Bill Kroeger (1968) Trumpet
First Student Director
My name is Bill Kroeger, and I was the first ever Student Director of the New Trier West Recording Jazz Ensemble.
I have a story to tell about the evolution of this Ensemble. The Director, Roger Mills (aka Coach) and I have remained friends since I graduated High School.
My recollections surrounding the founding, and history, seemed like an easy thing to write about, but upon reflection is daunting if one were to consider that my two cents could have any significance, when compared to a program that turned a high school jazz band into a nationally recognized institution, and launched the careers of many now notable aspirants.
My story began in 1966 as a young, and immature, sophomore at the newly opened New Trier West High School campus. Since I had an older sibling at New Trier East, I had the option of remaining at that school, or heading to the new ground of a freshly constructed campus. Being somewhat rebellious, I opted to head West, and considered myself a trailblazer, allowing me to spend the next three years as an ‘upper classman.’ There were no junior or seniors as the school began with my sophomore class. Lacking any established peer role models, curriculums, or historic achievements, at the fledgling West campus, afforded all of us a blank canvas, but at the same time, huge shoes to fill when compared to the storied fame, already engendered at our sister school, New Trier East. What none of us recognized, at the time, was that fate or destiny had something in store for us that no one could have imagined. This was in large part due to a young new teacher by the name of Roger B. Mills. Freshly minted from Northwestern University, Roger was brought in as an assistant, to then music director Sam Mages. As an energetic graduate, Roger was full of enthusiasm and eager to do whatever was needed. On one occasion, I recall casually mentioning my interest in jazz, and wondering if Roger would consider teaching a jazz class. Without much hesitation, he assembled a small combo, of like-minded students, that soon began performing at pep rallies, basketball games, etc. Excitement for this new program mushroomed, and before long, we had a much larger ensemble that was entered into local and regional high school music competitions. The NTW Jazz Ensemble soon became a contender and steadily began making a name for itself, placing in the top tiers if not first place at most music festivals. We were even being compared to college level bands as being either ‘good as,’ or ‘better’ which really gave us a boost of pride.
At that time, my world orbited around this electrifying jazz program and the rush created by performing a style of music that was innovative, challenging, and just plain fun. For the first time in my young life, I had finally found a direction and purpose, which was validated by the recognition from my peers, and fueled by the encouragement and praise from Roger.
Just as this fledgling ‘jazz’ organization was starting to take off, the unthinkable nearly happened. Our fearless leader, Roger, who was still a part time teacher, was not offered a permanent teaching position for the next year. As we watched him pack up his few belongings, we felt crushed beyond belief, as our newfound dreams were dashed into oblivion.
The next part of this story is something I was not personally aware of until much later. According to Roger, my mother, after learning that he was not offered a contract, either picked up the phone, or marched over to the superintendent’s office demanding an explanation and insisting that Roger be immediately given a permanent position. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting! My mother was always one of the most gentle, polite, and godly women I have ever known, but at the same time, was a force of nature. The bottom line is that whatever transpired at that meeting became the turning point and genesis of the music program, at New Trier West, as Roger was presented with a fulltime contract.
Roger wasted no time in taking the jazz program to the next levels by acquainting us with notable jazz educators, writers, and performers of the likes of Jamie Aebersold, Phil Wilson, Al Dawson, and Dave Baker, to name a few. To further enhance our learning experiences and deepen our knowledge and appreciation of the jazz world, he even took us to concerts such as the Buddy Rich Big Band which was doing a matinee performance at the venerable Scotch Mist Night Club in downtown Chicago. I remember that we even had a table right at the foot of the stage for his performance, and Buddy himself frequently took breaks between tunes to personally address our group. As most of you know, Mr. Rich was no one to be trifled with, and he commanded his band, and audience alike, with a general’s demeanor. Buddy awarded our enthusiastic appreciation of the band’s performance with a set of his drumsticks, and I thank Tom Laney for parting with one of them which I still have to this day. My career goals were cemented after that concert. I wanted more than anything to be a professional musician and a performance artist with a band like Buddy’s! I also fondly recall Roger taking us to a summer concert at Ravinia Pavilion, Highland Park, Illinois, to catch a performance by the legendary Louis Armstrong. To make the experience more meaningful, Roger had arranged to get us backstage to meet The Man Himself! I can vividly recall being awestruck as I stood next to him and shook his hand. He grinned from ear to ear and warmly welcomed us in that unmistakable cadence that only Satchmo possessed. I could not take my eyes off his badly scarred and battered lips. The story has it that he sometimes developed cysts in his lips and would cut them out with a knife! Based on the looks of his mangled embouchure, those stories had to have had credence. I wondered if someday I would look like that due to the amount of pressure I used to hit upper register notes?
That reminds me of another story my fellow brass players will appreciate. As mentioned, being a “pressure player,” I often required short to breaks to “reinflate” my lips. I was lucky to have two guys to elbow jab when I needed a few seconds, to lay out, prior to a solo, or an upper register dramatic part. Rob Preston, fondly referred to as ‘Meat Brain,’ or Bob Lucas, ‘Luke’ (rest in peace), were always ready to take the lead when I needed them, which saved my bacon and allowed me an opportunity to showboat. Another humorous recollection took place inside of my parent’s car. Hey, get your mind out of the gutter…it was not that kind of deal, but the beautiful ladies from the orchestra flute section might remember differently? I digress; in those days we just could not get enough of playing and I can fondly recall spending weekends jamming for hours inside my parent’s car at a local park with tenor sax Bob, ‘Ajax,’ Giles, now Gilewski, and trombonist Bruce Goldman, where we cranked out tunes like ‘Cousin Mary’, ‘Sonny’, and other jazz fav’s until our chops withered. No one ever called the cops on us, but we got a lot of quizzical looks from passersby.
Roger never stopped growing our jazz program, performance skills and overall appreciation of the genre. We attended The National Stage Band Camp at Indiana University, and I recall being awarded a few trophies and a small scholarship to the Berkeley School of Music in Boston. To me, these were the equivalent of getting a Varsity football Letterman’s jacket. Under the priceless mentorship of Roger, I was appointed the first Jazz Ensemble Student Director, and afforded additional student leadership opportunities far beyond anything I ever expected in high school. I was able to utilize what I was learning by becoming the musical director of our school’s annual talent show, Potpourri, as well as numerous other activities.
My self-confidence and musical prowess were developing exponentially, however, my academic achievements were less than stellar. Roger always told me that my music WAS an academic achievement. (As an aside, within several years after my graduation, I learned that Roger had persuaded the powers that be to grant academic credit for studying music at New Trier.) However, with expectations that the majority of NTW graduates were destined to attend top ranked colleges/universities nationwide, my prospects were dismal due to my poor GPA. The school guidance counselor (who will remain un- named) basically told my parents that perhaps I should consider trade school, as I would never get into college. Roger was not having any of that and thankfully took me under his wing to tutor me in math, creative writing and whatever else was needed, sacrificing his personal after school time and weekends to prepare me for a go at the dreaded SAT’s. We consumed a lot of fast food my senior, year burning the weekend and midnight oil. All his extraordinary efforts eventually paid off as after an audition and letter of recommendation (from, of course Roger) I was accepted into the music program at DePauw University where I was dished a healthy dose of reality becoming the little fish in the big pond. I also must point out that I was not the only jazz ensemble student to receive this kind of individual attention. Roger seemed to have concluded that learning, any learning, was good for all of us. I think we all tried harder because of that, and our jazz ensemble reaped the benefits.
Bottom line, after coming to the realization that I would never become the next Doc Severinsen, I made a college decision to change to a major in biochemistry. My musical achievements never remotely approached anything close to the industry success of many New Trier West Jazz Ensemble Alumni, my successors, have enjoyed; but what I did achieve in the business world and in life would in all probability never have been possible had it not been for the dedication, perseverance, and encouragement of a young (at that time) college intern and the New Trier Jazz Ensemble program itself. Even though my career morphed from music to science, the solid foundation and joy I had always experienced in music remains with me to this day as a creative outlet.
After a move to the West Coast in the mid 70’s, I was able to hook up and perform with local jazz bands. While still single, I enjoyed a brief career ‘sabbatical,’ and was able to dabble back in the music world full time to enjoy some bucket list experiences, such as: playing cruise ship gigs, hitting the road with some R&R bands on trumpet, electric bass, and vocals. Now 71 (wow! that seems old), and soon to retire as a business owner from a successful career in the healthcare industry, I am still livin’ the dream playing monthly R&R gigs as a ‘weekend warrior’. Of course, I still have all my horns, and plan to get my chops back in shape one of these days! The world needs another Maynard…
In closing, I have said it before, and it is worth repeating; I attribute my professional success in music and business, as I am sure many of you do, to the tireless dedication, and tenacity of our music teacher, mentor, and friend. The Jazz Ensemble Program provided a wealth of experiences way beyond just jazz. Throughout the past 50+ years, Roger has fought the good fight for us all, and in doing so, has carved out for himself an epic legacy in the annals of high school jazz music, and we, the beneficiaries of his talents and skills, are forever indebted. Way to go Coach!