Harvey Halpaus, jazz educator

Today I’m posting two articles:  this one about Harvey Halpaus, the other about the late Joan Wildman.

Although retired for some years, Harvey was still active working with with school jazz groups at festivals and contests right up until the onset of the pandemic last winter, undoubtedly enlightening students and directors about the sweet mysteries of jazz, and especially improvisation.  When things return to something like normal, I have no doubt that Harvey will be back out there “fighting the good [jazz] fight.”

I first met Harvey Halpaus in the 1970s, when I was playing with the band Matrix.  Ours was one of the many groups that he would drive far to hear live, often in the company of his students.  (I especially remember seeing him in that era at performances with his talented young bassist, Karyn Quinn.)  Like the other jazz educators I’ve spotlighted here on the website, it’s impossible to calculate his influence on jazz in Wisconsin over the years.



Harvey Halpaus has long been acknowledged as one of Wisconsin’s premier jazz educators, even though he spent almost all of his career as a junior high and middle school band director, in a small Wisconsin town.

Halpaus, born in 1946, grew up in Prescott, Wisconsin, in Pierce County.[i]  Prescott is at the confluence of the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers.  His high school band director was, by training, a choir director, and according to Harvey, “knew absolutely nothing about band. So the funny part of the whole story is that I learned to play by ear. And when he would pass out a piece of music, the first assignment was to write all the fingerings in over the notes.  And then he had recordings of everything we played.  So basically, I learned to play by ear, with the music being kind of a guide.  And so I ended up playing Class A contest solos that I learned off the recording, like ‘Carnival of Venice.’  And, to me that became very easy to do.  You know which some people think today would be very difficult.”  Also in high school, Halpaus had a Dixieland band.  “And we had a pretty good Dixieland band for high school kids.  We ended up playing at the Minnesota State Fair.  A few things like that.”

When he graduated from high school in 1964, “I ended up going to [what was then Wisconsin State University] River Falls; of all schools probably the only school that accepted a music major that couldn’t read music was there.”  “And then I wanted to be in the jazz band so bad, but I couldn’t read . . . Bob Samarotto was running the jazz band, and he would have the new people come in, and they would just sit in basic chairs, and play.  And [the] first time I asked Bob, I said, ‘Well I can play it, but would you go through it once first?  Then I think I can do it.’  (laughs)  Of course that was the end of my jazz experience that year.”  “And Conrad DeJong [of the music faculty], bless his heart, taught me to read my first year of school.”  “And I did get in [the jazz band] my sophomore year.”

“Jazz was kind of a dirty word around campus . . . it was something that was frowned upon, like it was in a lot of schools.  We would listen to jazz music on the school recording systems, and we’d be reprimanded for listening to this ‘crap’.”

While in college Harvey had almost weekly jam sessions with drummer Steve Zenz (who is profiled in Wisconsin Riffs), who was still in high school in Chippewa Falls when they started, and bassist Tom Fosha.  “And by the time we were juniors and seniors, we had gleaned enough knowledge from going to Eau Claire [for the annual jazz festival], and going to other places, and meeting with other people, but it was nothing we learned at college that much, you know, it was things we got outside.  I learned a great deal from [UW-Eau Claire jazz professor] Dominic [Spera] . . . I went to every clinic that he ever put on, and we went to all their concerts.”  “We were so hungry for jazz, we listened all the time, and, and we had a combo that played; as well as dance gigs we played at some jazz festivals.”  They played at the very first Eau Claire Jazz Festival, and even went to the Elmhurst [IL] Jazz Festival one year.  At that first Eau Claire Festival, out of the handful of college bands that competed that year, the River Falls band was chosen to play on the evening concert.  “And then we had to come up and tell Joe [Casey, who ran that first festival] that most of us had gigs that night, so we couldn’t play.”  It was the year after Halpaus graduated from River Falls that John Radd came to the school and started an official jazz program in earnest.

Halpaus was a music education major, and after graduation he took his first teaching job in Plum City, Wisconsin, a tiny village (population 599 in the 2010 census) in his home county (Pierce).  Amazingly enough (by today’s standards), Harvey was band director for the high school only.  And in that high school of 160 students, 85 of them were in band.  In Harvey’s understated words, “They really, really appreciated band there.”  While teaching at Plum City, he also earned a master’s degree at the University of Iowa.  Despite the fact that it was a “very good first job,” in 1970, after only two years in Plum City, Halpaus moved 18 miles west on Highway 10 to a new job in Ellsworth, a much bigger town of about 3000, and the county seat of Pierce County.

“When I first came to Ellsworth, I was the junior high school band director.  And they didn’t really have a stage band or jazz band.  It was kind of like a little stage band in the high school.  But Jerry Olson was the high school band director, and he asked me to do the high school jazz band.  So that’s how I got started.”  How it progressed – and how quickly – is remarkable, given that modest beginning.  “Eventually it evolved, into a class.  So when Dave Kiepert [another great Wisconsin jazz educator who will be profiled in a subsequent essay] came [in 1972], obviously the program was in very good hands.  And he’s the one that had a lot to do with the fact that we ended up with a jazz curriculum in the high school.  There was a regular credited class during the day for jazz; vocal and instrumental jazz.  And then also there was music theory.  We had an eight-period day, so it was possible for a kid to be in four music classes during the day.”

With Kiepert taking over the high school jazz program, Halpaus focused on the junior high jazz program, the existence of which was somewhat unusual in schools at that time.  But, “most people, including myself, credit our success not so much with the high school program, as with the elementary jazz band.  Because we started them in seventh grade.”  Furthermore, “we were one of the first schools that had a second jazz ensemble in the junior high school program.  Kids who could barely play their instruments.  But, we found materials that worked for that level.  And it was a great jumpstart on the program at that level.  So by the time the kids were in high school, they were ready for almost anything.”

In case one thinks that all Harvey was doing was running a great jazz program, though, it should be noted that he also worked with beginners at two of the five area elementary schools (students were bused in from as far away as Maiden Rock and Hager City – consult your Wisconsin map).  But another positive aspect of his working in Ellsworth was having a valued colleague like Mary Lee Huber teaching choir in the district.

There is nothing that particularly stands out in Harvey’s career outside of that tremendously successful program.  He did, as a member of the jazz educators’ group, start a jazz festival for schools in western Wisconsin.  “And it started out for junior highs only.  And we’d bring in people, guest artists, clinicians . . . and every band got to play during the day, and then . . . we’d have a concert in the afternoon.  It generated so much interest that the high schools wanted to do it also.  We’d do it early in the year, with the idea that it was educational; it wasn’t about competition or anything.  There was no competition, in fact.”  Eventually, this festival was taken over by David Milne, jazz director at UW-River Falls (who succeeded John Radd), and evolved into the UW-River Falls Jazz Festival.

Another aspect of the Ellsworth program that was unusual, especially for its time, was the establishment of a combo program, way back in the early 1970s, well before this was fashionable in public school jazz education.

Halpaus’s influence around the state has something to do with his having been an adjudicator for the WSMA at festivals all over the state.  And when bands play for Harvey they can expect a candid, honest and educational reaction from the judge.  He made a habit of attending the national NAJE (and later IAJE) conventions.  There was much to be learned at the many clinics and workshops offered at the conventions, and Harvey soaked it all up.  One of his early conference memories was hearing the Wisconsin band Matrix at the January 1978 convention in Dallas, a convention to which he took his precocious student Karyn Quinn.  In the state of Wisconsin, besides what he learned from Dominic Spera, Harvey credits John Radd, Steve Zenz and Ron Keezer for teaching him about rhythm sections.  Interestingly, his best-known former students in the jazz community are both bass players – Karyn Quinn, long-time (and recently retired) faculty member at UW-La Crosse, and Michael Janisch, who is a freelance professional in London, England.  [Both Quinn and Janisch are profiled in Wisconsin Riffs.]  Pianist Connie Rivera (Connie Trok when in Ellsworth) is a prominent professional in the Washington, D.C. area.

Halpaus’s knowledge of literature and teaching materials (for almost all levels) is encyclopedic.  And not only did he have his students do listening to jazz, often sending records home with them, but he was a pioneer in having them do a lot of “ear playing” in rehearsals.  “I know I played for the students all the time.  We did a lot of copycat, all the time.  Ear stuff.  I got better and better at it as years went by, too.  We’d do half the rehearsal on stuff like that.”

Halpaus also had a good knowledge of vocal jazz, dating back to his days as a graduate student in Iowa, where the future leader in vocal jazz Phil Mattson was also a student.  (Paul Smoker, who led the UW-Oshkosh jazz program in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was also a graduate student at the university at that time.)

Halpaus retired from teaching in 2003, but continues his work as a clinician and adjudicator, influencing another generation of jazz students in Wisconsin.  To “keep busy,” he leads a dance band in western Wisconsin, Generation II.  He also plays in the Sheldon Theatre Brass Band of Red Wing, Minnesota, a British-style brass band that competes in national contests, and is a former member of the Lake Wobegon Brass Band (a similar group to the Sheldon Theatre group) and the Ludington Guard Band, of Menomonie, which is advertised as the oldest community band in the state of Wisconsin.


[i] The information about Harvey’s life and career come mostly from our conversation of June 10, 2014, which was also attended by one of Harvey’s “star” students, bassist and music educator Karyn Quinn.

2 thoughts on “Harvey Halpaus, jazz educator

  1. Thanks Kurt for another profile of a great jazz educator, Harvey Halpus. I think we first met in 1964 and used to practice in my mother’s basememnt with the late Tom Fosha. We also used to meet in River Falls to listen to
    Harv’s great jazz record collection. I did a number of clinics at Ellsworth and was always amazed with the quality of his teaching.l He remains a good friend to this day .


  2. Thanks Kurt for sharing this story about Harvey! A truly amazing man and jazz educator! I wouldn’t be where I am in this world today without Harvey. He really has a knack for mentoring, teaching nd supporting young players.


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