“Music satisfies San Dimas man’s mind and soul for six decades”
Ed Wolfe taught instrumental music and directed bands in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at San Dimas High, Bonita High, Ramona Middle School and Lone Hill Middle School for 40 years before retiring. Wolfe directs the San Dimas Brass Ensemble and the San Dimas Jazz Workshop Big Band. (John Valenzuela/Staff Photographer).
–By Imani Tate, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin
Music went from “Mama said” to “I want” for Ed Wolfe Jr. while he was in junior high school. His new attitude led to five decades of dedicated personal and professional performing, mentoring and passing on the magic of music to children.
Although retired from education since 2008, Wolfe and music remain constant companions.
Wolfe communicates with 1,300 people on Facebook. Many are music peers, educators, friends and relatives. But 800-plus are former students dating back to 1969 when he started teaching in his native Albuquerque, N.M., and 31 years at Lone Hill Middle School and Bonita and San Dimas high schools in Bonita Unified School District.
“That’s how I keep track of my kids,” said Wolfe, the “music man” of San Dimas who has mentored ingenious prodigies and now peerless performers, including Brendan Reilly, a teen winner of Monterey Jazz Festival’s vocal excellence distinction now burning up stages in Europe, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Performing Arts Center and Apollo Theater with an array of gospel, jazz, blues and pop artists. Wolfe, 67, also chairs the San Dimas Senior Citizens Commission and conducts jazz and brass ensembles playing professional and community gigs.
His truck-driving and salesman father Edward Sr. jokingly prided himself on his ability to “play radio.” His mother Mary Ellen Wolfe, an English, Spanish and religious studies teacher at St. Mary’s High School, was an accomplished cellist with the Albuquerque Civic Symphony. She augmented the family income by taking in laundry to pay for Ed’s and his brother David’s music lessons.
Ed started music lessons at 5 because Mary Ellen thought her sons needed education and culture. She was in another room when she heard a 6-year-old Ed, she thought, expertly playing the song “Black Boots.”
“She said, ‘Eddie, I didn’t know you were that good.’ David, who was only 2, quipped ‘That’s not Eddie. That’s me.’ He had heard the song and played it by ear. I did 26 piano recitals by the time I was in high school, but David got so good and did so well, I stopped playing piano and focused on trumpet. David, who’s now a Ph.D. mathematician, jazz pianist and flutist, is still a musical monster,” Wolfe bragged.
“I’ve seen him play Bach with his right hand in one key and his left in another key. He’s just amazing. Someone asked him to play a song last year he didn’t know. He called me on the phone and had me sing it to him. He played it on the piano while I was singing it. You can’t describe my brother’s talent and range in one sitdown,” he said.
Wolfe’s pride stirs whenever he hears good stuff – be it his brother, a legendary musician or a student. He is admittedly a hard taskmaster, pushing and encouraging students and peers to play at optimum levels, but his love of music and people playing it make everyone play better for and with him.
Wolfe added trumpet to his instrumental choices in fourth grade. His “I’ve-got-to-do-this-because-Mama-said-so” attitude disappeared in middle school when he was able to challenge other students for musical chairs. He went from 15th trumpet chair to second in less than a year. As a Highland High School sophomore, he was proficient enough to become student band teacher. Among his “students” was brother David.“When I went to the podium to conduct, David raised his hand and asked if he should call me Ed or Mr. Wolfe. I said shut up,” Wolfe recalled, laughing. “But although it was a challenge to teach my brother, I discovered I loved teaching and wanted to teach music.”He acquired more performance experience, completed a bachelor of music education and a master’s in composition at the University of New Mexico and started teaching in his hometown in 1969. He moved to California in 1977 to teach BUSD students in San Dimas and La Verne. Hundreds of his former students teach or play music, but music was not his teaching goal.“Education was more important. I was teaching children, not just music,” Wolfe stressed.
“Music is a wonderful motivator, improves all academic tasks and requires discipline. All kids were welcome in my program. If they couldn’t play, I taught them to play. But it was more important to teach them how to become productive, kind people of good character. I wanted them to be the best they could be as human beings and to face challenges with confidence.”
An example of his confidence-building techniques surfaced at a San Luis Obispo festival in the 1980s.
“It was a rickety old stage and then the lights went off in the middle of our set. We finished the tune in the dark. I didn’t know if the judges were listening or not. They’d probably left. We didn’t need to see them or the music sheets to play,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe has 40 years of wonderful memories and he won’t stop counting as long as he can play or conduct music anywhere.”
As the last hour of 2012 winds down, I can not help thinking and reflecting on the things that have enriched my life these sixty-six years. I am, of course blessed to still have my mother in my life. Although she is now frail, she continues to light the path for those around her. My brother is a super-talented person with abilities both academic and artistic. He teaches, composes, arranges, authors, preaches, performs at a very high level and constantly does for others often at his own expense.
I am, of course blessed with a lovely wife who truly cares about my welfare and encourages me to do the things I normally might avoid when feeling not quite up to snuff. She has been and continues to be a helpmate and encouragement as difficulties arise, and she has sown me the love an support that every man needs.
I do wish that the RA would allow me to perform on my bass, but I’m afraid that that activity may have been lost. However, I have been fortunate to play jazz casuals with some very fine players including my talented brother using my workstation and have played bass lines, vibraphone, guitar, strings, woods and brass during these sessions. Technology has been a saving grace in allowing me to rekindle the flame of performance that I enjoyed so very much in younger days.
I have said all of that to say this: I feel blessed to have been able to do these things and continue to look forward to even more special moments in the future. My communication with so many Facebook and email friends and acquaintances have been a Godsend allowing me to reconnect with former students, friends from my past, family from afar, professional artists, composers, arrangers, hobbyists, and a huge number of fantastic people at home and abroad. These encounters have greatly enriched my life and have given me the encouragement I need to continue doing the activities that I love so much.
My activities with the Senior Center and the Chamber of Commerce have also contributed to a feeling of self worth and purpose, and the City of San Dimas has treated me with the love and respect that indeed warms the heart. It is now twenty Six minutes until 2013, and I’m feeling very satisfied that I have done and will continue to do the kinds of activities that will enable me to interact with so many wonderful men and women who have enriched this life. I am, as I said, blessed to have you all as friends, and I do wish each and everyone of you a most wonderful, happy and prosperous 2013.
Roger in High School
One of the first students I met upon arriving on campus at San Dimas High School was Roger Burn. Being verbally “outgoing” and perhaps not too subtle, the conversation went something like this:
“Mr. Wolfe, I’m Roger Burn. I play percussion, and I have a question. Can you improve this jazz program so that it will be as good as Robin Snyder’s at Bonita? If not, I’m going to transfer over there for my last two years.”
“Hello, Roger. Nice to meet you. Who is Robin Snyder and where is Bonita? You know, I would hate to lose you or any of my students to another program, but I will need to have loyalty here to build the band program San Dimas deserves. You will need to decide to do what is best for you, but if you do leave, don’t ask to return.”
Thus began my relationship with the young Roger Burn. Over the course of the next two years, The band program began to grow, and Roger began to flourish. Roger and some of the other jazz kids used to come down to the apartment and play Risk. After the other students left Roger would always ask questions about music theory. Sometimes he would stay quite late. His parents, Ed and Joyce seemed to always know where he was and did not seem to object, but since we had a Jazz Band rehearsal every morning at 6:30, I would have to “throw him out” often so that we could get some sleep. He was not particularly interested in the traditional harmony of the common practice period, but when we talked about Twentieth Century techniques, his ears really perked up. He learned about tritone substitutions, extensions and altered chords, and suddenly there was an interest in learning to play piano as he was already becoming quite proficient on vibraphone.
Roger’s piano technique was horrible. He would use two fingers in each hand and fire at the keys Harpo Marx style. He was not interested in learning technique from the Czerny book I provided, or practicing any of the “adult beginning” pieces I provided. He simply wanted to improvise and learn new chord voicings…(he was especially in love with the dominant seventh with a sharp nine or other altered variations he could use in the blues) He wanted to learn how to arrange, so I loaned him my Mancini Sounds and Scores textbook. He probably still has it in his things!…So it began!
I did not learn until later, that he had begun writing out (by hand) a fake book of jazz tunes that he called “The Good Book”. He was proud to exclaim to me that these tunes had “the right chords” and were not like some of those other fake books. In addition to many of his favorite jazz standards (over 150 pages), are some 20 original compositions, some of which were performed by the San Dimas High School jazz combo. “Animal Blues” was written for his friend and bass player, Rusty Houts, and “Gerswintite” was an opportunity to show off some new chord voicings he liked.
Those of you who spoke with Roger often may have observed that his life was basically one long run-on sentence with no punctuation in sight! He was opinionated, biased, driven, sometimes bitter and always outspoken, but he was also fiercely loyal, disciplined, caring and compassionate to those who he felt deserved it. He also had a sense of right and wrong….Roger was right, and the rest of us….had some work to do!
Roger was always hanging out with the Bonita players and attended many jam sessions at Robin’s house. In March of 1979, the San Dimas Band was playing a concert band festival at Bonita, and Roger was featured on a little rudimental snare solo on one of the pieces. Roger showed up to the festival as we were exiting the stage! He had missed the whole thing hanging out with the Bonita kids.
Another time, in Reno, Roger did not make it back to the hotel from the Basie performance at the Pioneer Theater in time for curfew. I went back to the Pioneer and after some searching, found him backstage talking to some of the Basie sidemen….that was Roger.
I remember how angry he was when Chad Wackerman was selected for the Monterrey Jazz All Stars and he was selected as the alternate drummer. I also remember how elated he was when the San Dimas Jazz Band won our division at the Reno Jazz Festival and Robin’s Bonita band finished third in their division. (It didn’t seem to matter to Rog that Bonita was in division III-A and San Dimas was in division II-A. “We won!”). He was particularly pleased that we had qualified for Monterrey and was particularly disappointed when our audition tape resulted in the band being an “alternate” band. I took them up anyway so that they could hear the festival and audition for the all stars.
In Roger’s senior year, he was leaning towards Cal State Northridge as a choice under the jazz direction of Joel Leach. He was particularly angry that freshmen would have to play in the marching band and lasted only one year in the college program. The rest is basically known by all of his professional friends and acquaintances.
Over the years, Roger and I remained close. I used him as a guest soloist with my bands, and he was fiercely loyal to me personally as an “educator who knew and did it the right way”. He was a good man, and I love him and miss him!