Preview to the Vail Jazz Party column: Captain Dyett — Jazz’s first black Mr. Holland
Ryan Summerlin July 17, 2014
When I was a kid I didn’t know what a mentor was. I learned from my parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, neighbors and wise uncles. By the ’70s, “mentoring” began to take root. The mantra was a teacher needed to have a special relationship with his or her mentee. I hate that word, it sounds like a drink to me. The theory was that a mentor could guide the mentee by passing on knowledge, wisdom and experience. Hello, wasn’t that what my mom and dad did? I don’t disagree that a mentor can be a powerful force in one’s life, but I think mentors have always been around, and besides, what does this have to do with jazz?
Well, before corporate America (and ultimately most of us) began to bang the drum of mentorship, there was an amazing man that was a real life Mr. Holland, the fictional music teacher in the movie “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Born in 1901, “Captain” Walter Henri Dyett was an accomplished musician, teacher, inspirational leader and, yes, mentor, who lived an extraordinary life in the African-American community of Chicago.
Moving to Chicago in 1921 to pursue a career as a doctor, he began paying his bills by playing in and directing vaudeville orchestras, bands (acquiring the title “Captain” as the director of a national guard band) and other ensembles. By the mid 1920s, he was pursuing a full-time career as a musician and music teacher, and in 1931, he became the assistant band director (and ultimately the band director) at Wendell Phillips High School, moving to DeSable High School in 1935, when it opened after Phillips High was destroyed by a fire.
Between 1931 and 1961, Captain Dyett taught well over 20,000 student musicians, nurturing some of the most famous jazz musicians that have ever lived. Before there was a consensus that jazz music was worthy of study in a formal curriculum, Captain Dyett was mentoring and inspiring the next several generations of jazz musicians that would take their place in the pantheon of jazz greats and propel jazz forward into the new millennium. No other person has ever come close to having the impact that he had by teaching so many jazz greats. His students literally became the who’s who of the world of jazz. They were Nat King Cole, Dorothy Donegan, Dinah Washington, Richard Davis, Arthur Prysock, Johnny Griffin, Gene “Jug” Ammons, Von Freeman (2011 NEA Jazz Master awardee), Oscar Brashear, Sonny Cohn, Eddie Harris, Johnny Hartman, Milt Hinton, Clifford Jordan, Julian Priester, Wilbur Ware and Leroy Jenkins, to name just a few.
How did he do it? It is reported that he was “a commanding leader and a demanding taskmaster, a teacher who would accept nothing less than the best his students were able to produce. His personal and professional creed, ‘He can who thinks he can,’ sustained his students through the difficulties which lie ahead of them in a highly competitive profession — a profession made more difficult by a society not free of racism,” according to Richard Wang, his biographer.
One of his former students described Captain Dyett as follows: “He was like this eternal spirit manifested in living form. One had to experience his vibrancy. We can talk about his vision, but for him to look at you with those eyes, to smile at you, for this giant to say you’re cool. …”
What a legacy!
Every year, the Vail Jazz Foundation brings to Vail 12 of the best high school musicians in North America for 10 days of professional level training that commences the week before Labor Day. The Vail Jazz All-Stars, as they are known, are taught, inspired and, yes, mentored, by six of the most prominent jazz educators and jazz musicians on the scene today. The All-Stars will perform three times over the Labor Day weekend at Vail Square.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 20th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.