Remembering Jim Ott

Originally published on the “Spirit of Atlanta Alumni Clubhouse”
I want to talk about Jim’s teaching style. It is hard for me to say the name Jim Ott in a casual or relaxed manner, all these years after his death. I am older than he lived to be, yet the name evokes for me the time when I was a grieving, overgrown child.

That is not the best lesson to be learned from Jim’s two years and eight months with Spirit of Atlanta. Jim was not a band director. I believe that to be the most salient fact in understanding the Jim Ott phenomenon. Jim’s old Commodore pal and Spirit marching instructor Russell Stanton used to tell us, “You guys are not a drum corps, you are a band.” I used to hate that, since he was right. We started out as the ‘Spirit of Cobb High School’ and by 1978 morphed into the ‘Georgia/Alabama/Jacksonville State Summer Honor Band.’ We were wide-eyed innocents in an activity populated by steely-eyed toughs. We were a clumsy, talented, hungry canvas on which an ambitious artist could work his will. This is also true of the drum line and Tom Float.

I am convinced the 1977 food crew is largely responsible for Jim coming to us. At our housing in Denver that year, they fed us like veal calves in a pen. Someone — director Freddy Martin, I suppose — was courting Jim to move to Atlanta after the 1977 season. He had been to several of our camps and had arranged our ‘77 concert and exit, so he visited us in Denver early in finals week and came back several more times, I recall, because the food was so good. We played the two anthems for finals night, and then played the finalist corps on the field for retreat. Jim rehearsed us for that.

It was announced sometime that week that Jim would move to Atlanta and be our brass instructor for the 1978 season. I recall that as a high point of my life — the future looked so bright.

In conversations with Jim’s father and his friends from Stockton (home of the Commodores), I have been told what an important career move this was for him. In the great Blue Devils brass staff, Jim and Wayne Downey were co-equals, but we would be Jim’s horn line. He had a lot to prove. Can you imagine what it meant to him that we beat the Devils in horns in ‘78?

So, what does it mean that we were ‘just a band,’ but Jim was ‘not a band director?’ It meant that we were exposed to a new way of developing a brass line. It does not mean that band directors cannot do it just as well. Obviously, that is not true.

Jim was raised in a family drum corps. His father was director of Stockton Commodores. These small corps were the role models of the modern high school bands in many communities. Jim played baritone and was given the chance to arrange. If you ever have the chance to hear 1974 or ‘76 Stockton, give it a listen.

I believe brass was taught in those corps in a manner fundamentally different from the structure in a school band room. A band director is an educated, certified employee to whom respect and differential treatment is due because of their job title. Old style corps instructors frequently were the peers of their “students.” The brass instructor might be younger and less experienced than those he was teaching.

I can remember Jim’s reaction when a Spirit rookie called him “Mr. Ott.” He was shocked, then amused.

Since Jim was not a band director, he did not recognize the hierarchy of the teacher/student relationship. Our hierarchy was based on how well we could perform, how often we showed for rehearsal, and our attitude.

Second, his style of teaching did not involve detailed explanations. The essence of classroom education (as I see it) is that the teacher explains, demonstrates, evaluates and repeats. The student is told what to do, then told how to do it better. Any art or skill is explainable using the King’s English. That’s how brass guys can teach rudimentary drums and vice versa.

My recollection is that we did not get a lot of that from Jim Ott. He assumed that we knew how to play our horns and he did not go into long explanations of embouchure, tongue techniques, musical theory, or any of that good stuff.

We began with breathing exercises. Now these are common, and as we all know, they are torture unless everyone is motivated and believes in them. Jim certainly did and the results showed themselves quickly. For me, the purpose was twofold. One was to identify the correct muscles, and the second was to exercise them. The idea was to fill up with air from the bottom and to inhale and exhale deeply. Nothing new here, I suppose. It was unique in that we were putting in the maximum effort. When us hardcore types would huff ourselves into a hyperventilating head-rush, he would get that big grin.

Then there was the warmup. Again, Jim assumed that we could all play our horns. We would commence with unison low tones, then into lip slurs and chords. Nothing new here, right? What made it different is that this was not a simple hashing through of a routine. Jim knew how the unison tones should sound when we were ready for slurs. He knew how the slurs should sound before going to the chords. He knew how the chords should sound before going to the loud chords. We moved quickly if we were ready — we delayed on an exercise if we needed it. Time was never wasted.

How did he know? Who amongst the geezers remembers ‘the curly headed kid’ that would play baritone with us from time to time? How many brass instructors do you know that own a bugle and not only carry it on tour, but practice it daily and play in the warmup arc? Jim did. While someone else conducted the warmup, he would stand in the arc and do the whole warmup with us. What a show of solidarity that was. What a demonstration that he and we were a team, not a teacher and a bunch of students. He knew the sound he wanted because he had done it himself — and could still do it.

As we progressed through the warmups, he would watch and listen. The volume would gradually be increased. He would always listen for blend. That was his other real gift, in addition to the arranging. He could hear the blend he wanted. Outline a “C” with all four fingers and your thumb on each hand, and extend your arms. This gesture was to “smooth it out’ when the ensemble needed adjusting. A big smile on a loud chord meant that it was correct. A comment like “you guys sound a little tight today” would often be the only criticism.

He didn’t play the game of seeking out one person who was playing badly and humiliating them in front of the line. If someone didn’t know their part or was way out of tune, he might narrow it down to the section or subsection level and have the group play through. At that point, he’d let it go, saying, “You all need to practice that some more.” The offending party might get a flicker of eye contact from Jim. That was all it took. We were there because he wanted us there and because we desperately wanted to be there. What more incentive was necessary, given that?

About the only time I specifically recall Jim calling someone out in front of the whole line for not doing their job was, well, it was me. We did a fair amount of singing in warmup, and I just couldn’t do it. I could hear the pitches, but I could never match my voice to them. So I would do this big show of breathing, forming my lips into the perfect “O” and I would look as though I were a great singer. Of course, my contra “pals” would know I was slacking and they would mess with me. So one day at while singing, Jim noticed, stopped the whole line, and said, “Sas, sing it,” counted off and directed me to sing. I could have died.

Jim was an ambitious man. By 1980, he was arranging for a lot of corps and also for the big band music publishers.

What I’m saying about the Jim Ott “method” is that it cannot be duplicated, because it was for the most part intuitive and non-verbal and represented a collaboration between the man and 62 people who loved him.