GREENVILLE — One morning, while camping in the wilderness with a group of scouts, a young boy was woken up by his father and given an odd request.
The boy’s father handed him a $15 bugle horn with one mission — “Play that song they play on TV to get people to wake up,” the father said to his son.
Having never played the instrument, which has no valves and operates only by blowing through it, the boy brought the horn to his face and, though struggling at first, managed to play the tune, officially known as “Reveille.”
The memory is one the young boy now remembers fondly, as that moment in his life set forth in motion a path that eventually led him to where he is today.
Having taught thousands of students to play their own first notes after 27 years of teaching, Greenville Middle School Band Director Jeff Ayres now sees himself putting young kids on musical paths of their own after playing those first notes on that bugle many years ago.
It started with a bugle
“I had no idea what I was doing, but I picked it up and somehow I made it happen,” said Ayres of playing his first notes on the bugle.
From that moment on, Ayres knew he wanted to play an instrument in some capacity.
He had grown up admiring the musical talents of his grandmother, Prudence.
“My grandma was a musician, she even recorded a couple of records and had a house band at my grandpa’s bar in Riverdale,” he said. “She could play anything you put in her hands. At 90 years old, she was playing the accordion, but she could not read one note of music. I always admired that about her.”
With his grandmother’s talents as motivation, Ayres decided then that he wanted to make music a big part of his life. When it came time to start band in sixth grade, Ayres told his parents he wanted nothing more than to join the band and play trumpet.
But living in a family of seven, his mother, father and four siblings, growing up on a farm in Sidney, his family was far from wealthy. His father worked as a tree trimmer for Consumers Energy and his mother stayed at home to take care of him and his siblings. With five children to care for, gifts were hard to come by — and in a very emotional moment, Ayres was told by his parents there just wasn’t enough money to purchase him a trumpet.
“I watched all of my buddies go to band and get to play,” he said. “Every once in a while they would play songs for me, but it wasn’t the same.”
A semester of watching and admiring his classmates’ opportunity to play and dreaming of playing one day himself slowly went by, but by winter, a surprise awaited him.
The following Christmas, Ayres had a single gift sitting beneath the tree from his parents.
Upon ripping off the wrapping paper and opening up the case contained within, Ayres discovered a new cornet, a slightly smaller version of the trumpet.
“I finally went to band class and sat at the end of the section,” he said. “It was so cool.”
The instrument was purchased from Bob Hansen, owner of the former Hansen’s Music House in Greenville.
Ayres continued to play as a student at Central Montcalm High School, but starting a semester behind his classmates, he learned to play by mimicking other students. He never learned to read music until he attended college, depending on his ear as he listened and learned to play.
Making it a career
Between his sophomore and junior years of high school, Ayres scored a full-ride scholarship to the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lake and qualified for the camp’s international band. He was advised by an instructor to switch from the cornet to the trumpet. His parents agreed to purchase him a trumpet, but on the condition that he turn his hobby and love of playing music into a career choice.
“I had to decide to stick with my cornet and do something else with my life or do the international band with my new trumpet and become a music major in college,” he said. “I followed through.”
Ayres then attended Central Michigan University, where he continued to play. Aside from earning a degree in music education, he also met his future wife Susan, who is now the principal of Walnut Hills Elementary School in Greenville, while marching in the Chippewa Marching Band.
“She was a freshman and I was a senior and we both played trumpet,” he said. “My band director saw me looking at her and he stuck her right beside me in formation.”
Ayres said he quickly began slipping notes into her instrument case throughout the season.
“She never had a chance,” he said jokingly. “She was right next to me the whole marching season.”
After five years at Central Michigan University and two years of graduate study, Ayres indeed had made his career in music, becoming the director of bands at Coconut Creek High School near Boca Raton, Fla.
“I originally wanted to be a college trumpet instructor,” he said. “I did two years of trumpet study after graduating from Central Michigan, but there just weren’t any jobs out there.”
After five years in Florida, Ayres moved to Greenville to teach at Newaygo Public Schools while Susan taught special education at Greenville Public Schools.
Before long, a position opened up for a second band director at Greenville High School. Ayres applied for the position and was hired shortly thereafter, joining Susan Gould as the second Greenville High School band director.
With class sizes ranging near 100 students or more, Gould welcomed Ayres to the team.
“Part of the beauty of having Jeff interested in this position was the experience that he brought and his incredible trumpet skills,” Gould said. “I had known Jeff personally through Danish Band and the Flat River Big Band. There were a number of applicants for that position, but he was just stellar for it.”
Ayres and Gould taught together for seven years until 2004 when budget cuts led to the removal of one of the director positions. In response to the retirement of former Middle School Band Director Keith Hudson, Ayres left the high school and took over at Greenville Middle School, teaching band for grades six through eight.
“When Jeff decided to do that, we had mixed feelings,” Gould said. “We were working really well together at the high school, we could read each others’ minds. Every child got what they needed in the classrooms. It was the norm to have two instructors.”
But rather than hiring a new instructor at the middle school, the duo decided to split and let Ayres teach at the middle school.
“The team just expanded,” Gould said. “It went from grades nine to 12 to six to 12.”
Ayres, however, said the change of schools was something he welcomed despite budget cuts forcing the situation to occur.
“I’m just so lucky I’m not a math teacher,” he said jokingly. “I’ve subbed every once and a while for a subject like that, but those kids aren’t in that class because they want to be. They are in that class because they have to be.”
Ayres says he is lucky because when his students enter the doors in the middle school band room, they are there because they want to be there.
“Parents make an investment in an instrument and I end up knowing these kids for three years,” he said. “It’s a lot different of a climate. We almost become family members and I almost cry the first time, watching my students play their first notes as they play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ We can easily work together because we’re all here for the same reason — to make music.”
Jazz is close to heart
Throughout his career, teaching at three different districts and at a variety of grade levels ranging from sixth to twelfth, one thing has always remained constant — jazz band.
Ayres has taught jazz music wherever he has been.
When he became the music director at the middle school in Greenville, he remained as the instructor of the high school jazz band program. He now teaches two jazz bands, one with high school students and one with middle school students. The high school class meets at 6:30 a.m. at Greenville High school three times a week, with the middle school band meeting once a week.
Ayres says the advantages of having a jazz program are hard to measure on the surface.
“We do a lot of performances with a lot less rehearsal time,” he said. “It makes you have to learn music really quickly. With jazz band, since we have to do it so quickly with fewer people, I’m in the trenches. I’m playing along with the kids and helping them on an individual basis.”
His students tend to agree that the band class is of great importance, cramming it into their curriculum in the early hours of the morning.
“Jazz band offers a different type of music altogether, it’s fun to play,” junior Jared Downing, 16, said. “But it’s also challenging.”
For senior Meagan Draper, 17, jazz band offers a chance for her to stay close to her family roots.
“Not only do I have family ties, I was raised on jazz music, but it speaks to you in a way that no other music can,” she said. “If it’s played correctly, it just comes through you. It’s like a canvas and you can take all of liberties you want with it.”
Trip to Chicago
The Greenville High School Jazz Band will soon be performing on its biggest stage yet, with a two-day trip scheduled for Chicago in April.
“I’ve been the jazz band director for 15 years and we’ve watched the high school band go to Paris, go to Disney World three or four times now, the Citrus Bowl, and the choir programs have gone many places,” Ayres said. “This is one year when no one else is going on a trip and I thought maybe I can help the kids in the jazz band out a little bit with a a trip to Chicago.”
The students will receive a music clinic from jazz faculty musicians at Northwestern University. The students will also play a gig in the lobby of the John Hancock Building.
“That lobby is like five stories tall,” Ayres said. “It’s going to echo like crazy throughout that building.”
The band will also play a concert at an adult foster care home, which Ayres added is always an important audience for his band.
“We’re playing a lot of music from their era,” he said. “It’s their rock and roll. They re-live the days from when they had a sweetheart, some of them may end up singing along or crying. It’s very special.”
Ayres said the trip will be an incredible experience for his 23 students.
“Some of these students have never been out of Michigan,” he said. “Just going to a big city like that, it’s going to be an education in itself, but there’s a musical benefit as well. Northwestern has an outstanding jazz program and faculty that we will have the chance to work with.”
Draper said she believes the trip will help take the jazz band to new heights.
“I think this will mean a lot for the program,” she said. “I feel like the community forgets that we are here sometimes, but this will be a way to showcase that we are awesome and have lots of talent.”
Thanks to contributions that have been saved in the band booster’s account, each student will already have approximately $100 raised for them for the trip. The rest will come from individual fundraising and other fundraising activities put on by the band, such as Friday’s silent auction during intermission of the band’s upcoming concert at the Greenville Area Community Center.
The concert is a collaborative performance by The Flat River Big Band and the Greenville High School Jazz Band.
All proceeds from the auction will go to the students to aid them in their trip to Chicago.
“There will be a nice mixture of styles,” Ayres said of the music to be played. “We’re going to have some latin, some ballads, some swing jazz. Music of the 1930s and 1940s. A lot of stuff you just can’t stop tapping your foot to.”
The concert begins at 7 p.m. with tickets at $7 at the door.
Loving the job
Ayres has nearly 90 students in his eighth grade classroom at one time, but he doesn’t mind the larger than normal class size.
“I feel like I’m doing something good with the gifts I’ve been given,” he said. “Music is enriching for the soul. You could be having the worst day ever, but you pick up an instrument and play it and all of sudden your troubles go out the bell of the horn.”
Inspired by his own childhood and troubles of obtaining an instrument, Ayres says he spends a couple days every summer attending various flea markets throughout the area, purchasing instruments for as little as $25. He then lets his students use those instruments in and out of class if needed.
“The economics of buying an instrument in a family where it is hard to put food on the table is also tough,” he said. “Getting them in the door is the biggest challenge. Kids have so many other things in their lives going on, sometimes parents don’t think they can fit playing an instrument in.”
His students would tend to agree that his efforts are making a difference in their education.
“He encouraged me to start being more confident in my playing,” Draper said. “I played my first solo in seventh grade, and he played right along with me to make me feel more comfortable. He was a mentor but also a friend. I could just open up and play without worrying about being judged.”
Downing, who has been playing the trombone since he was in fourth grade, said Ayres is one of the few teachers who goes above the responsibilities of a normal teacher.
“He’s really personable and connects with you,” he said. “In middle school, he’s more of a teacher because he doesn’t know you that well, but once you have him in jazz band he opens up to you and is himself. He does more than just the standard teacher, he goes above and beyond.”