The Story of the New Trier West High School Recording Jazz Ensemble
Roger B. Mills
Part I: You must get hired first!
So, it was Spring of 1966 and I was finishing my degree work at Northwestern University. Young, energetic, good looking. Hey, you did not think I would write this without a bit of boasting, did you? Well, I lobbied for, and got, a Student Teaching assignment at New Trier East High School. Among duties assigned to me was to rehearse their Stage Band. After several rehearsals, and a bit frustrated, I told everyone to bury the music in the back of their folders and I handed out a ‘real jazz chart.’ It was like a breath of fresh air! Stage band published music was like eating pickles whole. Right then and there, I decided that I might not like a career in teaching.
Fast forward to the end of my student teaching assignment…I was offered a part time contract, for the 1966-1967 school year, to teach at the New Trier West High School, which was completing construction of a state-of-the-art high school in Northfield, Illinois. The contract was for a part time position, and for one year only. What the hey! I was young, energetic, and did I say good looking? I was able to continue gigging, in and around Chicago, and had ample time for dating (yeah, in those days that is what we did) and partying (I understand they still do that). I accepted the position.
So, I trekked over to the West Campus, still under construction, with mounds of dirt etc., and met with my fellow band director, and mentor, Sam Mages. Right off the bat, I want to say that Sam and I became the best of friends, and that relationship continued for many years until his death.
You had to know Sam to understand our relationship. He wanted to make sure that I knew he was the ‘top banana,’ which, for me, was ok since I had no idea what I was doing anyway. The first ‘teaching’ job he ‘assigned’ me to do was to get white paint, a small brush, and paint numbers on all the music slots in the band room. All the members of my jazz ensembles will remember those white numbers, never knowing that it was my beginning as a teacher.
Well, another fast forward…I evolved into the assistant band director job, although that was never really my title. I worked with the Concert Band and assisted Sam with the Symphonic Band and the Orchestra. I kind of was Sam’s gofer. The first concert of the year was the Orchestra Concert and given my energetic attitude toward things, Sam asked if I would record the concert. He took an Ampex tape recorder, out of a closet, told me to set the microphone right in front of the orchestra, and to push the record button (oh, and watch the volume meter). Given my proclivity to try to be outstanding, I took the recorder and practiced pushing the record button. Anyway, the concert went well (only freshman and sophomores – remember it was a new school) and I tucked the concert tape carefully away in the office until the next day, when Sam could listen to it. Well, the next day he just asked me to bring the tape recorder into the band room (orchestra room – there was only one room) in order for the orchestra to hear their performance. He made a big speech, telling the orchestra that they had done a remarkably good job and then (drum roll please…that became my mantra) without hesitation, he points to me and says, play the tape.
All eyes were on me. It was time.
I pushed the play button, smiled, and waited…and waited…checked the volume…absolutely nothing. My first real concert assignment…there was nothing on the tape. Of course, the kids giggled, Sam had a look on his face, like the hiring process had gone amuck, and I turned on my charm and said, with a nervous smile “no intonation problems.” The violin section looked down, the winds looked at Sam, and the brass section looked like they couldn’t contain their laughter. So, I must have pushed the play button instead of the recording button. A lesson learned that lasted me my entire career in music. Here it is! “If you look like you feel bad and you look directly at the students, they will feel badly for you.” And that was it…I immediately had them in my corner. A trumpet player, later I learned, nicknamed ‘hot dog,’ came up to me after class and told me not to take it so hard. He commiserated with me and said, “I could have done the same thing.” Another lesson learned! Do not take it so hard! There are not a lot of things that go right, the first time, in a high school.
Now, one must remember that a young 23-year-old, energetic, and did I say good looking, kid is not too far removed from the students ages themselves. A student-teacher bond formed early that became the cornerstone for the rest of this story.
It was not too long before (and now they were calling me ‘Coach’) and one of my fledgling students, Bill Kroeger, asked if I could start a jazz combo. I thought about it for 20 seconds and said ‘yeah, why not?’ There it was. The seed was planted. Bill helped get some guys to show up after school, and with some music I had, began having fun with music.
It was about a month later that I was approached to bring out a pep band to a basketball game. Somehow, Sousa marches, at a basketball game was not something that intrigued my newfound friends. So, I thought, what if I put together a little jazz band, using the combo as a nucleus. I told everyone, who wanted to explore this idea, to come after school twice a week for some real fun. Well, you guessed it, my young friends hailed “we’ll be there Coach.” They all still remember how well the Pink Panther chart went over, as they performed it with a ‘jazz feel.’ Besides, we had 6 or 7 other tunes. New Trier Basketball games became the new game in town. And soon a group of cute girls began following the music everywhere it went. Actually, it wasn’t the music, but I liked to think about it that way. It finally dawned on me that the band was all guys. I immediately decided we had to get some girls in our newly formed jazz band. Not so easy in those days.
We had a lot of fun that year and the ‘Coach’ was accepted as a good thing to have around. The ‘jazz band’ performed at several events throughout this year. What a lucky guy I was, not knowing that having a new school, with a blank slate to develop anything I wanted, was an incredible asset. I could, and did, begin molding music at New Trier to be ‘My Kind of Town.’ And the students loved it! Even Sam enjoyed watching it evolve.
So now it was the end of this 1966-1967 school year, and I was informed that the school could not afford to offer me a full-time teaching assignment for the following year. But I was given a heads up on a band director opening at a local junior high school. I applied and was offered a contract. But here is where being young, energetic, and, well you know the rest, became an asset. My students were literally in tears about my leaving, and one mother, Genevieve Kroeger (Bill’s mother), made it her mission to keep me around. She was not about to give up on the enjoyment her son was experiencing in school and, of course, the others also.
The day arrived that I was supposed to travel to ‘my new school,’ to sign my contract, started with a whole bunch of kids following me around. They knew that this was it. I had a 4:30 p.m. appointment with my new employer to sign the contract ($7400) for the 1967-1968 school year. At 3:30 p.m., students began milling around my office trying to encourage me, if not order me, to stay at New Trier. The all-girl flute section (yeah, they were the heart of the group that followed the jazz band around, seemed to lead the tearing section. Finally, at 4:10 p.m. I couldn’t wait any longer and I had to leave to sign the contract. I walked down the staircase, leading to the outside world, and as I was going down, the Superintendent’s Secretary was coming up the stairs. “Roger,” she said, “the Superintendent wants to talk to you.” “No,” I said, “I have a big signing to take care of.” “No,” she said, “you need to talk to the Superintendent.” “You do not understand,” I repeated, “I must sign this ‘big’ contract for next year.” She said, quite definitively, “you will come with me to the Superintendent’s office now!” So, I did.
Much like the Wizard of Oz, this white-haired guy appeared, in the office, and simply said that he has been getting calls all day saying that he should hire me for next year. “How much are they offering you,” he asked. I replied, with a great deal of confidence, “$7400.” He said “OK, I’ll offer you a contract right now for $13,500.” Further he said, to his secretary, get the comptroller in here now. The deal was consummated on the spot. The superintendent was nice enough to call over to my ‘new,’ now old, school and tell them that I would not be coming. If you thought I was excited, well you would be right! I ran back to the music building, up the stairs, eager to tell everyone that I would be back. Alas, everyone had gone home. Terrible ending to a great story. But true!