Jazz, Life Lessons and A Great Teacher

Ray van Hilst Avatar

The world lost a great man today. I’m saddened by the loss, but grateful for a man that graced my life and shaped a good bit of the man I am today.

I was actually thinking of him this morning listening to NPR and the story about Story Corps, the National Day of Listening and their encouragement to capture the story of teachers. I ran through the list of those teachers that had the biggest effect on my life and one name stood out.

Dave Wilson.

“Big Dave,” as those of us in the Jefferson County High School band programs called him, was a man who seemed larger than life to an impressionable young kid.

I don’t have a photo of Dave, so here’s the music he loved (and taught us to love).

My first memory of him was in elementary school and the Jefferson Jazz Band performed in our cafeteria. He stood in front of the band, counted down the next song… did a wave of his hand up and down to the band to kick them off… and as the horns blared Basie, turned to face the audience and acknowledged the band with his signature gesture of a pointed finger out to the side that said “These kids are the best musicians you are ever going to hear, and I love teaching them.”

I was hooked. I knew right away my goal in life was to be on that stage performing in that band. Piano lessons took on a new life, scales had a fresh perspective, and when it came time to join the junior high band I chose any instrument I could so I could still play piano in Jazz Band and keep working toward my dream.

By the time I made it to high school I was on the verge living my dream.

Those next 3 years were some of the most musically important years in my life. This wasn’t just some high school band… This was Jefferson Jazz! A band with an undefeated winning streak at competitions. A band with notable composers arranging songs and star musicians giving us master classes. A band that was filled with the brightest and hardest working kids in the school.

Big Dave taught us to love what you do, work hard and show the world your greatness. And when people laugh, you lift your shoulders up, look back on your skills and rehearsal… AND KICK THEIR ASS!!

I’ll never forget the competition we attended in Northern Virginia. We roamed the halls before we performed and heard the snickers and comments from other kids and band directors about this band from West Virginia that was in the competition.  “Who do they think they are.” “This will be easy.” “They are gonna suck.” “Bunch of dumb hicks.”

We were warming up and Dave came in and told us, “Kids, there’s a band on stage playing an easy version of ‘Shenandoah Junction.’ Are we going to stand for that?”

We hadn’t played that tune in weeks, but the challenge had been thrown down.

We quietly walked on stage and took our places. The lights came up, Dave sauntered to the microphone, and said “We would now like to play a song commissioned for this jazz band that is named after the mailing address of our school.”

As we kicked in to the signature 5/4 time of “Shenandoah Junction” we saw those petulant kids who just mocked us hang their heads in shame. They knew they had just been shown up by a bunch of “hicks from WV.”

Mr. Wilson used to say “You can’t kid a kid,” and so he always told it us straight. No spin. No slant. You knew where you stood with him. If you were good enough and worked hard he recognized you. And if you needed to practice more and do more he told you.

We did more than play Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, and Glenn Miller. We learned life lessons centered around great music. Few of us went on to be professional musicians but we all went on to be great adults – and I think that is what Mr. Wilson wanted most.

I last saw Big Dave in my hometown last summer at a concert by one of those kids that did go on to be a professional musician – Scott Paddock.  I proudly introduced him to my kids and thanked him for all he had taught me. We reminisced about the concerts and rehearsals, and he quietly told me I was one of the best piano players he ever had (but I think he told every kid that as I know I played with many other great musicians).

As I sit here writing, reflecting and listening to those old tunes we played 20+ years ago, I come back to my thoughts of him this morning.

I’m blessed to have had Dave Wilson as a hero, mentor and teacher. We all were. He was loved by many and lived to serve and teach kids to be hard working musicians and all around great human beings.

He made a big impression on so many of us. The only way to fill the hole that is left behind is to put on some jazz and let the tunes wail.

Enjoy some of the tunes that we played in Jefferson Jazz through Spotify playlist.

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