‘Freakishly Fabulous:’ The Big Band is What’s Right With America, Education

News in the world is depressing me right now, and I’m a three-newspaper-a-day kind of person, someone who affectionately calls herself a news junkie.

So if you’re like me, you need something uplifting and good right about now … like watching members of the Southborough middle school jazz band — the jazz group I profiled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band — play their hearts out for their wildly dedicated band director, Mr. Clark.

I attended the group’s annual Jazz Night last week and was, as usual, blown away by the “freakishly fabulous” way in which this band performed. (WICN’s Howard Caplan initially coined the “freakishly fabulous” adjective when describing the Trottier Middle School Big Band; he even brought a handful of T-shirts saying “Freakishly Fabulous” to Jazz Night, at which he introduced Mr. Clark.)

The concert was exactly what I needed, what everybody needs. As we watch sobbing migrant children being wrenched from their parents’ arms along our border with Mexico, as unbridled political strife seems to be scorching and permanently dividing us, seeing middle school children simply play music and publicly shower their teacher with affection and admiration, to see parents and members of the public bathe the students and their teacher in praise, to watch Mr. Clark strive valiantly to hold back his genuine tears at the end of the 2017-2018 school year as his eighth graders prepare to leave the school and his band room, is to lift one’s heart.

My spirits were indeed lifted when I heard the band’s rendition of the 2013 Erik Morales tune “Kaleidoscope” (see above video), written in memory of Eric Green, the Trottier seventh grade Big Band trumpet player who died unexpectedly in his sleep in January 2012. The year of grief and healing students experienced in the aftermath is chronicled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band. So to hear these students — many years removed from the raw emotions of Eric’s death — play this piece with such verve, brought joy to my heart. Meanwhile their playing of Late Night Diner (see video below) was just, in Mr. Clark’s whispered words … bad ass.

THIS is what and who we are, what America can be. People working hard, working together, trusting one another, being emotionally honest with one another, coaxing the best out of one another, loving one another. That’s why, when I left the Trottier auditorium last week on a clear and warm mid-June evening, I felt a glimmer of hope amid the current darkness, and I’m certain it was more than just the glint of the light bouncing off the students’ shiny instruments.

Sharing the Story of ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’ in Southborough, Milford

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The book talk/signing at the Southborough Library finally — finally! — happened after being rescheduled three times following snowstorms and a bout of the flu.

claflin obrien and clarkParents of current and former Trottier Middle School students who attended the reading at the library (see video below) told me they were mentally and emotionally brought back to the days when our children roamed the halls of the middle school, when some of the kids played music for Mr. Clark, and when all of the students mourned the loss of their friend, Eric Green.

Two days later, Mr. Clark and I chatted about Mr. Clark’s Big Band with music fans at the Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra’s final performance of the season, a season in which music educators were celebrated.

Some current Trottier Middle School students attended the show in Milford’s historic town hall and stopped by to greet Mr. Clark, who couldn’t play the trombone with his pals in the Claflin brass section because he recently had elbow surgery (see the sling he’s sporting in the photo below).

claflin obrien and clark2Several folks also paused at the book table to fondly remember former Algonquin Regional High School music director Dennis Wrenn, the man who helped Mr. Clark get his job in the Southborough school system and who is mentioned several times in Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

It can sometimes seem like a small world indeed.

Image credits: Southborough Access Media (first image), Scott Weiss (other two images)

Baystate Parent profiles ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’

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Baystate Parent Magazine’s editor Melissa Shaw spent a lot of time speaking with me about the several-years-long process of writing and researching of Mr. Clark’s Big Band. Her piece about the book, about Jamie Clark, and about Suzy Green’s reaction to the project, is featured in the July issue of the magazine.

Shaw watched Clark in action herself when she took photos of him (see above) conducting the Trottier Big Band at their Massachusetts Association of Jazz Educators competition, in which they received top honors.

Here’s an excerpt from her piece:

The book follows the band members and Clark through the 2012-2013 school year, all leading up to a year-end memorial service, at which the group would play a brand-new, professionally composed jazz piece commissioned in [Eric] Green’s memory.

“Kaleidoscope,” created by composer Erik Morales, is described as an “incredibly unique” and complicated swing number that proved difficult for the young musicians, thanks to scheduling and emotions.

“The students didn’t get [the sheet music] until late in the year,” O’Brien recalls. “All the kids I talked to said they were so afraid of making a mistake — a mistake equaled disrespecting his memory. Two weeks before the Eric Green Ceremony I was listening to them saying, They are never going to master Kaleidoscope. I was so worried. I asked Mr. Clark, ‘How do you think they’re going to do? This seems very precarious.’ His answer: ‘They just have to.’ It surprised me how things just shifted; I don’t know what that magic shift was, and then they got it. I don’t understand how they go from shambles to kicking it.”

After successfully debuting the song at Green’s memorial, O’Brien describes the children’s sense of relief as “palpable.”

“Afterwards, they were in the cafeteria, acting like kids, they seemed happy,” she recalls. “They seemed, like, ‘We did it. We’ve honored him,’ almost giving themselves permission to move on. But that whole fear of disrespecting him, I felt, hung over them the whole year.

“It’s not just mastering the notes on the page,” she continues. “I think one of the things Mr. Clark focused on is how can they safely process their emotions through the music because he would try to make the band room a place of openness, of safety. Where, if they were playing a ballad and it’s really emotional, it’s OK to be emotional here and to express it in the notes. That’s a really hard thing to communicate to anybody, never mind children who are going through the rockiness of adolescence.”

Read the whole story here.

Image credit: Melissa Shaw, Baystate Parent.

SmartMusic’s ‘5 Lessons from Mr. Clark’

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SmartMusic has published my blog post, “5 Lessons from Mr. Clark: How Risk-Taking Teaching Can Benefit Kids.”

He doles out hugs like they’re candy. In fact, he doles out candy too. And Pop Tarts, Wheat Thins and ramen noodles. He lets students eat, hang out, and listen to music in his middle school band room during lunch. He once gave a student rides to early morning Big Band rehearsals when her suddenly-widowed mother couldn’t. He often shouts at his musicians—ages 11 through 14—when their playing offends his musical sensibilities. At least once a year, he kicks members of his Big Band out of the band room if he thinks they haven’t been putting in their best effort.

… In an era when teachers are often expected to soften their language so as not to offend, to keep physical distance from students, and to refrain from raising their voices, Clark is an outlier. However Southborough parents, students, and fellow teachers laud Clark’s teaching techniques, particularly as he applied them in the year after Green died. 

Jazz Night 2017: See the Current Mr. Clark’s Big Band in Person

jazz night 2017 flierWant to hear what Mr. Clark’s current Big Band sounds like in person?

Come to Jazz Night at the Trottier Middle School in Southborough, Mass. on Thursday, June 15 at 7 p.m.

Jazz Night has been the capstone event to the Trottier Big Band’s year for eight years running. It features a guest musician and a sampling of the myriad pieces the middle school jazz musicians have played throughout their year.

During the 2012-2013 school year I chronicled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band, the band played sixteen pieces on Jazz Night even though their lead trumpet player was en route to Children’s Hospital in Boston to have an emergency appendectomy, another trumpet player was out sick, and a bari sax player’s mouth was aching because he got braces on his teeth less than twenty-four hours before the performance. Berklee College of Music professor Walter Beasley, a professional saxophone player who gave private lessons to the Big Band’s lead sax player, was their guest performer. Donations were being collected for the One Fund to help those injured in the Boston Marathon bombing which happened a little over two months before Jazz Night 2013. The notion of “One Boston,” of the area unifying in the face of tragedy provided an unspoken echo to the unofficial conclusion of the Big Band’s own, personal year of mourning.

The final piece the Big Band played in June 2013? The tune”Sweet Home Chicago,” made famous by the Blues Brothers. (You can listen to a recording of that very performance by scrolling down the right-hand side of this web page to the “Listen to the Big Band” widget, and clicking on song number 10.)

Here’s how it’s described in Mr. Clark’s Big Band:

Mr. Clark egged the audience on, turning to face them, raising his hands above his head and clapping in time. The crowd eagerly complied. The song, a monument to attitude and power, was fueled by an entire year’s worth of work during which [the students] plowed through grief and heartache. The resolute clapping and the faith of their band director pushed them to its final blast, which led to a standing ovation. Just when I thought the kids were about to keel over, Mr. Clark had them play the last dozen measures again.

Then came the celebration.

This year’s guest artist is another Berklee College of Music professor, Christine Fawson, a professional jazz trumpet player and vocalist, and the first female artist to appear with the Big Band. Donations will be collected to help a local family, the Fiores, whose children were students of Mr. Clark’s, whose restaurant burned down in a March fire.

Mr. Clark tells me that Erik Morales‘ “Kaleidoscope,” the jazz chart written in Eric Green’s honor and premiered by the Big Band featured in Mr. Clark’s Big Band, is on the Jazz Night set list.

‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’ Goes to Pops Night

Displaying IMG_2576.JPGThank you to the Northboro Southboro Music Association for allowing me to have a book table at their annual Pops Night at the Algonquin Regional High School in Northborough, Mass.

The event was attended by over 900 people and featured music from every instrumental and vocal group in the school, many of whose members were featured in Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

Displaying IMG_2574.JPGFormer students of Clark’s came up to me throughout the evening and fondly recalled their days in the Trottier Middle School band room in Southborough, noting that they were grateful to have played with him. Upon noticing the rolls of sheet music in the vase on the book table — music related to Eric Green, “Kaleidoscope,” “Swing Shift,” and “A Kind and Gentle Soul” — several teens said they were honored to have been able to perform those pieces.

My daughter Abbey (pictured above) helped me throughout the evening.

Jamie Clark himself also attended and was on hand when my son Jonah (pictured on the right with Clark), a drummer who was a friend of Eric Green’s and was mentioned many times in Mr. Clark’s Big Band, won a jazz award … that was after Clark was accosted like a rock star by parents, students and grads alike.

As I wrote in the book’s prologue about high school students who gathered to play with their middle school music director one last time in May 2015:

Since they’d left Trottier Middle School, many confessed, they’d longed for the connection, the camaraderie, the joy of the Big Band. Nothing had been able to fill the space in their hearts that was once occupied by the experience of playing in this space with this man … Mr. Clark and the Big Band are never quite in the past.

You can listen to the alums of Clark’s Big Band, and their Northborough Melican Middle School jazz alum counterparts, play Van Morrison’s “Moondance” at Pops Night.

Boston Globe tells story behind the book

Screenshot 2017-05-15 10.20.27The Boston Globe’s Sunday, May 14 edition ran a “Story Behind the Book” feature on Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

Writer Kate Tuttle wrote of the book:

In Mr. Clark’s Big Band: A Year of Laughter, Tears and Jazz in a Middle School Band Room, O’Brien chronicles that first painful year after [Eric] Green’s death, as Jamie Clark and his musicians pulled together to remember Eric. “They wanted Eric Green to be memorialized,” she said. “I think it was very healing for them to be part of the process, and then for the kids who were in music to play the song that was written for Eric.”

Tuttle continued:

At a time when arts education is often threatened in public school budgets, O’Brien argues for its importance. “For these particular kids, the emotional outlet that the music provided them, I think it was very powerful,” she said. “To these kids the music was their way of saying ‘We care; we love you; we miss you.’ ”

Excerpts of ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’ read aloud

I read several excerpts from Mr. Clark’s Big Band at the book launch party at the Trottier Middle School in Southborough, MA on April 30, 2017. Here are videos of the reading taken by my daughter.

I read aloud from the beginning of the first chapter, before the Big Band’s final performance of the 2012-2013 school year, Jazz Night.

This is the oddest of all the excerpts. I read from a section of the book where the students in the Big Band are seeking to avoid rehearsing a piece by debating which is the more revolting culinary oddity: boneless, jelly-covered chicken-in-a-can or gas station sushi. I kid you not.

This video is a short excerpt from one of the more emotional sections of the book. This passage features an account of how a girl, who had never before played a solo during her three years in middle school, did so in front of an emotional crowd at a memorial ceremony because she felt as though she owed it to her friend and classmate, Eric Green, who passed away unexpectedly at the age of 12. when they were in seventh grade.

Scenes from a book launch

The book launch of Mr. Clark’s Big Band at the Trottier Middle School in Southborough on April 30, 2017 was an event brimming with love and affection. I cannot thank people enough for how fabulously they pulled together to make this event possible, how they supported me unconditionally, and how they showed music teacher Jamie Clark the depths of their appreciation for his dedication to the children of Southborough.

Here are some videos from the book launch taken by my daughter.

Trottier Middle School Principal Keith Lavoie welcomes the crowd, provides some background about the event and then introduces me. I begin my presentation with thanks.

I explain how I came up with the idea for the book as well as what went into the reporting and researching of it.

I read an excerpt from the book’s prologue which demonstrates how important being a member of Jamie Clark’s musical ensembles is to the lives of his students, even long after they’ve left middle school.

Trottier Middle School celebrates ‘Mr. Clark’s Big Band’

book launch bandParents, educators, students and friends converged on the Trottier Middle School in Southborough, Mass. on Sunday to celebrate the publication of Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

Trottier School Principal Keith Lavoie emceed the event, introducing me before I read several excerpts from the book–specifically a segment about members of the 2012-2013 Big Band debating, during a January 2013 rehearsal, which would curdle one’s stomach more: eating boneless chicken-in-a-can or “gas station sushi.” I also read excerpts including one which describes a student triumphing over her fears in order to play a solo, knowing that Mr. Clark had her back, and another about the pre-performance jitters that occur when band members learn that their lead trumpet player is heading to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy an hour before showtime.

book launch jamie meredithAfter thanking the nearly 150 people who crowded the cafeteria decorated with sunflowers, sheet music and enlarged copies of the book cover, Trottier music teacher Jamie Clark (THE Mr. Clark, see pictured on the left) led the current members of the Big Band in several pieces including Paul Clark’s swinging “A Band’s Gotta Do What a Band’s Gotta Do” and Doug Beach’s sassy “Late Night Diner.”

Big Band alumni, including many students who were profiled in Mr. Clark’s Big Band and are now in high school–therefore they towered over their middle school counterparts, joined the group for the hard-charging final number, “Groovin’ Hard,” the chart made famous by drummer Buddy Rich.

Suzy Green–Eric Green’s mother–was on hand, as were the Northborough-Southborough School Superintendent Christine Johnson, former Northborough-Southborough School Superintendent Charles Gobron and Mass. State Rep. Carolyn Dykema.

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Trottier Principal Keith Lavoie looks on as I read from Mr. Clark’s Big Band.

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Jamie Clark speaks in front of his current Big Band

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Clark surprises me by pulling me up in front of the band after they finish “Groovin’ Hard.”

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I am proud to stand with Mr. Clark and Suzy Green as we celebrate the joy that is the Big Band.

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Clark is a world-class bear-hugger.

Image credits: Sharon Shoemaker