I promised a few weeks ago to post about another great Wisconsin jazz educator, Dave Kiepert. Before I put this article on the site, however, I wanted to check to see if Dave was still with us, as it had been quite a while since I had heard from or about him. He had moved to Minnesota some years ago to live next to his daughter, and as one would expect from Dave, had just sort of quietly left the scene.
I emailed quite a few people who had worked with Dave over the years, and sadly, no one knew about his current condition. As it turned out, I finally got news from a former student of Dave’s, Rob Hudson. And the news was not good. Dave passed away in November of last year.
Coincidentally, in the profile I had written about Dave several years ago, I had included a little bit of information about Rob Hudson at the end of it. Of course I left that segment in this post.
I feel that I did not really capture the “real Dave” in the profile. I would never say that I was one of his close friends, but I always felt comfortable around Dave, playing gigs with him from time to time and being entertained by his sense of humor.
Hearing his school bands was something else. It was always a treat. I suspect that a number of you reading this remember Al Butcher. Al taught trumpet and at times jazz at UW-Oshkosh. Al and I played many small brass group gigs together over the years, as well as playing big band gigs, and probably some other things. We may have been judging together at a jazz festival (UW-Green Bay?) one year when we heard Dave’s band from Stevens Point Area High School, playing in its usual rewarding way. We were talking about how Dave could get his bands to play so well. Al told me that he had once spent a day observing Dave working with his groups in the Stevens Point system, trying to find the magic. He told me that Dave pretty much would have them play, he would make just a few pointed comments, and the kids would play again — noticeably better. He clearly knew what to say, but working with the kids every day for a number of years was definitely a part of the success.
There are plenty of us in Wisconsin who miss Dave.
Dave Kiepert was born in 1940 and grew up in Watertown, Wisconsin.[i] Neither of his parents was musically trained, but his mother played piano by ear. “And she wrote tunes; cute little ditties”. When it came time that Dave could join school band, his parents bought him an old metal clarinet to start on. By the time he got to about eighth grade, he decided that he wanted to play saxophone. After he played on a Buescher alto for a while, his parents took a big step and bought him both an alto and a tenor, both Selmer model Mark VI. (That was the model Selmer was making at the time; the Mark VI is now almost universally lauded and prized by saxophonists everywhere as the finest horns Selmer ever made.)
In high school, the school did not have a jazz band, but the local director, Walter Stamstad (who later taught in Janesville), described by Kiepert as “a wonderful person,” had a big dance band, The Campus Band, that performed at many high school dances in Watertown as well as nearby communities. In the meantime, Dave started a small group, a sextet, in junior high, which he kept going all the way through high school. Although Samstad was not into jazz himself, he was sympathetic to what the boys were doing, and according to Dave, “he used to write us passes so that we could sneak into a room somewhere in the high school and practice when we had study hall.” One of the members of the group was drummer/percussionist Steve Kohls, who ended up playing for years in one of the service bands in Washington, D.C.
While the state university at River Falls (known when Dave entered as Wisconsin State College at River Falls, then in 1964 as Wisconsin State University-River Falls) was certainly not known for a jazz program in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, and probably Kiepert didn’t even know at that time how important jazz was going to become to him, it is where he elected to go to school. (Harvey Halpaus, who I profiled in an earlier post, followed Kiepert to River Falls in 1964.)
Following graduation as a music education major, Dave got his first teaching job at Eleva-Strum High School, between the two tiny villages of Eleva and Strum in Trempealeau County, about 20 miles south of Eau Claire. “And when I got there, there were a total of 36 people registered for the band, because they had never been able to keep a band director more than one year. So the principal and I went driving through the countryside, recruiting all the good band members that had quit. And that was very successful. We built the band up so the first day of school I had a decent-sized, 50-some-piece band.”
Having a decent-sized band was good, but not enough for Dave. “I thought I’d start a jazz band. And (laughs), at the beginning I had one trombone in the concert band. And I had four class-A, totally outstanding French horn players. Four girls. So they became my trombone section for that first year.”
Things continued to progress, and “I was spending my fourth or fifth year [at Eleva-Strum]. We went to the Eau Claire Jazz Festival, and won it. And the editor of Down Beat magazine [actually publisher Charles Suber] was in the audience. So he wrote us up in the Down Beat magazine.” Many knew Dave’s Eleva-Strum band (possibly dubbed by Suber) as “the girl band,” although in fact there were more boys in the band than girls. But having almost as many girls as boys in a jazz band was unusual at that time. Saxophonist Karen (Sands) Johnson, who went on to become a distinguished jazz educator (and who was also profiled here in an earlier post), was a member of this band. The excellent tradition at Eleva-Strum continued after Kiepert left and, eventually, Dave Mueller took over the band.
Kiepert went from E-S to Ellsworth High School, where he was a colleague with Harvey Halpaus (also recently profiled here), and helped establish another great program. After only two years at Ellsworth, Kiepert got an offer to move on that he couldn’t refuse.
Jim Cole was principal at Neenah High School, in the Fox Valley. In the early ‘70s, Neenah was (and probably remains) one of the most affluent school districts in Wisconsin. Cole knew what he wanted, and what he wanted was “a good jazz band. So he called the state music office; talked to Jack Pingel and Dick Wolf, at that time.” Cole asked a question that went something like this: “’Who’s the best jazz educator in the state?’ And they said, ‘Dave Kiepert.’ So I hadn’t planned on moving, but he called me and said, ‘Well, come down, bring your wife, and I’ll put you up for the weekend and show you the facility.’” What he had to show Kiepert was a new high school, with its fantastic Pickard Auditorium, which seats 1600 people. “And at that time they even had a man whose job was to take care of that auditorium.” Dave modestly states that during his tenure at Neenah, “we had some really good bands out of that school.”
Dave continues the story: “I was there for six years, and this Jim Cole moved to Stevens Point. So of course he calls me. I want you to move over to Stevens Point, because we really need you over here. They don’t have any jazz band.” So (Dave laughs), I moved to Stevens Point. And then I spent the rest of my teaching career at Stevens Point.” As someone who heard the bands from SPASH (Stevens Point Area Senior High) numerous times, in competition, the author can attest to their proficiency. But it wasn’t just the band’s proficiency. At these competitions one would often hear flashier bands, bands that could play higher, faster and louder than the Stevens Point group. But when it came down to the band that had made the strongest musical statement – precise, but emotionally engaging, swinging and just plain in good taste, it was usually easy to choose the SPASH group.
Over the years many educators tried to discover Dave’s secret to developing these bands. People would watch his rehearsals and not be able to figure out how he did it. It certainly didn’t hurt that eventually, in Stevens Point, Dave led not only the high school jazz band, but the middle school jazz bands as well, so had many years to train the young musicians. He does mention a couple of areas that he always emphasized with his students. “[O]f course listening; and I always stressed that more than anything. Listening and sight-reading. We sight-read every day, in every rehearsal. And people wonder how come my kids can sight-read so well. And that’s because we did it every day.” But he feels his real success was due to other basic things; he doesn’t think that he had any secrets. “I don’t know, I just loved the kids; I think kids could feel that. And I was really interested in helping all the kids. And some were totally outstanding; others were just, became good section players . . . But everybody in the band got the same amount of respect.”
Dave was an active “jobbing” musician, although it wasn’t always with hard-core jazz groups. He did play in bands led by UW-Eau Claire’s Dominic Spera and UW-Green Bay’s Lovell Ives. He played for many years with the “ghost” Dick Jurgens band, out of Madison, which was a dance band, but over the years included many fine jazz musicians. One Dave remembers in particular, someone he feels never got the attention he deserved was Platteville saxophonist Ken Killian, who also has led groups of various sizes for many years.
One student of Kiepert’s who should be mentioned is trombonist Rob Hudson. Hudson went from Stevens Point to college at Lawrence University, then to graduate school at the Eastman School of Music. Currently Hudson’s “day gig” is as an archivist at famed Carnegie Hall in New York. But Hudson is still an active player, composer and arranger. Besides freelance work in the city, he is a regular with the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. He has also written an important book about the jazz valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer.
At contests, Dave Kiepert always looked very serious; he rarely showed much of any emotion at all. Yet he sums up his career like this: “I don’t think anybody ever had more fun teaching than I did.”
[i] The following information comes from my phone conversation with Dave of June 27, 2014.