I am treated to a lot of inspiration to reflect on my high school music experiences these days for a number of reasons. I am looking at high school band from the outside for the first time in over a decade for one thing, and my thirtieth high school reunion approaches this summer for another. Probably the biggest reason is watching my nephew Hunter experience an almost parallel path in his senior year at York High School. As he lines up his opportunities for studying music in college, I see a lot of the same experiences shaping those decisions.
Hunter's involvement within his school's music program has been prolific and impressive, and of course I applaud that. I am also encouraged to see how involved he has been in music outside of school, in a variety of camps, ensembles, pick-up groups, and even a little entrepreneurialism. He and his friends, outside of the agenda of any adults, seem to make a lot of music. I love that he does that, and think back on how much that sort of activity shaped me and my passion for what I now do.
As I reflect on that, I think back on all the many pick-up basement and garage bands that I played in. It's funny that there were so many, but involved a relatively limited number of actual personalities. It's as though a dozen or so of us tried every combination of personnel we could imagine, learned a set or two, and debated a band name over a box for Flo-Dogs and a two liter bottle of Coke.
Choosing who we played with seemed as much about whose company we enjoyed than anything else, and then hope they play well. That being said, I don't ever recall any of these bands not wanting to be great. We always enjoyed several months of novelty before individual agendas would start to run against each other as the luster faded, but "that's good enough for this band" was not something I recall being said.
As I ponder this, I perceive that among us were some exceptional musicians with whom I had played, and it occurs to me that York, Maine in the early to mid 80's had an unusually high number of remarkable drummers among us. I can't recall anything but really capable and musical players behind those enormous Neal Peart inspired sets. Tim Sorel, Charlie Gnerre, Joe Rogers, Shawn Mitchell, and John Dorizzi are all names that come to mind. All as soulful and skilled and inspired as the next. It is tempting to suggest that I have a touch of rose colored hindsight on this, except that I think all of them are still quite active as musicians.
Maybe this is normal, and over my career, as is the case with any instrument, I can name a number of really wonderful drummers who have been students of mine in one way or another, but I can't quite recall a frequency of it like the list above crammed into a five year period or so.
It then hit me that among the forces that encouraged that culture in York, not the least of which an encouraging high school band director in George Perkins, was Cooper Knapp. I know so little of Mr. Knapp. He had three daughters near my age that I knew well in school, all of whom were involved in band. I knew that he had some difficulty with his hearing, and I knew that he played drums. I have no recollection of how he made a living, or if drums ever played any role in that. At first, he was just one of the adults in the percussion section of the summer Town Band, but then when there would be a piece that required a drum set, he sat down and just owned the stage on that kit.
He played with power, but he played with taste. In my mind, I have trouble separating memories of watching him and seeing videos of Buddy Rich. They both always played on older style three or four piece sets, and he engulfed it with a drive and yet a musicality that brought us all along for a ride.
It seemed as though it was never to hard to talk him into coming in to play with the HS kids. He'd agree to play a drum battle with probably any of the above listed high school drummers, and would take them all to school, with less that half of the equipment that my generation insisted on loading into a station wagon every time we were fortunate enough to get booked to play for a middle school dance. I also have a vivid memory watching the faces of delight of my peers watch him as he took his turn in the battles.
Mr. Knapp is no longer with us, and will always pine for a chance to hear him play again, knowing what I know now about the art form. Maybe I'm better off. Maybe the comparison to Buddy is a little charitable, but maybe not. I actually don't care. When I was a teenager, this guy was the first person I had ever seen play some serious jazz drums in person, and in my head he remains one of the best. I prefer that reality, and I am almost sure that my peers would remember him with the same fondness and influence that I remember. I think he was a huge part of that exceptional drum culture in York.