Showing 'Em the Way–Teaching 'Em How to Play

We all know what a profound impact music teachers can have on their students’ lives. For many of their kids, the time spent in the music room often proves to be the crucial contributing factor to them finishing school, going off to college, and becoming a contributing member of society. And while a few of them hardly ever pick up their instrument again once they’ve finished their formal education, some of them go on to make a name for themselves as professional musicians, and who do they have to thank most for this? You guessed it—their music teacher.

Such is the relationship between Ron Kearns, NAfME Jazz mentor for March 2009 and author of the recently published Quick Reference for Band Directors, and one of his former students, Bruce Williams. “A very shy guy in the band,” says Kearns, Williams was reluctant to improvise during rehearsals. “You had to coax him.”

As it turns out, Williams was just biding his time, working on his craft until he had a story to tell musically on the bandstand, something Kearns promised all of his students the chance to do as soon as they felt ready. Now a member of the Montgomery County Public School Honors Jazz Band, Williams and his bandmates were scheduled to play a fundraiser at Blues Alley, the world-renowned jazz club in Washington, D.C., to raise money for the group’s trip to the Downbeat Music Fest in Chicago. Playing in front of a packed house, this is where Williams chose to tell his story.

“Are you sure?” asked Kearns.

“Yeah,” Williams replied.

“He stood up and played a solo that blew everybody’s mind,” says Kearns.

Williams went on to study privately with the late Jackie McLean, legendary alto saxophonist and educator at the Hartt School, doing his undergraduate study at William Patterson University. A well-regarded professional, Williams plays lead alto in Roy Hargrove’s big band and his small group, is currently the newest and youngest member of the World Saxophone Quartet, as well as the newly founded group by legendary drummer Ben Riley, the Thelonious Monk Legacy Septet. Williams also leads four bands of his own—a quartet, a quintet, a jazz organ trio, and a progressive electric jazz group.

A jazz educator and mentor to young jazz musicians himself, Williams has given master classes at Ohio State, Iowa State, the Jazz Institute of New Jersey, the University of the District of Columbia, Princeton University, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center “Jazz For Teens” program, and the Paris Conservatory in France. He has served as adjunct saxophone instructor at the New School for Social Research (Mannes School of Music) in NYC and at Princeton and William Paterson universities in New Jersey, while continuing to nurture a healthy roster of private students of his own.

Not bad, eh?

Bruce Williams (alto sax) with the Roy Hargrove Quintet at the Newport Jazz Festival 2001

—Nick Webb, October 21, 2011, ©National Association for Music Education (