My first high school band director, Bill Roosa, died over the weekend.
My feelings on Mr. Roosa were always somewhat conflicted. There was a pretty big dispute between him and my parents, regarding my older sister when she was in his band, with the end result being her quitting band in her senior year. I don’t recall the particulars, but my parents felt a certain loathing for Mr. Roosa that I’m not sure ever abated. And I’m not sure those feelings are unjustified.
But then, Mr. Roosa was for the most part completely OK with me. For a time he took a very active interest in my musical education, even taking time to give me individual trumpet lessons when I wasn’t even in his band yet (Mr. Roosa directed the Senior High Band; Jim Beach had the Jr. High group.) I can’t deny that he taught me a great deal; I can’t deny that he loved music; I can’t deny that he had a lot of impact on a lot of music students who came under his baton; and I can’t deny that he could be a first-class son-of-a-bitch. I think he might even be somewhat proud of that last. It wouldn’t surprise me if some people — a smallish number, but real nonetheless — attended his funeral just to make sure he was really dead.
Bill Roosa was a big man with a very deep and raspy voice. He was also loud and liked to command attention. The Senior Band at my high school had a somewhat glowing reputation when I was coming up through the ranks, but the program suffered a bit as I approached it. I never really understood why, but band membership dropped like a rock, and for a time, Mr. Roosa seemed almost apathetic about the whole thing. My guess is that he was a very “old school” kind of teacher at a time when his style of pedagogy was, to put it mildly, falling out of style. He was of the mind that it wasn’t the worst thing in the world if a teacher shoved a student around a bit and maybe even struck him in the course of administering discipline; that kind of thing wouldn’t last more than a day in schools nowadays. I think he felt a growing sense of frustration over his final years of teaching, and I think to a great degree a lot of what he felt was the fun of the job got sucked out of it. (To be clear, this is all guessing on my part.)
When I entered junior high school, the district had for years been run by the same tiny group of crusty white men who all retired right around the same time. I suspect that Mr. Roosa didn’t get along nearly as well with the subsequent administration, in part because he was an old-school type and they were not. (And, I should note, also probably in part because as far as I could tell, the new group of folks running the show were, quite frankly, complete pinheads.) Mr. Roosa’s teaching career came to an abrupt end during my senior year. He had already butted heads a few times with administrators, but a month or two into that year, something transpired that I never found out any details about, but Mr. Roosa started cashing in all of his sick days he’d accrued over the years (this was back when teachers could roll them over, and the more wily and healthy ones would bank them for years, to the point where they could call in sick for two months near the end of their careers), and then he simply stopped showing up for work entirely. The band just kind of twisted in space for most of the remainder of that year, led for a time by a substitute who was not a music teacher at all before finally being taken over in the spring by a twenty-three year old guy who had just graduated college. I’ve always wondered what the final straw was that caused Mr. Roosa to say “The hell with this.” No doubt he felt emboldened by the fact that his family was, at the time, making tons of money off their own small chain of video rental stores.
(The video store thing was kind of interesting — his stores were bought out seven or eight years later by Blockbuster. I asked him about that business once and he bluntly said, “There’s no future in this. Sometime in the next fifteen years they’ll be beaming movies right to your TV and you won’t be renting anything on a tape. But we’ll have made our money by then, so it’s fine.” And, aside from his timeframe being a bit on the short side, he was exactly right, wasn’t he? Now, a bit more than twenty years after I had that conversation with him, you can stream movies over the Interweb via your Wii.)
Mr. Roosa was utterly beloved by nearly every alumnus of his band that I ever met, and I always wondered what it might have been like to play in the band during the years when he wasn’t as disengaged as he was when I was under his baton. He did have his moments during my years, though. In my junior year, membership of the Senior Band had fallen to about thirty kids, which is terribly low — with a really healthy instrumental music program, the band should have had at least fifty kids. Mr. Roosa took what I’ve always thought was a pretty creative approach that year, accommodating the fact that his band was so small: he decided that the year’s focus would be on Civil War band music. Now, the bands of the Civil War era were terribly small, and the music of that era — predating the big marches of John Philip Sousa and Karl King — had a very raw feel to it, with nearly every piece being full of folk tunes and popular songs of the time. It was, to be honest, a terribly fascinating year of band music, deeply steeped in an era of music that to this day very few people know anything about.
The next year was my senior year, when the wheels finally came off. Shortly before that happened, though, I asked Mr. Roosa if we’d be doing Civil War music again, and he said “No, I’m kind of thinking of looking through some of those books of German military music we have laying about.” We had complete sets of German band books there — where they came from, I have no idea — and the idea of exploring another obscure world of esoteric band music was extremely appealing. Alas, that never came to be.
Mr. Roosa’s musical tastes tended to be very heavily skewed toward marches, which it must be said, sometimes got to be a little much. But he also loved the great band transcriptions of orchestral masterpieces that dominated concert band programs during the “glory years” of the American bands, around the turn of the 20th century. It’s because of Mr. Roosa, for example, that I love the light opera overtures of Franz Von Suppe, even though to this day I can’t hear the Jolly Robbers overture without remembering one particular explosive rehearsal when Mr. Roosa lost his temper over our continuing inability to get a particularly technical passage right. (Or the fact that the same overture begins with the trumpets sounding a high F, which is for various reasons pertaining to the physical and acoustic nature of the trumpet a very difficult note to hit dead on.) And it was during my freshman year in Mr. Roosa’s senior band that a piece landed on the program that had a very peculiar title: “March to the Scaffold”. Mr. Roosa introduced me to Hector Berlioz. For that alone he’ll have my eternal gratitude. It now occurs to me that he was already gone from teaching when I discovered my other great musical passion, Sergei Rachmaninov. I have no idea at all if Mr. Roosa liked the Russian Romantics.
Mr. Roosa was, as far as I knew, not terribly interested at all in new music. We played no modern music whatsoever. The music he chose might not have been terribly balanced, but what he chose was invariably good. I don’t recall hating a single piece we ever played. That’s something. His big passion, actually, was circus music, and he was very active in a national group of circus music afficionados called the “Windjammers”. When I was in eighth grade — and thus still in the Junior Band — he somehow arranged for the Senior Band’s spring concert to be nothing but circus music, an entire program of it, complete with introductions by a ringmaster and to be guest-conducted by a man named Merle Evans, who is one of the legendary figures in the music of the three-ring circus. I attended that concert, and I wish to this day that it had happened a year later so I could play in it.
He was also the type of person who liked to test students by, well, being a colossal jerk to them for a time. I myself landed on his shit list one year — I think it was my sophomore year, actually — and I stayed there for a solid month, during which he rode me hard at every opportunity. Every screw-up I made in rehearsal became a moment for him to stop the band and berate me, and I remember one time when I was rubbing my lips during a break in rehearsal (your lips can really start to hurt when you’re a brass player and you’re working hard), he spotted me doing it and launched into a tirade on how no real trumpet player would even admit to pain while playing. Funny thing is, after about a month of this, it stopped almost immediately, and from that moment on, Mr. Roosa never rode me again. He’d point out when I would screw up, obviously, but there was never that sense of maliciousness that had been there during my “Hell Month with Bill Roosa”. I don’t know if there is something I did to earn his respect or if he just got bored and figured it was time to let me out of the doghouse, but we were fine after that, and soon we’d be back to swapping funny stories about great musicians. (He knew a ton of these, and he could crack the best jokes that only musicians would get or find funny. One of them was when he was trying to pick another march for our concert program, and he said, “I’ve got an American march, a British march, a German march, a French march, and a Polish march. I’m not sure which one I should do.” Another kid, who was something of a wise-acre, said, “Hey, have you got any Hungarian marches?” Mr. Roosa didn’t bat an eye as he said, “Yeah, I’ve got a Hungarian march right here. It was written by a Czech.” OK, you had to be there, but to this day, I think that was funny.)
I don’t really know much of anything about what became of Mr. Roosa after he left teaching and after I graduated later that year. I know that his family formed some kind of real estate developing business that was somewhat successful; I also know that his son faced some sort of legal trouble, but what that was about, I have no idea. It’s not really important, anyway.
Finally, I often think of Mr. Roosa whenever the Olympics are taking place. In 1988, when the US Olympic teams performed poorly (especially at the Winter Games in Calgary), Mr. Roosa ranted several times during rehearsals about how discouraging he found the Olympics because they represented to him a fading of a work ethic in American youth. I wonder if he watched subsequent Olympics, when the US teams bounced right back, and ever thought to himself, “Maybe the kids are all right.”
In Mr. Roosa’s memory, here’s the Suppe overture that gave me nightmares in my sophomore year, “Jolly Robbers”. It’s the original orchestral version, but it’s all there. (The part that terrified us all starts at the 5:38 mark.)
And, since Mr. Roosa and I would talk a lot about Wagner, here is Siegried’s Funeral March.