Geoff Mendal (1979)Trumpet
My history with the New Trier West High School Recording Jazz Ensemble began about three years before I became a member. I was in junior high school, and the Jazz Ensemble performed live in our school’s gymnasium. They were so good, and I was so awestruck, that I made it a goal to someday be good enough to be able to become a member. I was given that opportunity, in 1976, my sophomore year. Little did I know, at that time, how huge an opportunity it would become.
In 1976 the jazz ensemble performed, as a part of the Chicago TV WTTW documentary, “Made in Chicago.” During that production, the winners of the 1976 Downbeat Magazine annual poll were announced. These were some of the most proficient jazz musicians of the era. They included Chick Correa, Stanley Clarke, George Bensen, Sonny Fortune, Thad Jones, Jean Luc-Ponty, and Bill Watrous.
I was also one of the members interviewed for voice-over cut-ins before the show. Watching the show’s recording and hearing my voice was somewhat surreal at the time. What a tremendous experience!
Besides performing with the jazz ensemble, at the WTTW studios, in front of a live audience, we were able to listen to the Downbeat poll winners perform. Meeting and hearing these jazz greats left a deep impression, something I would carry with me, deep in my soul, into adulthood.
Another vivid memory I have, from my time in the band, was our uphill climb in conquering the chart “Checking the Cell Structure,” which is recorded on the Infusion album. My recollection is that day after day we would spend time trying to play this very complex and challenging piece; it just never came together. Very frustrating and humbling! Seeds of doubt permeated everyone. Would we ever learn this one? Then one day, about a month before the live performance, during which we would play this chart, we teed it up again, and it just clicked. Absolute perfection. No one thought it was possible, except, of course, for Mr. Mills. We were all so surprised by our success that Mr. Mills had us immediately play it again to see if it was luck. It was not. We “got” that chart, and once it was in our blood, it never left. Give it a listen and see how tight the band was — what an incredible achievement.
My final memory began the summer before my senior year. I made it a goal to write an original jazz composition and to have it ready, to present to Mr. Mills, by the start of the school year. I do not think I quite made the September date, but I did get it done early in the school year. I presented my effort to Mr. Mills, who reviewed it and suggested the band try it out. It was a simple blues composition, upbeat and catchy. For some reason I cannot remember now, I decided to name it “Chekmate,” purposefully misspelled, probably to be clever and snarky. It ended up being a bit too clever as the editors of the album copy “corrected” its spelling (check out the front and backsides of the album cover to see what I am talking about). Anyway, it was the title of the album, an honor I relish to this day.
About 20 years later, amid my successful software engineering career, Bill Watrous was coming to town, and I had the opportunity to go. I brought my two Manhattan Wildlife Refuge vinyl albums with me, along with the 3/2 Get Ready NTW Jazz Ensemble album, listened to him play that night (he did not lose a beat), and after the performance, went up to the stage to meet him.
I asked him if he would sign his two albums for me. He commented about how young he looked on those covers and eagerly signed. I asked him if he remembered the WTTW Downbeat Magazine award show from 1976 and the high school band that performed then, and he said he did. I showed him the 3/2 Get Ready album, told him I was in that high school band, and pointed to myself. We had a great chat.
After graduating New Trier West in 1979, I attended the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, graduating in 1983 with a B.S. degree in Computer and Communication Sciences.
I began my tech career as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, at Lockheed Missiles and Space Company where I worked on the MILSTAR satellite system, the precursor to commercial GPS, that we all depend on today.
My career has included stints as a computer research associate in the Department of Electrical Engineering, at Stanford University, and roles at Microsoft, Google, and finally, Pandora Media.
Along the way, I was fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor of several opportunities, including two tech start-ups that were entirely self-funded (no venture or angel funding) and successful. Every single friend and colleague of mine told me that the start-ups would fail (most do). I was not going to let that happen, and I know where I learned that perseverance (some might call it stubbornness).
Likewise, I co-authored two computer science books in the 1990s, efforts that began seven years prior along with numerous white papers on technology, and more recently, several highly regarded leadership development articles self-published on Medium.com and LinkedIn.
Hard work ethic and perseverance skills learned from being the jazz ensemble, and honed after that, made all of that possible.
I am now semi-retired, still residing in Silicon Valley, after a 36-year tech career, and enjoy giving back to the next generation of tech professionals through leadership and career coaching.
I spend some of my time as a leadership coach and leadership development facilitator, two roles that I have been involved in since 2012. I am an occasional co-facilitator of various leadership intensives at the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, KS.
I am currently an ACC credentialed member of the ICF (International Coach Federation). I work as an external coach with clients, who are mostly senior-level managers, and individual contributors in tech.
Somewhat lesser known is that in 2010 I obtained a degree in the Culinary Arts and cook professionally for charity events and large-scale caterings. So now I am a chef instructor and donate time, and my recipes, for cooking classes that benefit local non-profits.
Also, along the way in 1987, frustrated with the time consuming and error-prone task of financial tax planning, I decided to teach myself Microsoft Excel and developed a single page spreadsheet that automates personal tax planning. I have maintained this spreadsheet, updating it as federal tax laws change. It is usually rated the top free tax planning tool on the internet.
In my spare time, I am an avid wine collector and amateur magician.
Although I did not pursue music as a career, I always carried with me the work ethic and perseverance skills learned from my involvement in the New Trier West Jazz Ensemble Program.
I credit my involvement in the NTW Jazz Ensemble with laying a solid foundation for my life.
Thank you, Mr. Mills, and all my former bandmates!