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New RHS band director plans jazzy fall show

It’s been a time of transition for new RHS band director Jeremy Willis, who has stepped into the lead role from assistant director following Gary McNutt’s retirement.

“It’s been interesting so far,” Willis said. The strangest part, he said, is being the chief decision-maker: “having decisions rest upon my shoulders. I’ve never really had that. Before, Mr. McNutt would say something, and I would just get it done. Now, I have to come up with the things that need to be done and then do them or have them done.”

Of course, being at the top of the ladder gives him the freedom to delegate – he’s been able to pass off drill-writing responsibilities this year, for example. “I have written drill for the past eight years. It is time-consuming, and it is a headache,” Willis said. “Writing drill is something I enjoy doing, but I’m not going to miss doing it.”

But perhaps the most important decision-making opportunity thus far has been choosing the music and setting show design for the upcoming season.

The Marching Hundred will jazz things up this year with “The Big Easy Blues” show theme, featuring “God Bless the Child,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” and “Li’l Liza Jane.” The songs loosely tell the story of the birth, life and death of a girl in New Orleans, with the finale mirroring a New Orleans jazz funeral.

“My dad was in the Navy, and one of his stops when I was really young was in New Orleans. I lived in New Orleans for six or seven years, so I was in that culture for a long time,” Willis said. “If you’ve never seen the second line band in a New Orleans funeral – yes, it’s sad, but they are celebrating the life of this person. It’s a really cool thing to witness.”

When setting the band show, Willis had a few parameters he tried to keep in mind.

“The first thing I think of is, ‘Is it educational?’” Willis said. “Jazz – it’s America’s art form, and there are tons of stylings and articulations that can be taught through jazz that will help in other areas of performance.”

Also of great importance are whether the show will entertain the crowd – Willis said he thinks everyone in the crowd will recognize at least one song in the show and will enjoy the combination of tunes – and whether it will be competitive against other marching bands in RHS’ circle of acquaintance.

“Based on bands our size in this area, it’s going to be extremely competitive,” Willis said. Judges will judge a band based on execution as well as show composition, musicality and technicality. “The thing about this show that makes it competitive is that it flows really well – I think the judges are going to see it and say, ‘This makes sense. This flows well.’” It’s the aesthetic of the show, Willis said, that will make it stand out against the competition. “Something about this just feels right.” He’s also received positive feedback from administrative personnel, members of the community and members of the band.

“It’s very similar to a type of show we would have done when I was in high school here,” Willis added.

He said the show will be challenging musically for the RHS band because of the jazz influence. “We’ve gotten really good at teaching them written music. They can look at it, and they can play it. But with jazz, something might be written, but it needs to be interpreted a different way,” Willis said. “I think that’s going to be a little more difficult for them – the interpretation of what is presented.”

So the band and its director both will be facing challenges this season. Willis said as a known quantity, he feels the pressure is on to perform highly right away as the director.

“I’m Russellville-bred,” Willis said. “I can’t hide in Russellville. When I’m at Walmart, church or wherever, it’s never ‘Jeremy.’ It’s ‘Jeremy the band director’ now … Because I’m from here, I think the expectation is greater on me than it would be on anybody else. Which is fine. I’m totally fine with that.”

But although Willis excited to begin working with his students to put “The Big Easy Blues” on the field, he said the best part of his job won’t happen this fall under the Friday night lights.

“My favorite part of this job is when they have graduated and gone on … and then they come back, and they say, ‘That was the best time I had in high school’ or ‘I got in this situation the other day, and I remembered something you said, and I did it, and it helped me out.’ That’s the actual best part of this job,” he said. “The reason why I am the way I am is because of the teachers I had in high school … Knowing that what I did when they were 16 led them to (where they are today) – that’s the best part.”

Kyle Clements
Kyle Clements

Joining Willis as the new middle school band director and assistant high school director is Kyle Clements, from Cherokee. He said he fell in love with Russellville while doing his student teaching here.

“I’ve just been waiting for an opportunity to come back here,” Clements said. “When I came out here, it just felt like home. There’s no greater feeling than feeling like you belong.”

Clements and his wife Jessica, an SRO officer at Russellville Middle School, have one son, Nicholas, 3.

Scott Stephenson remains with the program as drum section instructor, lending stability and continuity to operations – and bringing a childhood dream to reality for Stephenson and Willis.

“He was in school here. When I first got into marching band, I held the cymbal for him – he was on snare drum – because they didn’t have a drill spot for me. The next year, we said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we came back here, and I was the band director and you were the drum guy?’” Willis remembers. “And now, 25 years later, here it is: I’m the band director, and he’s the drum guy.”