Tying in with Justin Kisor’s story this week, I decided to relay some of my experiences playing music, specifically jazz.
When I was a kid attending third grade at M.G. Clark Elementary School, the string orchestra performed for my class.
Gary Fridley, the director, was trying to recruit kids from my class to start playing stringed instruments. He mentioned that there had never been an upright bass player at Clark. This intrigued me! I would be famous at Clark for being the first bass player. I was a tall kid, so the size of the instrument was fitting for someone like me.
I started playing the bass and the next year I was enrolled in orchestra.
In fifth grade, the North High School jazz band came to Clark to get the kids interested in joining jazz bands.
In sixth grade at Herbert Hoover Middle School, I tried out for jazz band for the first time. I made Jazz 3, the band with the musicians with the least experience. I excelled at learning the feel of playing and the next year Bob Gibson placed me in the top band. Over my last two years of middle school, I improved by leaps and bounds. While I was in eighth grade, I was being scouted by Larry Kisor, the legendary North High band director.
I got to North High School and tried out for the jazz band. To my shock, horror and delight, Kisor placed me in the top band. I was the only underclassman in the band that year, and the bass parts were being divvied up between another bassist and me. Even though I might not have been as good as the other bassist in the band (a senior), Kisor wanted to train me and make me into a bass playing machine.
Call time for jazz band was every morning before school at 6:30, not the ideal time for jazz rehearsals (and probably one of the reasons I hate getting up early in the morning to this day).
During the reign of Kisor, the North High Jazz Band was exceptional. The band could have rivaled even some professionally working jazz bands. Each season we would go to tons of competitions, usually 10 to 15 a year. During my time with the band, we took first place in every competition (except for when we took second place at the State Jazz Competition in Des Moines when I was a sophomore). Imagine the ego of a band that wins every single competition!
Kisor had his methods that shaped musicians, put them together and made them work cohesively.
His mannerisms were often stern and threatening. If you have ever seen the movie ‘Whiplash,’ you probably know the kind of effective teaching style he had.
He taught me that the bassist is the leader of the band, especially when it comes to jazz. The bassist keeps the time and has to give and take in accordance to what the rest of the band is doing. You have to pull and push the tempo to make sure the rest of the instrumental sections are playing together. You have to make sure the drummer is flowing with you. It may look like the bassist is only plucking four strings, but there is much more to playing than meets the eye.
To ensure my transition into a bass-playing machine, Kisor set his Dr. Beat loudspeaker metronome next to my left ear every morning and turned it to full-blast. This is the same loudspeaker he would use at the top of the hill when the marching band was on the football field below. The thing was so damned loud. In the four years of having that thing clicking in my ear, I definitely experienced hearing loss.
Kisor eventually got what he wanted, and by the time I was a senior, I was a tempo-master. I knew how to keep the beat and keep the band swinging.
When we won the State Jazz Band Competition at the end of my senior year, instead of Kisor going down to accept the trophy on stage, he gave me the honor. I was the only one in my class who had survived four years of that amazing teacher’s antics.
I learned hard work and persistence from Kisor. I learned to think highly of my band and to be proud of what we accomplished. I learned jazz.