on Playing the Bass and High School Teachers

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I started playing the bass when I was sixteen. Before that, I played a bunch of other stuff: my parents bought me a small Casio keyboard when I was about eight; I started playing trumpet in fourth grade; I switched to the baritone when I got braces in eighth grade; when I got to high school, I wanted to play in the jazz band, so I switched to the trombone (luckily, my high school happened to have a valve trombone [picture a trombone with valves—like a trumpet—instead of a slide], which made switching to trombone a cinch); someone else in the trombone section broke his arm, so I had to switch to the “regular” trombone; a few months into my junior year, the girl that played bass in the jazz band quit with virtually no warning and our band director asked me to play bass. I had been taking piano lessons for a few years at that point, and had a decent grasp of music theory, and was comfortable reading bass clef ... all of which gave my band director the impression that I could play the bass.

That was on Friday. I took the school’s bass guitar home, spent the weekend trying to figure out how to play it, and returned on Monday as “the bass player.” I knew almost nothing about the bass; I knew how it was tuned and that each fret was a half-step, but everything beyond that was pretty much a mystery. I stood at the back of the band with the bass slung over my shoulder and a terrified look on my face.

From that point forward, I was a bass player, apparently.

As the semester moved along, my teacher told me he would like me to play upright bass on the pieces that called for it. “But, I don’t know how to play upright bass,” I said. He responded, “You can figure it out. It’s basically the same as the bass guitar, just bigger and without frets.” “That’s a pretty big difference!” I said. “You’ll figure out out.”

So, I started the 11th grade playing third trombone in the jazz band, and ended playing bass (both electric and acoustic). I still played euphonium in the concert band, as we were required to play in the concert band if we wanted to be in the jazz band, but I didn’t really view that as “my” instrument anymore; I spent far too much time trying to figure out how to play the bass to put much effort into practicing any other instruments.

Fast-forward to the end of my senior year, June 2000. By this point, I had attended the Idyllwild Arts Academy Summer Jazz Workshop on a full scholarship, was placed in the Riverside City College Honor Jazz Band, accompanied the eventual winner of the Los Angeles Music Center’s Young Jazz Artists competition during his preliminary auditions, and was accepted into Ricks College on a full-tuition scholarship as a jazz bassist. In a matter of about twenty months I had gone from having never played the bass, to winning awards and scholarships!

I don’t say these things to brag or congratulate myself. I say them to praise the man who set this in motion, my high school band director, Mr. Jeff Tower. Were it not for him, I would not have started playing the bass at all, and I might not have pursued music past high school. I always liked playing in the band (and singing in the choir), but it wasn’t until I started playing bass that I really loved music. Actually, that’s not entirely fair, I always “loved” music the way many people do, but once I started playing bass, music became something bigger, deeper, and far more interesting than it was before. It is impossible to know how things might have been under different circumstances, but I feel fairly confident in saying that Mr. Tower’s crazy idea of asking me to play the bass was one of those “pivotal” points that changed a lot of things for me. I owe a lot of where I am to his crazy idea.

I was a freshman at Hemet High School in 1996; Mr. Tower started teaching there in 1977. In the twenty years previous to me, Jeff Tower built a music program that attained a fair amount of fame and prestige. Hemet High School performed, more than once, at both the Playboy and Montreaux Jazz Festivals. The marching band made its way to Pasadena for the Rose Parade on a few occasions as well. By the time I got there, Hemet High School’s bands—and their director—were well known across the country (even internationally). I was lucky to inherit such prestige. To be perfectly honest, I am not so sure that the bands I was in were quite as good as some had been in the past, though we still played well— better than most of the other high school bands we encountered at various festivals. Still, the fact that Mr. Tower had laid this prestigious foundation before I arrived gave me opportunities and experiences that I would not have had elsewhere.

I had a classmate in graduate school who was a band director, professionally. He grew up in Fresno about a decade before my time. When it came out that I grew up in Hemet, and that I went to Hemet High School, he immediately perked up and told me about how envious he was of Hemet as a band student. It seemed like Hemet High School and Jeff Tower won every competition and were the “team to beat” at every stage. He said he was still using some ideas he had gleaned from Mr. Tower in his own work as a college band director. While I knew Mr. Tower was kind of famous, it didn’t really register, fully, until I ran into a few people like this as an adult.

Unfortunately, Mr. Tower passed away on July 4, 2017. He was only 63. He lost a few-year-long battle with brain cancer. The last time I remember seeing him was sometime in 2006 or 2007, when I stopped by to say hello during the school day. By that point, I was married with a kid and knee deep in graduate school stuff, but he remembered exactly who I was and even knew some details about what was happening in my life.

When I sent out announcements for my PhD commencement ceremony in 2015, I made sure that Mr. Tower got one. I didn’t expect him to come to the ceremony or the party afterward, but did want him to know where I had arrived. After all, I owed at least some of my accomplishments to his vision. The last I heard from him was a simple Facebook comment. My wife posted a picture of me (the one I am currently using as my profile picture, in fact), and said that she really liked it because I rarely look natural in photos. Mr. Tower left a two word comment on this post: “Great man.” 

Mr. Tower will be missed. I count myself as lucky to have been in his band and under his educational and musical influence.