted to take the joy and healing power of music to those who could not go out to experience it.

Volunteer Bread and Roses musicians like these three women now play 600 concerts a year around the Bay Area in veterans homes, juvenile and senior homes and prisons.

Milazzo and musicians from his band, Smashing Banjos, are among them, playing venues such as Sonoma County’s Juvenile Hall.

“It’s a tough place, sad if you’re stuck there, so we try and interact with them as much as possible, ask if there are any songs they want to hear,” Milazzo says. “It’s amazing how you can brighten up someone’s life by playing music for them, having some fun.”

His magical musical life began in a way not dissimilar to theirs.

“When I was a kid and I was bad, I’d be locked in my bedroom,” Milazzo says. “About the only thing in there, aside from the bed, was my dad’s guitar.”

He pauses dramatically. “I was bad — a lot!”

His father no longer played the guitar, but Milazzo loved it, and played it seriously through high school and college.

Then his life path took a hard right.

“I decided I wanted to get into racing cars,” he said. He became a racecar instructor, working in the motor sports industry for 20 years, many of them at Sears Point. Music was still part of his life, but only as a hobby.

He jammed with buddies on the weekends with Mike Upton on bass and Jason Villa on mandolin, in a band they called Smashing Banjos.

Fast forward to Christmas, 2011. By now Milazzo is married and has a young son, Max.

“He’s crazy for music,” says Milazzo, now in his mid-40s. Also crazy for music is Milazzo’s wife, Heather. What she doesn’t love is racing.

“I thought, I’ve got to realign my life with my family,” he says. “I need to do something in music, but I have a family. I can’t start at ground level, just pack up and go.

“I began praying about it, figuring it would probably take me five or six years to come up with a solution.”

A couple of days later, Upton dropped by with some questions about information technology. He owns Kala Brands, where Villa also works. Milazzo remembers discussing his career dilemma.

“We kept talking and he said, ‘Would you ever consider working for me?’”

Now that work had fallen in line with passion, the trio continued to make money and music together.

Still jamming on weekends, Milazzo says, “it occurred to me that we enjoyed it and it seemed wasteful not to share it. “I started looking around for charities and found Bread and Roses, based in Marin. We provide music to people who can’t get out.”

One especially poignant moment happened at a men’s halfway house in San Rafael. “One guy was singing along with us, so we brought him up for an encore.

“He led, and the place went bonkers. This was their guy. They were all in pain, recovering, trying to change their lives, and this guy is not only changing his life, he’s got his moment in the spotlight.”

For more information about Smashing Banjos, visit smashingbanjos.com. For details about Bread & Roses, go to breadandroses.org.

 

 

 

 

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