"Quiet…quiet. Stop talking to your friends! Listen. Listen to the music. Focus…"
Here was Bryan Willer, Woodward-Granger’s HS/MS instrumental music director, putting his Middle School jazz band through its paces just days before the start of W-G’s prestigious Jim Coffin Jazz Festival. The Festival, which runs Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday, Mar. 1 at W-G High School, will feature 33 bands, including three from W-G.
The Jim Coffin event "has become pretty prestigious over the years," Willer said. "It’s a qualifying event for the Iowa Jazz Championships held in Des Moines on April 8. Currently, W-G is a wild card eligible band by virtue of having won the Jack Oatts Jazz Festival in Earlham on Feb. 8.
The judges for the festival are equally well-regarded said Willer. They include Jim Bovinette of Iowa State University, the director of the ISU Jazz Program and professor of trumpet and the legendary Jack Oatts. Oatts, of Simpson College, has toured and recorded with such names the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and soul music superstar Wilson Pickett.
"Jim Coffin was one of the first to teach a high school jazz program in Iowa." said Willer. "He only taught at Woodward for two years but he was legendary." Indeed, back in 1956 he and Jack Oatts teamed up to form the "Faculty Four," an ensemble that lasted more than a decade. Coffin’s reputation and fame grew as he instituted both the jazz and percussion programs at what is now the University of Northern Iowa. His UNI jazz band was famous for playing at Iowa high schools to develop student interest in jazz and to attract talent to the program.
Clearly, Willer, himself a trombone player, has large footsteps to follow. He’s been teaching 11 years and has been at W-G for two years. He’s a man who loves his work. He pointed to a stack of gleaming new steel garbage cans. "We’re going to use them in a "drum line performance," he said.
So how does he teach jazz?
"It’s really about getting the kids to listen," said Willer. "At the middle school level, it’s still about getting the notes right, but as they move up, they start listening to their music more closely. They start listening to the musicians who they like and they start getting ideas. "They start ‘jamming’ with each other." For young musicians, he added, jam sessions are door-openers in which ideas and techniques are swapped. When older, more experienced players invite younger musicians to jam with them; it’s recognition of growing talent, he added.
But jazz performances are just one part of the school experience. The middle school band will perform early as many of the girls have a volleyball game in the afternoon. Likewise, a drummer’s instinct to drum on anything, including desks, must be tempered by study hall rules.
Willer’s selection of compositions to be performed is ambitious and includes, "Now’s the Time" a work by jazz legend Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, "Orinico Cocoa" by Vince Gassi, and "Starting Point" by Bob Lowden.
For more information and performance schedules, visit jimcoffinjazzfestival.com.