During this year’s Berklee High School Jazz Festival, I had the opportunity to listen to a number of outstanding high school bands. Among them was the Bacon Academy Big Band, directed by Mr. Thomas Kessler. After their performance, I had a chance to sit down and talk with Mr. Kessler about his own musical background, his school, and stories of the 26 years that he has been a part of the Berklee High school Jazz Festival. In the first part of this interview, I asked Mr. Kessler about his own musical background and about the group he brought to this year’s festival:
Q: Talk a little bit about your own musical background and how you got started in music education.
Tom Kessler: I didn’t want to be a teacher; I liked playing my saxophone. I went to college for a music business major, I took a 10 or 12-year-old youngster as a private student, and that’s when I knew I was going to be a teacher, so I changed from my music business major to music ed. That was at a school in Illinois; I came back east — I’m a Connecticut boy — to the University of Lowell, now UMass Lowell. I taught in New Hampshire for a couple years at Trinity High School in Manchester, New Hampshire, and enjoyed it very much. I got my Master’s degree at UConn in Storrs (CT), and I’ve been at my present job for 28 years.
Q: Talk about Bacon Academy. What drew you there?
Tom Kessler: Bacon Academy was a small school of 400, but a wonderful music education and band education town 30 years ago and 40 years ago, and I got there at a time when I could do a lot of things on my own. I started another jazz band after school…my whole point was that I wanted kids to play one more time during the week, but it turned out to be more than that.
Q: Talk about how you structure your jazz band, in terms of rehearsal and preparation.
Tom Kessler: Jazz band back 30 years ago was just a once a week event on a Wednesday evening, [this was] when all the kids were in band everyday, I realized 15 years ago that maybe they needed to play a little more; I was able to figure out a three afternoon-a-week schedule outside of the band class that they were in — not a jazz band, but a [concert] band class — and that’s when it was working really well. Kids were playing daily in their concert band and playing at a high level, [playing] difficult music well, and then coming in the afternoons and playing three days in a row, often with a sectional situation, a wind sectional and a rhythm sectional. When it was going really well, that’s what was happening.
Q: Talk a little about this year’s band. What is the make-up of it and what do you like about it?
Tom Kessler: This year’s band has some different skilled students, lots of different levels, a brand new drummer, a brand new bass player — although he did play guitar in last year’s band — some strength in trumpet, and the player of the band is an alto [player] (Sean Flynn, Judges Choice winner) who has a little old school in him, in that he’s listening like crazy, therefore using 2015 technology to be listening all the time, and he’s using that listening to do the old school of woodshed and practice and getting better daily; he’s doing very well. He spent the five-week program at Berklee and is looking at the school for the fall.
Q: I noticed that you had a trumpet player who wandered into the guitar section. Could you talk about that?
Tom Kessler: Yes, that’s right! He had been fooling around on guitar, and later on today he’s going to go into the combo setting and play trumpet on the first tune and guitar on the second tune. I don’t necessarily think that guitar was his first instrument, I think guitar was his second instrument and only very recently, but he’s been doing some wonderful things, so much so, and of course it doesn’t hurt that he’s playing with Sean, but he’s doing some great work; it’s very exciting to have a player like that. I don’t think I had a problem with that; I made the charts work and I said, ‘Hey, look, let’s have you play guitar on a couple tunes.’ Why not?