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Feature: Jeff Kula

Use What You've Got In the Room

Conversation with

Jeff Kula

    By Dave Lisik

    Published August 11, 2023


Jeff Kula retired from his position as Director of Bands at River East Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba in June of 2022. Throughout a truly outstanding teaching career that lasted 3½ decades, Jeff was the consummate school music educator and modeled excellence in every facet of the job. He started his career at John Henderson Junior High School and quickly built one of the best school music programs in Canada on a formula of fundamentals, musical integrity, inclusion, and empathy. About a third of the way through his career, he moved to River East Collegiate and, with typically modest public high school resources, created another top learning and music-making environment, using those same principles.


Artistically, he accomplished impressive things with his students: five invitations to the finals of the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Essentially Ellington” festival (still the only Canadian band to be selected as a finalist), countless successful performances and awards at music festivals and concert stages and, for a public high school music program, a likely unprecedented history of commissioning new works for his student ensembles (well over 100 new works by his count). He may have accomplished even more in the way he dealt with student musicians as an empathetic and engaged human being. 


There are many outstanding and dedicated high school music teachers but very few like Jeff. 


In early July, 2022, I had just arrived at Heathrow Airport as I saw the Facebook announcement about his retirement, only a few days after being official. I posted the following while I was waiting for my luggage to arrive on the belt and made arrangements to talk to Jeff, a few weeks later (via Zoom from Bristol, UK) about his career, his successes, and philosophy.


Just as I’m waiting to pick up my bags after the massive 32-hour trip to London (meaning I’m tired and barely thinking straight), I see that Jeff Kula is retiring from his gig as one of the best music teachers Canada (or probably anywhere else) has ever seen. And that’s not just kind hyperbole. I’m equal parts happy for him and sad because it’s always been genuinely comforting knowing that he was in his gig taking care of business for so many student musicians… but effectively replacing people on his level is next to impossible. Just glancing at the messages of congratulations, especially from his current and former students, it’s no surprise because this guy had that gig nailed and similar messages, thankfully, weren’t reserved just for his retirement announcement. You’ve heard them for years: “You were my favorite teacher,” “Music was there for me when I’d had nothing else,” and “You made me love learning,” are common messages for good teachers when they leave teaching (hopefully while they’re still alive). Some of that is just being kind, but with Jeff you always had zero trouble believing that he actually did profound things for thousands of students over the years. But if he was at the top of a short list of the best Manitoba teachers in that part of the job (arguably the most important part) he was in an even more elite group when it came to making kids make amazing music.


I met him in high school when he was an adjudicator for the Manitoba Band Association Solo and Ensemble Festival, at which a few friends of mine taunted criticism by doing, in addition to an obligatory classical solo, some unconventional performances: the aleatoric “Variations on a Coke Can Melody,” chamber ensemble medley of Sesame Street songs, and a jazz trumpet solo on “Let It Snow!” Instead of, “You guys are stupid and immature,” which, let’s face it, we were, Jeff was kind and complimentary. For quite a few years I did instrument testing for St. John’s Music at John Henderson Junior High, where Jeff worked earlier in his career, and got a bit of behind the scenes insight into his commitment as a teacher and the quality of musicianship his little band kids had. I remember he moved to his high school gig the year I started teaching high school in Manitoba because his junior high gig was one of those for which I was a finalist that spring/summer. It seems like a lifetime ago but it’s the number of years Jeff has dedicated to his students, a couple of generations by this point. His impact will be impossible to measure.


Dave Lisik: Greetings, Jeff! How are you feeling so soon after your retirement?


Jeff Kula: Good. Right now, it’s starting to feel different. When summer started, it felt like any regular summer. Now, by this point, I would have been in school for a couple of weeks already and have half or maybe three quarters of the year’s repertoire planned. So, the load is lighter now, that’s for sure.


Dave: I’m thinking, in the last 15 or more years, the students wouldn’t have gone back to school before Labour Day, is that right?


Jeff: Yeah, I think I remember there was one year where they were back before that. Generally school has started after Labour Day for quite a while. But for me, I would have been in school quite a few weeks already. The beginning of August was about when I would have started working at it.


Dave: When you did the [John Henderson] junior high job, before River East Collegiate, did you have a significantly higher admin workload in terms of assigning school-owned instruments to kids or was there much of a difference?


Jeff: I knew what the kids were playing. That was done in May or June. But prepping the room, prepping the space, that was time consuming. But I think the prep time was more significant in terms of getting repertoire ready. The last few years I was really into commissioning new things, new arrangements. Much of what I was playing wasn’t stock anymore. I wanted to personalize all of it and it always took a long time to get that ready. By the middle of the previous year, I would already have been contacting composers and arrangers, and lining things up for them to create new works. Unfortunately for me, the hours got longer as time went on. 


I was talking to my principal before the end of this year and I was saying, “I can't figure this out. I’ve been doing this thirty-five years and I’m still at school every day at 5:30. My day is longer than it’s ever been. What is going on here?” The workload started getting bigger and bigger. And unfortunately a lot of the increase in workload was about non music stuff.

The amount of administrative things increased and the teaching became much more task-driven.


Dave: That’s interesting. My wife is a high school teacher and she’s always talking about how the level of the administrative work has increased almost exponentially.


Jeff: Absolutely.


Dave: When I was teaching high school [Murdoch MacKay Collegiate in Winnipeg, Canada from 1998 to 2003], it just seemed like there was very little administrative work to do for music teachers. As long as you turned in your grades on time, they didn't give you a hard time about much. 


Jeff: That has definitely changed. The expectations beyond teaching have become exponentially higher. We’re given many more tasks like taking care of student wellness and mental wellness.


Dave: How much of it is your particular disposition that didn't allow you to somehow find a way to coast through the last decade of your job?


Jeff: I think it depended on my own personal integrity. I wanted to do the job right and give it my best effort right until the end. My wife had been giving me heck for many years to do less. But I think in some ways I created my own monster. When you create all of these opportunities, there's an expectation, a level of performance that you have to maintain. It’s become more challenging to keep things going while you’re taking care of all the other things they’re now asking you to do. Like I said, I wanted to finish off right. I felt that I was still effective right to the very end. I worked on a lot of projects and tried to do the best I could. But yeah, the older you get the energy level is not the same. 


When I was starting, I would talk to some of the veterans at the beginning of my career. And they were lamenting how the role of the teacher has changed since they started. Even though I became much more expedient in what I was doing, there was just a lot more to do. There are just more needs out there. There’s so much more than just delivering your content.


Dave: And why is that? Is the reality of humanity that much different or is it that the expectations have been shifted, possibly unfairly, toward one group of people? Or has there been an elimination of other services, some things that existed before that don't exist now?


Jeff: The human resources are definitely different. With the continuous cuts over the years, there is just more thrown on the individual teachers. Back in the day, before amalgamation, when the school division was just “River East,” we had two full time music consultants. There was an elementary level music consultant and a junior/senior years consultant. And they were both full time. Now we have one consultant that runs all the arts plus libraries for River East-Transcona. The resources are just stretched so much further and the expectation of what has to be done is much greater. And the pandemic created a whole new set of challenges and hurdles that needed to be dealt with to keep the kids engaged and deliver the product. And it was a huge challenge to keep music alive in a largely virtual setting. 


Dave: Did you retire basically on the number? Are you 55 now?


Jeff: I’m actually 58. I went a little bit longer. I did 35 years but I never was really chasing numbers. I would ask people, “How do you know when it's time to retire?” They’d say, “You just know when.” The kids are still great and I had great music kids right to the end. I think we were all having a good time and making good music. But I just thought it was time. I didn't want to become one of those guys who just lingered to collect a paycheck. I wanted to do my thing to the best of my ability. But the time just seemed right and I'm not regretting my decision.


Dave: Were you extra tired after COVID? I guess the universal answer has to be, “yes.”


Jeff: COVID was an extra challenge because I'm not particularly technically advanced and I had to really work through some things. But bless my administration because we were still live and in the classroom for a lot of the time. The only things that were allowed to be live were the core subjects and bands. My administration had the wherewithal to keep us in a live setting even though we couldn't physically play in the room for most of it. We still got to meet and have community. We did a lot of recording projects and there were factors that helped the band cohort form a nice neat package. This allowed us to be live, where most programs were not. 


We were also fortunate because at the beginning of the year the school division semesterized band for almost everyone. But my administration allowed us to be full year, every second day, as always. A lot of things like wind ensembles or jazz ensembles were going to be cut. But I said to my administration I could offer all of these programs virtually. They said, “Okay, if you can make that work, go ahead.” None of our programming was changed. We still offered percussion ensemble and wind ensemble and my two jazz bands, even though most of the time the kids never met in person. They were still able to work on projects and that really worked for us to be able to keep everyone together. Talking to colleagues across the division and city, a lot of their numbers took a beating. And my enrollment actually increased. Coming into last year, I had zero attrition. It was quite the anomaly. We were able to offer kids something real and projects that kept them engaged so it did work for us.


Dave: Where I live, we had something like eighteen months where there wasn't a single case of COVID in the city. We were back to normal for so much of the time. Even with the couple of shorter lockdowns, we had a better situation than almost anybody else. But we're still going to pay for it in many ways, especially the students. So the government made all these choices to prioritize saving people's lives. A lot of places that tried to find a balance between keeping things open and saving people didn’t do any better on either front. But no matter where we’re talking about, anyone from ten years old to twenty five was negatively impacted in some way. We have a three-year degree in music performance and the kids who graduated in 2022 will have had their entire degree affected by COVID in some way or another. There were all kinds of regulations for practice rooms, there had to be a certain amount of space and type of ventilation. There were a couple of semesters where they moved jazz combos out of their regular rooms. They did room renovations to change some things. None of it was ideal. But overseas there were pretty heroic efforts among university and high schools to keep their music ensembles running. Like giant sheets of plastic and anything to keep kids in the room with the instrument on their face. There was some pretty admirable behavior, people stepping up. I guess there was very little choice other than packing it in completely. Maybe that speaks to the nature of what music teachers are anyway. If you're a music teacher without any level of selflessness you're probably not going to be doing it for very long or to any level of success.


Jeff: In some cases, school divisions made those choices and canned their jazz programs in their entirety, last year or the year before. We were fortunate our administrators had the foresight to make the best of a bad situation. It made a ton of extra work for my principal when she timetabled our alternate schedule. And she took a lot of heat for it. Parents were asking why their kid couldn’t get AP chemistry in person, but concert band was meeting live. It was much easier to semesterize the band timetable but the student numbers in a lot of programs where they did that got killed. Now they're facing a long term negative situation and it's really hard to reestablish momentum. You basically have to build the program from the ground up again.


Dave: This will be a really stupid question with an obvious answer, and not one of the ones that I thought to give you originally, but clearly you made it wire to wire doing the job that you were doing. You never thought you might want to become an administrator?


Jeff: Ha, no. Not a chance.


Dave: Because somebody had to bring that up to you at some point. You were pretty successful, had a good profile. It seemed like you had a quality rapport with a lot of your students. Somebody had to say to you at some point you would actually make a really good principal.


Jeff: Yeah that was something. After having a lot of experience watching what they do, I didn't want that. The workload is even greater because they are there the whole time, but you are also dealing with all of the worst scenarios. At least in the band situation, I could control my environment to a pretty good degree. And I can build it into a reasonably happy situation. With administration, you're just dealing with constant problems. And I imagine during the pandemic the stuff they were dealing with was just out of this world. No, I never had any interest in that.


Dave: I'm the same. At the university there are frequently jobs posted for short term administrators in the humanities division where you do this particular admin gig and don’t have to teach for a couple of years. Maybe you do that job and it leads to something else higher up. And I have no interest in that whatsoever. As soon as you take yourself out of the classroom, you're basically done with influencing music education in a positive way. We’ve  probably all had this fantasy at some point where we thought: “If only I was in charge of more things I could fix this.” But you realize that if you take yourself out of direct contact with students you're almost certainly not going to fix it. Even as far back as my high school teaching days, it might have been the superintendent ask if I was interested in being the music coordinator at some point and I said, “No way.” I can get into this classroom and take these kids from zero to something in a reasonable amount of time. I don't think my ability to influence or help somebody who needs help with their program would be on a pretty low level given the minimal contact you would have with them. I kind of knew what the answer would be for you because you went right to the end and obviously didn't make that choice.

RECJO Picture at Jazz Winnipeg 2017.jpg

Jeff directing the River East Collegiate Jazz Orchestra at the Winnipeg Jazz Festival (2017)

Dave: What were your early musical influences? Did you have a musical family influence and what led you into it in the first place?


Jeff: My parents weren't musicians. I grew up in a very rural town in Manitoba between Beausejour and Anola. I was a farm boy and we lived in a little hamlet called Eastdale. Basically a Polish Ukrainian farming community. And there was no music around beyond weddings and socials.*

*Manitoba-specific term, a “social” is a community party/dance, often held in a community hall, used as a fundraising event for a wedding or charity.

Jeff: My first influences came from my uncle who played in a band. And some real old time music was going on in those days. Every wedding or social had a band playing. The first guy who got me into drumming was Norm Chura. He was maybe five or six years older than I was and played in a local band. I remember seeing him and thinking he was the coolest thing. There was one party at his parents’ place, his band was playing in the garage and I just sat watching him play, mesmerized. My goal after that was to be able to play these old tunes at weddings. 


On the farm, I used to go out into the bush with two sticks and beat a wash tub. Eventually my mother said, “Okay, we probably should get him a set of drums.” And it all started from there. I was probably about eight years old when I started playing drums but I wasn’t taking lessons. I was a poor student, just playing by ear. I used to play with whatever records were in the house, Johnny Cash records or Eddie Palmieri. I asked my mother about getting some rock 'n' roll records in the '70s but my version of rock ‘n’ roll was different from hers, more like Fats Domino or Chuck Berry. But I would still play along with those records. I was an ear player, good enough to get into a band but couldn't read a lick. But I would always play with records. Eventually I got into progressive rock.


One of my friends in high school was the first guy who showed me some jazz, a Stan Getz record and that was cool. The friend was a guitar player and also played me some Pat Metheny. We would play along a bit with that. And that was kind of the early start of it.


Springfield Junior High and Springfield Collegiate [Oakbank, Manitoba] were my schools. Alfred Redekopp was my director and he was the director at both of those schools for the whole time I was there. They were brand new programs. When I got there the band program between the two schools was maybe three years old. My brother is three years older than me and already played clarinet in the band when I got to junior high. I played drums but very early on Alfred suggested that I do something different so I was given a euphonium.


Dave: Ha, that’s pretty common.


Jeff: I played euphonium for a year but the next year he said, “We need a tuba player. Do you want to play the tuba?” I said, “Okay,” and I played tuba for the rest of junior high school. By the time I got to the high school, all of his percussionists had quit and all he said was, “Do you wanna play drums?” “Sure.” But I still couldn't read anything and I was faking my way through it. 


I think I eventually thought I really needed to figure this stuff out. There's this common rhythm chart that shows the whole note and the subdivisions of the two half notes and then the two quarter notes for each one of those. And so I figured out those subdivisions on my own. That was a start. Grade eleven was when I figured I wanted to get a little more serious about music. Before that the choices I thought it had were to take over my dad’s farm, maybe go into pharmacy…or to do music. I was playing in dance bands at socials and weddings since I was about fifteen but I had never taken any serious lessons and wanted to actually figure out what I was doing and get better. I mentioned to Mr. Redekopp that I was leaning towards doing music and he recommended that it was probably time to get some real lessons. He sent me to Owen Clark and I started studying. This was very humbling because my technique was just garbage. I had no sense of technique because I had never been shown anything correctly. Owen took me back to square one and at first it was discouraging because every two seconds he would be grabbing my hands and fixing my technique and going back to quarter notes in the metronome which I had never done before. So I had to relearn how to play at about seventeen years old. 


Owen was my teacher throughout school and my university audition and then I stayed with him because he was my instrumental instructor at the University of Manitoba. I maintain a friendship with Owen to this very day and I've commissioned him numerous times and played a lot of his works with my groups. Owen really helped me down the playing path because I was a self-taught player with no technique.


Dave: For almost everyone I know in North America who became a musician, of any kind, really, but especially those who became music teachers, music was the best thing that they were involved with when they were in school. For some of them, and I'm sure for some of your students, it was the thing that kept them in school. And it made some of the other things they struggled with maybe more tolerable. Even if they weren't the best musicians or had any plans for music after high school, the whole atmosphere of it was safe and welcoming and inclusive. And most kids come to the realization that eventually they need to do something for a job. And if music is your favorite thing some of us starting thinking, “That band director job actually looks pretty attractive compared to some alternatives. Mr. Kula is my favorite teacher.” They might also be aware that Mr. Kula owns his own house and that teachers, especially in Canada, make pretty good money and can retire in their mid 50s with a pension and, “That actually looks pretty attractive to me.” So maybe there's that natural flow from a positive experience. Whereas, I don't think most of my students in the university now have that at all. I think most of them succeeded in spite of their school music experience. It's almost mind blowing to me that some of the jazz students are as good as they are by the time they get to university. We take the national youth jazz band around to their communities and hear their bands. “This is the program you came from?” In some cases, it’s pretty bad.

But at what point were you thinking, “Owen was pretty monumentally influential to me. He was that important to me. Maybe I want to have that effect on somebody else.”?


Jeff: For me, teaching wasn't my plan when I started studying music. I really didn't even know what music in university was about. I basically had no concept of that. I thought if I were going to go to university and study music, I'm probably going to become a rock star. (laughs) I really had no idea because I hadn't taken any theory or history or anything. When I went to university, my dad said, “You're going to become a teacher and you'll have something to fall back on.” And I thought, “Okay, I guess I'll be a teacher.”


I had mentors all around me. I remember going to watch Owen play. But as I got into the teaching thing, that’s when I started to get it. The effect you could have on young people was pretty significant and, like you said, before trying to create a welcoming musical environment, I firmly believe you have to understand that most students aren’t primarily there for the music. They are there for you. If you make it a great environment they are going to play music for you. Especially at the younger grades, they are going to play for the teacher and do well by them. Most of them aren't joining band because they want to play Holst. So you're trying to make the environment good for them and give them as much encouragement as possible.

"Jeff Kula was, and is, a great student, both privately and at university -- an innovator. This surfaced when he taught a class for one of my percussion methods groups [at the University of Manitoba]. A consummate teacher who went way beyond the norm for his students. A commissioner of new music. An excellent drummer, and most of all, a lifelong friend."


Owen Clark

Jeff: I think you need to get out of their way to encourage them and give them room to succeed. Strong musicians will find a way. Not to say that I'm a strong musician. But back when I was a student at Springfield, it wasn't a strong program the way it is today. We were very much in the infancy of that program and there weren't kids going into university music out of that school. I just had a passion for music at a very young age and I fumbled my way through. I tell a lot of my students that when they go to university, no matter what they're going to study, they are going to find some of the most inspiring and thrilling teaching ever. They're also going to find some of the weakest teaching. Those are the things they just need to get through to get enough knowledge. So the idea is to go and find the things that you need, figure out where their ultimate goals lie, and where they want to get.


Dave: I think that's a real pertinent point because so many university teachers skip over all of the teaching. A lot of them have no teaching experience before they start working at a university and maybe haven't thought much about teaching. There are plenty of exceptions among great professors but it’s a reality in a lot of cases. A few friends and colleagues here, like the violin and cello professors are world class but also conscientious teachers. But it’s not universal.


Jeff: In my musical background, there was very little positive influence and I had to figure a lot of things out myself. In terms of my jazz education, I really didn't have one. Back then, there was no junior high or high school jazz band [at Springfield]. At the University of Manitoba, in those days, Ron Paley directed the jazz band on the weekend. But I had to go home to work on the farm, so I never took the jazz courses. My background was as a rhythm section player. That was a plus but that was about it. I just listened. “Here's what the guys are doing and here's how they're doing it.” But it was a lot of personal investigation. I think that was important for teaching because I had to go through it myself to get it.

Dave: You always had a certain sensitivity that didn’t dismiss any individual students. Do you think that your awareness of that, assuming that you agree that it's true, came from your own experience of doing the hard slog and having to figure things out for yourself.


Jeff: I really feel that there's a place for everybody in the music program, absolutely. That's one of the greatest factors of our “teaming” within the band, that we take everybody. I had students from our individual skills program and students who are nonverbal. If you find the right fit, anyone can be successful in some way. You often need to adjust or change things a bit to make it work, so there's a place for these people to be. But you find out where they can fit in and what their strengths are. At the same time, having those kids who can play like there's no tomorrow, you want them to have a place as well.

"There’s a process of revealing that they were working on the right things which reinforces the trust. And when they get to that point, they want to do those things all the time."

Jeff: I used to tell my kids that the band was the most authentic example of society in our school. I talk to students who are considering medicine as a career and say that the band program is the place that reflects what you're going to need to deal with later on in your professional career because you can't choose to treat only the healthy people. You have to help everybody and how you deal with people in this room is practice, because it's a reflection of society. We have different strengths from different areas and we all work together to make music work. There’s a common goal. And if kids can't read music, we'll work on that, and kids who join late will get help to catch up. And in the meantime, here's how you can participate.

Sports has a “teaming” aspect but not everybody can get in there. By the time you get to varsity level basketball and volleyball, they're cutting pretty deep and there are only a handful of kids out of the entire school making those teams. In music we take everybody and find a place for them.


Dave: I'm happy for you that you're retired but disappointed because I know the kind of impact that you've had. It’s unusual to be able to reconcile those aspects so successfully. I went to graduate school at the University of Northern Iowa and I remember going back for the final jazz band concert of the director, who was outstanding at his job. He wasn’t retiring yet,  just stepping away from the number one jazz band after a couple of decades. One of his successful former students came onto the stage to introduce the director and the very short comment he made was that, “This guy he just gets it.” Paraphrasing, “I've been around the world, I've seen all these different people,” (The former student was a reasonably prominent composer and band leader.) “And I've met really incredible musicians who don't get it on the level of this guy.” 


And I've always thought that was also applicable to you. At all stages of my schooling and teaching I’ve had the opportunity to observe a lot of educators. I’ve seen great musicians, people we both know, with mediocre communication skills, people whose idea of teaching was abusive, and kind human beings who lacked any music skills or had little knowledge to impart. Some teachers clearly don’t care about anything other than making the music sound good but often lack the skills to make that happen without being angry. (And fear only gets you a fraction more than what you had to begin with.) On the other side are people who know so little about music that they’re incapable of dealing with it with respect. “We’re just here to have a good time and we don't really care whether it sounds good.” They justify certain things by being against competition or trophies but at festivals they’re playing music two grades below where the kids should be and the band sounds terrible.


I used to be at John Henderson every year, working for St. John's Music doing the instrument testing, and one of those times you gave me that cassette studio recording of your bands. And it was one of the Holst Suites and some other things. It sounded great. And that was a junior high band for god's sake. I’m thinking that the director of that band doesn't decide to make recordings of his junior high band that are legitimately good enough to listen to, and schedule his concert performances at the Centennial Concert Hall, if he doesn't care profoundly about the product of the music itself. But on the other hand you were able to have this empathetic attitude where you say, “we take everybody” and make that part of it work so successfully.


So how did you formulate a philosophy at the very beginning where, “I have this expectation for myself and my students about creating really good music, and I can do this by being a good person?” It sounds pretty basic but it’s also rare.

Jeff: A lot of it comes down to trust. In rehearsal, we do things over and over until it's right. I was very insistent about developing tuning centers and rhythmic precision. The students have to trust that I'm doing this for the right reasons and that I know what I'm doing, because the end game is going to be correct. If they have trust in you then they take care of their own part because it's important. Kids aren't stupid. You can tell them that things sound great but they know when it's not. They like to sound good.


There’s a process of revealing that they were working on the right things which reinforces the trust. And when they get to that point, they want to do those things all the time. And they learn to take responsibility. Students will eventually identify their own tuning problems or want to fix issues in their sections. “This wasn't together. Can we get inside and fix it?” And then they become the leaders. That's where it becomes more powerful.


Again, for the kids who have less experience or are late starters, adjusting parts a bit or doing other minor things, gives them the chance to accomplish something on a certain level. At first, not on the same level as someone who has five more years of experience, but they can still participate on a level that contributes, based on their ability level. We always wanted to have a product that the kids thought good about. 


The one thing we didn't want to do was go on stage and sound like crap. What I really never wanted to hear is that, "You guys sounded great for a junior high band or for a high school band." If it's good music it’s good music. Young kids can make good music. You just have to work at making it good. That was kind of where we were at. And when the students got that, as a group, and really got into it, it became a self-sustaining thing. They wanted to be doing things on a high level all the time.


For example: the tuning thing. I was just very insistent about tuning centers. When I got the kids for the first time in grade ten, they went through a process of tuning tests and individual work. And the attitude had to be that the outcome for this is eventually going to be bigger than us and bigger than you. If you can take care of this on your own horn, the entire product gets better. The best thing about that solid foundational work is that the next year when they come back in grades 11 or 12, the first day back it's actually pretty close and the centers aren't that far off. I’m thinking, “I guess it stuck” so we started in a better place. 


You have to take care of those fundamentals. One of your questions was about starting beginner groups. I think that's all about fundamentals. If you can work those out early, the rest is gravy. Technique is technique, but if they have the foundation of good sound and tuning centers, that goes forever. 


For my junior high level band, I think the key that made those things work was that we ran a lot of sectionals in grade seven. Before the kids even played together in class, we started with some theory work to get everyone on the same page. They all knew a certain number of notes. We would start them in sectionals to make sure they knew how to put the instruments together and how to put reeds on – all these different things before they start playing. When they started to play together, it sounded like something from day one and they got excited about that. Rather than say, “Okay, you sit here for a long time while I work with these other people…” It really sped up the process. We were also work through their repertoire in sectionals so things that were technically demanding didn’t waste too much time in rehearsals. They all knew their parts and they were excited because it sounded like music right from square one. So the fundamentals and those sectionals became a real key to those kids becoming successful learning their parts. We also had a mentoring system where older kids came in to work with the younger ones. For the beginner clarinets, a larger group of the grade eight or nine kids came in to play along, checking things. That mentorship element became very important as well.


I remember some kids saying that “so and so band” at this other school are already on page seven in their method books and we’re not that far. I would reassure them and say, “Don't worry about that. That will come.” Of course once they got the fundamentals, they were further ahead. The goal was always find places for these kids to be successful. They love that. When they start to hear it, they want it all the time.

Dave: Was that your first job, John Henderson Junior High?


Jeff: Fresh out of university, yes. When I interviewed for that job the consultant at the time knew me a bit. The University of Manitoba Percussion Ensemble had done a concert for the division at one point.

He knew me through that and hired me, I guess, because it was a face recognition thing. But the John Henderson program at that point was in pretty rough shape. I had some heard stories second hand before I got to the school but John Henderson really was one of the tough schools of the division. There were some real gangsters among those young kids. It was a tough crowd with the leather jackets. From what I heard they had their 25th anniversary the year just before I got there and the band played for a celebration and apparently they fell apart in “Oh, Canada!” and it was just a mess. So the band program was in a bit of trouble and I think, for a new director, that was probably the best place to start because it couldn't go anywhere but up. It's always hard to come into an established program because you have to fill big shoes. B this situation, from what I could gather, had been pretty much ground down. 


There was a lot of trying to change the culture of the school and getting kids involved, getting them to trust in what I was doing. It was a rough place to start with because some of those kids were pretty unruly and the culture of band was not very significant. And it was in a transition because it was the first year they brought in the French immersion program. And that, of course, brings in a different kind of kid because in a French immersion course, the parents are driving their kids in and expecting some good things. I'm actually still friends with or in contact with some of those students.


Dave: That's interesting because that's kind of the way I started with my first job. I don't know if you remember exactly but you switched over to the high school in 1998. That's when I moved back to Canada after doing my master’s degree and I had a couple of job interviews for the John Henderson job. And I was doing this job for St. John's, going all over the province and people knew you and your program and were talking about the move. There were a lot of people who would saying, “I would never want that job because it's so good, it would be difficult to walk in there and not screw it up.” And I was thinking the opposite. I was thinking this guy who clearly knows what he's doing, has set up this program.

If I remember correctly, River East wasn’t the main destination school for most of John Henderson’s band kids. That could have been different. But I was thinking, “If you're at all competent… and the guy who set this up is moving to the high school, and you could create a bridge between two schools…” Instead of thinking how bad I'm going to look if I screw it up, I'm imagining what kind of music kids we could produce if there was a real connection and continuity.

It would be far too big a job in most situations but having both the junior high and high school band programs as one job seemed attractive for those reasons. Curtis, the guy who ended up getting your gig at John Henderson, was from Niverville and handled all of the grades there. Maybe there’s an argument that that’s too many years with the same person, but if you do a really good job, man, you could just crush that gig. Of course it's not about how many university music majors in university you can churn out of your high school program. I figure that's about 10% of your job, but with the right people at both levels, you could turn a program into a pretty monumental achievement for the students.


Anyway, that was the common sentiment: “I don't want that job at John Henderson because Jeff is too good at his job.” And I'm thinking, “If you think that, then what does that say about your ability to do the job properly? It's all set up for you. You don't need to build it into anything. Now you're just worried about screwing it up?” If someone is going to have trouble taking over what might have been the best junior high job in Western Canada, maybe the country, what are they going to do at some other gig?

Jeff: You really are at the mercy of what you're being sent as a high school teacher and having or not having that control at the very beginning is an essential part of the equation. Having my junior high students at the very beginning, like you said, was important because it allows you to create your own environment. Now at the high school, when my students play their first notes, I can pretty much tell what feeder school they came from. It's pretty recognizable. The one thing we've lost at the high school is the power of control with the beginners. So you have to get to work with what you get.

Jeff: The younger kids have a greater attachment to the school because they have less going on. They are more available. High school kids have relationships and jobs and other post secondary activities in the real world that they have to deal with that the younger kids don't. So if you can turn the young kids on, in some cases that's all they've got. Some of that may have changed too in twenty three years because the world is a little different.


Dave: I graduated high school in 1992. That's a long time ago so it's hard to think about the changes in the social aspects of your life in an objective way. There may be more immediate pressures on students now but I think a lot of the issues are the same. You try to see the world through their eyes and you consider the way that parenting has changed considerably in that time. Maybe that's having a big effect on the way that young people see the world but, probably, when you get into the music room, it's not that different. 


You talk about how you didn't have a jazz band in your junior high or my high school. I was lucky enough to have that and we're only ten years apart and I had as solid a jazz band foundation as you could get in Winnipeg at the time, in both of my junior high and high schools, but I still look back and think there was almost nobody in Winnipeg who knew anything about jazz. A few people in Winnipeg back then were reasonable or even exceptional jazz musicians but nobody teaching lessons was turning kids into competent improvisers. 


I was in Ron Paley’s Big Band for several years and remember going to his rehearsals at Silver Heights Collegiate. I would go into the room early and he'd be having conversations with high school kids with zero pretense. They didn't really know who he was or how he could play. But he’s talking to them on their level about the music they like, some rock band they think is cool. He was just miraculously interested in music and in young people.


But I've also been in and witnessed lessons with really good musicians who didn’t have the ability to communicate ideas that would make a kid better. They’re playing something way too fast and I’m thinking, “I kind of know what you're talking about but there's no way this kid does. I'm struggling to keep up and I already understand the concepts. So this kid has no idea. They're not going to get anything out of this. Most of my teaching today is about those experiences and figuring out what I would change to be more effective.

Dave: So what did the University of Manitoba, at that point, do to prepare you for this job that you were about to start? And what are the things that your fifty-eight-year-old self change if you could go back?


Jeff: This took me a while, to start being open to different possibilities. I was initially very close-minded about what I thought music was. I think that's where going to the University of Manitoba really helped me. One of the first recitals I ever went to was a new music concert. I remember going to this concert and listening to Dvora Marcuse [1921-2008]. She was playing a recorder and tape piece with whale and goat sounds and I was just shitting myself laughing at this. I had never experienced anything like that before and I was thinking this was the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Just ridiculous. And it was my lack of exposure and my ignorance and maybe my close mindedness. 


I didn't feel like I came from a very closed world about what music was. But it turned out I did have a very narrow focus. And had I been a little more open to other things, it would have helped to move things along for me. Because back in the day, especially in high school, I had too much of an ego. I was always told I was the best drummer in the school. But you get to another level and then there are other kids wiping the floor with you.

That was the disadvantage of me not being aware of what was around. Now, with the Internet, I think I could have found a lot of great players in a second. In those days I didn't know. The greatest gift I got from the university was the understanding of the history of music. I started with no knowledge of that whatsoever. 


The new music part was big because there was so much going on. Robert Turner was my 20th century music professor and the course at that time came right out of the textbook. There were fifteen of us and there were about fifteen chapters and we each had to present one of the chapters in the book. But I was still really quite inspired by him, even though he was the very back of his career. He'd put a record on while he was talking and we couldn't hear what he was saying. But still, it was inspiring because the work was about compositions. We got to know his compositions more and he was very encouraging about my compositions. I think he retired the year after that course was done.

Going to the library, studying 20th century music and looking through graphic scores, all that became an exposure thing. But I would have loved to have gotten that sooner. And I became more methodical about the way I worked on things, like playing with a metronome and working on time. Those became great teaching moments for me later on. Sometimes in a class you’re teaching, something comes out of your mouth referencing those early experiences.  


Dave: How did you go from a point where, admittedly, you're close-minded or possibly arrogant, to what you were describing earlier. Suddenly you’re a junior high band teacher, and this is very soon afterwards. And it’s not like it took you ten years or any significant length of time to get this stuff into shape. I knew what you were doing at John Henderson pretty early in your career. But you're describing knowing enough to segregate the students into instrument groups and work on sectionals, knowing enough to stress that, “We're taking our time we don't care what some other school is doing and and what page they're on in their method book.” You knew enough to bring in older mentors. That’s just a handful of things that you described. There are a lot of people who did your job for 30 or 35 years and never did any of those things and never figured it out. 


And they very likely didn't find an alternate or better way of doing it. Obviously there isn’t only one way to do most things. But if I've spent a reasonable number of decades figuring things out and I hear an alternate method, the new way had better be as good, or superior to the previous way or why do I care?


So do you recognize any transition? Was there a lightbulb moment for you or do you think do you have an innate ability to see things in a methodical or logical way?


Jeff: There's really nothing special about what I’ve been doing. I think initially it was self-survival. Coming into a class of these kids, I was just wanting to keep them engaged. That's where the sectional thing came from. The kids want to play. They don't want to listen to me talk to somebody else while they're sitting around so I want get them actively engaged in the most expedient way possible.


In the high school, until COVID, all of my percussionists had class outside of the rest of the concert band. I knew from my own experience as a percussionist that it was the section that was most ignored. We could do a lot of things that they would never do in the class setting because all the methodology is geared toward the wind players. So I’d run percussion specific things. Earlier, in the junior high, I wanted to get into the nitty gritty of what percussion instruments were all about and do a better job of mentoring in an environment that was more expedient. I think that kids really appreciated that. Their sectionals were always after school and, at first, they balked about the idea of coming after school. But they also appreciated the fact that they got to work on their individual skills in that isolated setting.

After that came the transition to more new music. For me, it was a matter of personal interest. I wanted to do different things differently – especially in band. Even when I was teaching percussion techniques at the University of Manitoba for future educators, I’d say, “Now, go out and change band. Let's bring it to another level. Do something that's going to move this idiom along in a different way.” 


I never want to try to play the repertoire the same way somebody else is doing it. I think the kids appreciate doing something fresh and trying to move the agenda along, to create something different – something individual.

I used to do a lot of new music with the young kids. Aleatoric music or something with a lot of dissonance was often not a go at first with kids. But sometimes the message would be, “Maybe your parents aren't going to like this.” “Well, I'm going to do it now for sure!” When I told them we were going to do some things that maybe not everybody is going to like, they got into the idea of being individuals and being creative. And they liked the idea that modern professional musicians were playing this kind of music. They were excited when it wasn’t “student” music. 


I think my very first commission at John Henderson was with Bruce Carlson, a piece called “Toledo.” Since then, that piece has been played worldwide. Bruce said it was the first Canadian piece to become part of that teaching through performance in music series. One of the lines I gave to the kids was, “Good, bad, or indifferent, you are now part of music history. We are bringing something new into new music and that John Henderson Junior High is the first to play this piece. 


And even though there have been substantial recordings made of that piece, Bruce Carlson still says that the one with John Henderson Junior High was still the best. It had the closest connection to the composer. We were right in the thick of it. Lately we've been doing a lot by Kevin Curtis and I’ve said to the kids that they don't know, maybe Kevin becomes the Mozart of our time and the River East Wind Ensemble or Percussion Ensemble could be tied to this music and be part of history. Or maybe that music will inspire some people to listen differently or challenge them.

River East Collegiate Percussion Ensemble at the Manitoba Legislature (2014)

Jeff: For the Optimist [Manitoba regional] Festival, we would always be doing something different. Sometimes it was dismissed by the adjudicators. “This isn't band music,” or whatever else, but a lot of the band teachers would talk about it afterwards so we were having some influence on the conversation. We still played some traditional music and the things that brought us to the forefront.


Dave: And you probably mentioned this to your students, that by doing this kind of music we actually might be jeopardizing our chance of getting a trophy… but, “we don't actually care about that.”


Jeff: Right. I remember one year at the festival we played some sort of aleatoric thing and a prominent music industry person said, “You know, Jeff this could be detrimental to your career.” 


Dave: Ha. To say that a high school teacher at a top high school who's doing a lot of great things is jeopardizing their career by programming new music is a little hyperbolic.


Jeff: And the trophies weren't really a concern. For the last several years at any festival we've really just gone comments only. I didn't care what the marks were and because of that I haven’t played any list pieces for a long time. I just played new commissions or something different.


Dave: And you knew the reaction to that was always going to be a mixed bag. I didn’t do it for long enough to get away from the list pieces. And some of that traditional band literature is good music and I hadn’t conducted very much of it so it wasn’t a main concern. I think, early on, there was also good mileage out of getting a good grade at the festivals if we could. If getting the trophy was a residual effect of having a decent band, then it was fine. 


But if we did a standard piece, the second piece was always one of mine. I would work the name of a student into the main title or movement title. Or take a student melody that one of the kids composed in our “composition” unit, create a cantus firmus out of that, and hide it in one of the concert band pieces. Just to do anything to get the students into it. But we got ripped at Musicfest Canada one year because we had this one piece called “War Games,” a weird thing inspired by John Zorn’s “ “Cobra” with aleatoric sections. 


And everybody who was in the jazz band was in the concert band or wind ensemble and we had some pretty great soloists. But we just got hammered for that. And we played the list pieces almost as well as anybody. Doing new music isn’t exactly pushing the envelope but wind ensemble can be a pretty traditional setting with matching attitudes. It’s not all like that but you also don’t get to select your own judges at festivals. And my motivation was as much pragmatic as it was artistic. I was trying to motivate the students but also writing music to feature the absolute best students. So in years where I had some National Youth Band kids I would write long angular solos for them and the players who couldn't play as well were more in the background. It made everything sound twice as good as it really was.


Jeff: I can't believe you'd get ripped for that at national music festival because that's the essence of great teaching. You're making a piece work for everybody. The kids who need a challenge get a challenge and there's still a way for everyone else to participate to make great music, to bring something fresh and new to the table. Back then, seeing and hearing your compositions I was thinking, “This is great because this is what music education should be.” Through the compositional projects you can tailor make music for your students. But, yes, the whole concert band thing is pretty conservative. 


Dave: There's very little true 20th or 21st century concert band repertoire on most of the lists, regardless of when it’s written. It's often very safe, very romantic, 19th century harmony. And you understand, from an educational perspective, why it’s justified that way. Jazz ensemble attitudes aren’t all that different. One year I decided to voluntarily start a jazz band at my main feeder school, Arthur Day Junior High. This was right before Paul Graham took over the program. We’d been rehearsing for two or three months and I wrote all the charts because these were absolute beginners in jazz and there was no way I was going to be able to work up anything respectable if I used stock charts. We did “St. Thomas” and an easy version of this Mingus chart, “Hog Callin’ Blues.” I can’t remember the third chart. And there's this one part on the Mingus Big Band version where the two tenor players make loud pig noises. For a group of little kids, it’s was pretty good. They were especially good at the pig sounds. Two of the adjudicators gave us a gold rating and some pretty enthusiastic comments. But the third, Bobby Harriot the trumpet player, gave us a bronze rating and hated it all. And I remember Ken Epp [executive of the Manitoba Band Association] having a conversation with him in the hallway at Glenlawn Collegiate asking if he would consider changing his grade because they didn’t like grades that were “split” like that. And he was pretty pissed off and refused to change his grade.


Jeff: I couldn't figure that stuff out because I had some of the same experiences. We always went “comments only” at the Optimus Festival. We did all kinds of John Cage stuff at the festival and whatever else, and I remember one year a well-known adjudicator said, “You'll understand why I won't adjudicate this well.” I’m thinking, “You've taken 20th century music classes. If my high school kids can get this, then how come someone who has a PhD can't figure out how to grade this?” And then some of the other adjudicators would be all over this saying, “this is the greatest,” and “the exposure kids are getting to different music is fantastic.” But you get the traditionalists saying, “this isn't concert band music.” But what is that? Music is music.


Dave: The instrumentation makes it a concert band. What they do with that. Similar with the orchestra. I think it’s somewhat different with Jazz ensemble. Those seventeen instruments don’t automatically make it a jazz band, regardless of what you play. And you decided not to do the list pieces, but not because you were incapable of doing them. And that's a big thing. They have the list pieces so that people working up to a particular standard have something to shoot for. There are a specific number of elements that they have to be putting into the music. It makes sense. But once you're at the point where you don't have to actually prove that you can play this music properly, which you clearly had done, then you get a pass and can say, “I don't want your trophy. I don't need it anymore.” You've got to have a particularly supportive set of parents and administration to not need the acknowledgement. We understand that it's not about awards but, clearly there are people doing this job better than other people. The idea that there's no room for dividing levels or even identifying levels… and the one thing we haven't mentioned yet is the Jazz at Lincoln Center thing which is clearly competitive.


What was it about the Jazz at Lincoln Center, Essentially Ellington Festival where you possibly said, “I think we can get some mileage out of that” or “It's a good idea and we're going to try to do it.” What was your thought process at the beginning?


Jeff: The festival had been going for a few years before Canadian bands were invited to participate. When Canada was first included, this email came out and with that announcement. And it sounded interesting it, certainly something no one else in Canada was doing, obviously. And the music is phenomenal and I like the idea of getting free charts. 


So the music came out for that year and I happened to have had some players in there who were pretty heavy hitters like Keith Price was playing guitar, Julian Bradford on bass, and the Metcalf boys. I figured, “Let's find some charts they could do. So we hit this thing and it was a fluke. We had no idea what the hell we were doing. We just spent time rehearsing, spent an hour recording the tunes and sent it in with no expectations. That year we were seventeenth, just out of the group of fifteen finalists that got invited to New York.

In those days, if your band placed in spots sixteen to twenty, the band director got a trip to the band director academy. That year, I went to Aspen Snowmass. They flew me down there, all expenses paid, and it was great. I got to meet Ron Carter and all these different cats. Wycliffe Gordon was there and all these different players. I didn't really know much about the competition. 

They were saying, “This is the World Series of jazz” and they're asking me about the recording we made to enter. I said we just recorded one afternoon for an hour and they couldn't believe it. I started to get to know a little bit more about that scene and after that experience I thought we could probably do a better job the next year. We started getting a little more detailed. And it helps that the music is phenomenal, whereas a lot of the stock charts that you play had to be “fixed” in certain ways, like we're going to change some details. These Ellington charts are perfect. Duke Ellington was such a genius composer and these are all works of art


Dave: They're the real charts. And if you didn't know who David Berger was, or King Brand, you didn’t have them. Almost no high schools really had any access to Duke Ellington charts. A tiny handful of high school bands had them but they were these pretty chicken scratchy David Berger transcriptions. And you had to have some pretty specialized background to even know about them. So for the longest time, jazz education was so skewed against Duke Ellington because nobody could get the charts. There were some Basie-esque charts of Duke Ellington tunes that bands played. 


But the cool thing about Essentially Ellington is these charts are playable by young people, the way that the Ellington band played them. But the kids need to get that, musically, it's a totally different world and we're going to have to immerse ourselves in this sound in order to be able to play them properly. We can start to play them almost immediately. But now how do we play them in a way that does any level of musical justice to what Duke Ellington did?


Jeff: For most high school kids, a lot of the Basie charts are out of their realm. That's what a lot of bands are playing but they're not actually all that playable because there's so much in there that most high school kids can't get. The ranges are insane. But the Ellington charts, yeah they're in the zone. And the same thing you said before about how they're real. So many charts available are “written in the style of that” or “this is the written in the style of Basie, but why not play the original stuff? And there are reference recordings of the original Ellington charts that you can get to that are exactly the same charts. Wynton Marsalis gets a lot of shit for a different reasons but he’s also getting free Duke Ellington charts into thousands of band rooms.


Dave: There's not much else you can do with high school kids that's a real repertoire chart, unless you have a really solid band. I've heard recordings of some of the absolute best high school bands trying to play Maria Schneider charts and they're pretty terrible or Bob Brookmeyer charts, Jim McNeely charts, Thad Jones. Some Count Basie charts are moderately accessible but other ones are just ridiculous, like you said. 


This is unlike concert band where if you've got a really good high school band, you can play a lot of the repertoire and do it justice. One of several problems with most real jazz band literature is you're asking a sixteen or eighteen-year-old trumpet player to do what almost no trumpet player player can do, even when they're twenty two. And even then it's like 1% of all trumpet players who are ever going to be able to do that. So the chance of you having a real lead trumpet player in your high school band is almost zero. 


Guys that I went to college with had gone to the Iowa Jazz Championships as a high school trip. They heard Ryan Kisor and had a bootleg recording of him playing Cherokee when he was seventeen and still in high school. It's just miraculous. But he's one in a million players.

Ryan is only a year older than me. He went to Sioux City North High School in Iowa and his dad was the band director. He was our jazz festival guest artist in the first year of our my master’s degree and because I was a teaching assistant, it was my job to drive him to and from the hotel, drive him around to buy a suit and take him out for dinner and all that. And there was something weird about the fact that we (sort of) play the same instrument and are almost the same age but he’s the guest artist. And at that point, he'd already been playing in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and the Mingus Big Band and had already done two or more records for Columbia by that point. And a lot of kids have their parent as their band director so that doesn’t explain everything about Ryan Kisor’s ability.


Dave: Anyway, what was the first year that you did that?


Jeff: Actually, I forget the year now. It was probably 2000? Around there.


Dave: It was while I was in Winnipeg so it was around 2000, sure.


Jeff: There was a huge learning curve for me but I learned so much by doing it. I learned to love Duke Ellington’s music so much more. To play his stuff right, you have to get deep into it and I just became more immersed in the listening. Ron Carter [the educator] was really my biggest influence for this and I think he's the guy who knows that stuff more than anybody. Even since then I've had Ron out to River East to workshop my kids. He just knows how to get those kids swinging. He is just so knowledgeable in that area and so very inspirational to kids. I have also become one of his clinicians at his Carter’s Clinics and got a lot out of that too. I got to spend more time with him and meet Dave Berger and others. These guys got the bug in me so, when I came back, I had a different level of knowledge.

It became infectious. When we worked deeper with the kids, they started to get deeper into the music. The detail on the level that you had to start dealing with was serious. We came so close in that first crack and were very fortunate to be able to get to the finals five times, which was a phenomenal experience. The band rehearsed more times a week than they had before and it was really the kids that requested that change. 


Was that another example of a strong catalyst for motivation where, “if we have a real focus in our band program centered around Duke Ellington, I don't need to apologize for that?” And maybe this leads into another question I haven't thought of much, but you don't seem to have taken the approach that you hear so often that, “If playing some pop tune or rap music is going to get kids to love band, then I don't care, I’m going to do it. If a pop tune is going to get kids to like playing in the concert band, I'm fine with that. I don't care what level of integrity the music has as long as it's music. I'll put it in there just because the kids will love it.” 


Jeff: With Essentially Ellington, the character of the festival was definitely important. You could present the goal and the kids were like, “Let's go for it!” “Here's what you're going to have to do,” and they were into it. Because there's so much depth and so much history. Any music that I program with any band, there has to be some sort of connection to something, a piece of history or a relationship that makes this music important or important to us. 


I have programmed rock and pop tunes but there's always a connection to something that served a purpose in the history or was influential somehow. For Duke Ellington, it was easy because the influence was massive. And it was so interesting. There was a lot of listening and a lot of depth that came with that. One of the things we learned about Wynton’s philosophy was his interest in preserving American history. “America has given the world three things: the hot dog, baseball, and jazz. The hot dog is doing great, baseball is thriving, and jazz is not.” And the musicians were lamenting about the fact that, especially the African American kids, are not listening to much jazz anymore. “How can we get them to do this again?” Basically, the mission is to preserve culture by bringing the music to the forefront because it's part of American history. Unfortunately, the festival is not as open as it used to be. The fifteen finalist bands are basically by region. Back in the day, there were always ten spots for bands who hadn't been finalists in the last five years and five spots for people who might have been finalists. 


And then they put all of these conglomerate bands in the mix. Now any performing arts school is the same category as Joe Public High School. The level of the playing has gone through the roof. We were there the last time in 201. We've tried a couple of times since and we’ve come close but it’s a bit more exclusive. And it's a lot of the same bands every year. Even Ron Carter was saying to Wynton he wasn’t sure this is the way to go because they’re not going to catch as many kids as before. But at the time the level of performance was so great for my kids and it was so inspiring.


The very first year we went, Karl Kohut was my bass player. He eventually did his masters at Juilliard and got to play with Jazz at Lincoln Center one year when they did a piece with two bass players. Now Carl’s a jazz professor here at U of M. So it did sort of come full circle where one of our guys went through that process, went to Juilliard, and is teaching the next generation.


The last trip I did right before COVID, we went to New York to audit the Essentially Ellington festival. We hadn't applied that year but we just sat through the competition and all of my kids were knocked out by the level.

 And they're doing a lot of streaming of that festival now which is great for everyone to be able to see.


Dave: You realize the level that some of those high schools are at but, like you said, some of them are magnet high schools and some of those kids are a year away from being admitted to Juilliard or some of the best schools in the world. It's going to be difficult to compete.


Jeff: At Essentially Ellington, there was often a dinner the first night where the directors sat together. The kids sat with their instrument sections and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra members sat with the kids. So all the high school trumpet kids would be eating with the four great JLCO trumpet players. 


I was hanging with the band directors and there was a group from Texas, three directors there from one school. I told them all of the different ensembles I teach and the lady who was directing their jazz band said that her sole job was directing that jazz orchestra. And they were talking about their roster of in-house clinicians. They had their own saxophone teacher and trumpet teacher. And every instrument had their own teacher in addition to the jazz band director. This is a whole different world from what we deal with. And they asked me about my job and I'm teaching three concert bands, two jazz bands, and other ensembles, and they couldn't believe it. In some of those schools it was essentially that one person’s job to prepare their bands for that festival.


Dave: We deal with that here on some level. Some of our best students are about as good as anyone. Pretty recently, I’d been working with a trumpet kid for about six years and even though he wasn’t participating in his high school music program, he got a good scholarship to Manhattan School of Music and is finishing up there at the end of next year. I think i can give a student the right information and guide them in their choices of what to practice. But they have to do the practice themselves because I can't sit with them all day. But to be able to produce a consistent line of students like that or multiple students at the same time is difficult in most places.

You said that, for more than a decade, you taught the percussion methods class at the University of Manitoba?


Jeff: Yeah I did that for about a dozen years at U of M.

Dave: There’s another thing I think offers additional satisfaction for someone teaching in a public school: by the time a student auditions for a magnet school or a top university, they’ve probably already met their most influential teacher. If the school they’re applying to is really good, the students already have to have accomplished a lot and your impact, as their primary teacher who took them from zero to whatever, is probably more profound than what some magnet school teacher is going to accomplish. They’ll learn more and go a lot further but the most rewarding and impactful work might have been done already. It's similar to students at elite universities.  The most profound person to them is not going to be that university teacher. It's going to be somebody before that. Whoever their high school teacher or private lesson teacher. If you want to teach college and you think, “I'd really like to teach at the best place,” that's probably not actually the best gig from a job satisfaction standpoint. I was mentioning that Facebook post about your retirement. You've got a number of people saying, “This guy is my best teacher. He's the one that had the biggest impact on me. He made me not quit school.” That's a profound impact and that's going to make you feel good about having done this job for 3 1/2 decades.

"What have you got in the room? Let's work with that. And just find a place for every kid that matches their ability level."


Composer and River East Collegiate alum, Kerey Harper

Dave: What were some of your most profound stories about student successes, musical or otherwise?


Jeff: I've had a lot of amazing kids over the years. There was one in particular, a flute player I had at the junior high school. I'm not sure if she's still playing. She was a good little player and came from a pretty stable home, but got mixed up with some very bad things, gangs and the whole thing. She eventually had some mental wellness issues. One day she just disappeared. I heard that she was gone but then I got a message from her asking if I would come and visit her at the Health Sciences Centre Psychiatric Ward. I remember going to see her one day in the hospital and talking through things. She had been cutting herself and told me all these stories that I was just aghast about because I hadn't know anything about it. But she was also saying that band class and music had been a real lifeline and she may not have been around if it hadn’t been for her involvement in music. And eventually she did get out of this. She said that music was really the lifeline that pulled her through some very dark times. For me, that was very humbling and I was just doing my thing. Offering kids opportunities and trying to be encouraging and i hadn't any idea what she was going through.

Jeff: There’s also Kerey Harper. He's still around but this was a kid I met six or seven years ago. I was in my room at River East on a first period spare. This kid walks in and he's just looking around at the gear, looking at the percussion equipment, and looking at the chimes. I said, “Hi, can I help you?” We start talking and I find out that he's from St. Theresa Point [First Nation]. His mother was the principal in the school there and his dad was a teacher. Kerey was sent to Winnipeg to get a better education because St. Theresa Point is a small community only accessible by plane or by ice road in the winter. Remember that show Ice Road Truckers? Apparently that's one of the places they go. He says he plays guitar so I ask him to play something for me sometime. I thought I would probably never see this kid again. But right away he comes back with his guitar and he starts playing a piece that he’d written. I was just knocked out by the stuff he was playing, all of these thumb pick harmonics and stuff that Lenny Breau had done. Kids at that age (about 15 years old, and a little rough around the edges) are probably playing heavy metal and want to be rock stars but he's playing all this. And he had an alternate tuning on his guitar. I asked him where he learned all this. His playing had a tinge of contemporary music and a tinge of classical playing and I said, “You must have listened to Lenny Breau.” But he asked me, “Who’s that?” He said he was just watching YouTube videos and figuring stuff out. So great. 


This was close to the end of the year and we were having a contemporary music ensemble concert. I asked if he would play his piece for the concert. He came and played his piece and people in the audience were knocked out by this kid's composition. And so I said, “We should get you involved in the music program.” He was living in town with his brother and struggling in different ways. But getting him involved in music gave him a purpose.


And he was already sampling sounds from around his home. He'd walk in his boots and sample the sound of his footsteps crunching on the ice and the sounds of icicles falling off the ceiling. And he created electronic compositions out of these recordings. Eventually we got him involved in the classical music festival and they put him on the bill. 


I commissioned him to write for my band, an electronic piece and we added wind parts to it. And did some compositions for a pre-concert  performance for the WSO New Music Festival at the Concert Hall. People were listening to him and thinking, “Who is this kid?” And eventually he was signed to a record label in Germany. 

I just had lunch with him a few weeks ago. His personal life is still challenging. His brother had a baby who just died of a rare disease and and then they miscarried again. His father also died so he has some challenging personal issues. But composition was the thing that held things together for him.


He says, “I think I really want to do this for my career,” and he's been asked to do festivals and other project. He recently got a commission from the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra to write something for electronics and chamber ensemble. And it all came out of a chance meeting with him walking into the band room. He couldn't read music at all. He was just composing sound through what he heard. But sometimes these little seeds grow into bigger things. And one that really stands out as well is Kerey Harper.


Dave: You can imagine any number of scenarios where, someone doing essentially the same job that you're doing, and a kid comes into the room and plays guitar but can't read. “Well, that's not really what we do here. So what are you going to do? If you don't play clarinet in the concert band and you can't really play guitar in my jazz band because you can't read and I've already got it a guitar player. So…it's nice meeting you.” But then that's about it.


Jeff: I had him play bass in the concert band and he played great because he learned everything by ear but he couldn't read a lick. And then he started working on some basic things like being able to play triads and chords and he thought that is great because he started to think about ways he could incorporate those things into his compositions.


Dave: Do you think maybe that sums up your experience as a teacher? You knew enough fundamentally to be able to get every one of your groups to do all of the things they were supposed to do within the mainstream. You had no problem with programming Holst and Count Basie charts in order to fulfill that part of the job. You weren't some loose cannon who came in and ignored the rules for jazz band and wind ensemble to hide a lack of ability. But when you had the opportunity to do more, you figured it out and didn’t worry about convention. But you also had a level of empathy where you would find a place for anyone and still maintain integrity in the music. You know that not everybody who does your job thinks that way.


Jeff: I just tried to give kids opportunities and every kid has something to offer. You just want to find that something and roll with it. That year that we had you do that arrangement of “The Clown” [extended Charles Mingus piece] for our jazz band, we played that thing numerous times and the kids just loved it. We also recently had a former student do an arrangement of Mingus’ “Scenes in the City.” Because of COVID we never got to the point where we could play it in public before my retirement. But in that music, there’s a whole other element to teach about beyond just playing the music itself. Trying to do new things and maybe push the envelope of what band is. When we get stuck and things aren’t moving forward, I think it's detrimental to the whole idiom. When you're doing the composing for your kids, it's exactly what you should be doing. Instead of trying to shoehorn them into a pre-existing chart, created something that fits them instead. What have you got in the room? Let's work with that. And just find a place for every kid that matches their ability level.


The close of my “Heathrow” Facebook message is also a fitting coda here:


If 90% of the job of a high school music teacher is to make kids love music while providing them with quality instruction that maximizes their potential, Jeff might be the best I’ve seen. If the other 10% is preparing the most interested students to study music after high school, he had that part covered too. 


Enjoy your retirement, man!

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