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Jim MairFor 41 years – since the move to the new campus – KCKCC has offered one of the finest instrumental jazz programs in the Midwest under the direction of Marlin Cooper, left, for 27 years and the last 14 under Jim Mair, the 2013 recipient of the Henry Louis Excellence in Education Award. (KCKCC photo by Alan Hoskins)
There is no tougher job than succeeding an icon – unless you are Jim Mair who has taken the instrumental jazz music level at Kansas City Kansas Community College to its highest level ever.
For 27 years, Marlin Cooper had built the program into one of the foremost in the Midwest – to the point that he has been elected to the Music Educators Hall of Fame and the Mid-America Education Hall of Fame.
As Cooper’s successor, Mair has not only continued the high standards of the program but taken it to even higher levels, levels that have earned him the 2013 Henry Louis Award of Excellence given annually to a faculty member.
“It’s humbling when you look at the greatness of Henry Louis and the past recipients, John Ryan, Deb Taylor and Kris Hearn,” Mair said. “But my job is easy because of my great colleagues, the great support of Dr. (Cherilee) Walker and the greatest students in the world.
“I love the students, a genuine love for them. There’s such a great diversity of personalities. One of my best trumpet players wants to be a deep sea welder and will take the welding program here. How cool is that? So many interesting kids with interesting backgrounds.”
In his 14 years as director of jazz and instrumental music, Mair has founded:
• The Kansas City Jazz Summit – a 3-day festival and clinics bringing middle, high school and college bands in for performances and adjudication from Kansas, Missouri and other surrounding states.
• Summer Jazz Camp – 14 years running, it brings talented young musicians to the KCKCC campus for a week of studying with top professionals.
• Kansas City High School All-Star Jazz Ensemble – founder and organizer.
• Jazz by the Lake – A series of monthly concerts that have drawn standing room crowds to the KCKCC Conference Center and will be televised in 2013.
• Music Scholars– Music lessons provided underserved youth in the KCKCC service area on Wednesday afternoons.
His bands have earned No. 1 ratings in every festival in which he’s taken part the last 14 years. The only group invited back every year to the monthly “Spirituality and All That Jazz” at Unity Temple on the Plaza, his student groups annually give 75-100 performances a year for community service, at area schools and festivals as well as KCKCC graduation ceremonies, Candlelighting and Mid-America Education Hall of Fame.
Ironically, it was only by accident that Mair has become one of the foremost saxophone players, teachers and directors of jazz music in the Midwest. Growing up in Canada, Mair played hockey – until he discovered music.
“My junior high band director played trumpet for us at school. It was great,” said Mair, who immediately signed up for the band. “I was in eighth grade thinking about the trombone and my friend said I should pick the saxophone so we could sit together and help each other out.”
Not only did he start playing the sax but he immediately founded his own jazz combo.
“We’d rehearse after school almost every day and the principal would let us stay as long as we wanted as long as we shut the door when we left,” Mair said. That he should organize a band at such an early age comes as no surprise, At age 10, he was coaching boys and girls floor hockey teams. “We had a fourth grade all-star team and challenged the sixth grade team and beat them,” he said proudly.
His skills on the saxophone earned him a scholarship to the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. “I wanted to be a music director and most good directors were trained in the U.S.,” said Mair, who came to UMKC because of Kansas City’s jazz heritage for his master’s.
Graduating in 1990, he applied for and was offered a job with Dave Brubeck’s son at the University of Natal in South Africa. “Almost to the day, I started playing at the Phoenix jazz club and since the Natal job was for only two years, I turned it down and played six nights a week at the Phoenix for five years.”
It proved a good decision. He would meet his wife, Mary, at the Phoenix and was hired at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls in 1995. “An awesome four years,” said Mair of his stay there. “A great school, we built the program and took the band to the Montreux Jazz Festival, Mary and I were named Persons of the Year by the Twin Falls Chamber and we left an endowment.”
It was almost too good for Mair to leave. “I was getting on a plane and I heard someone yell ‘Jim Mair’ and it was Marlin Cooper. We were going to the same music convention and he said he needed to talk to me, that he was retiring. Mary was relucrtant to leave but her family was here and we decided that KCKCC could be good too.”
In addition to the many programs Mair has founded at KCKCC, he also founded and directed the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra for eight years until stepping aside in 2011 to spend more time with his children, Amanda, 12, and Jameson, 8. The coach of Jameson’s hockey team, Mair has also written a song for his daughter entitled “Mandy’s Song.”
Not satisfied with being awfully good, Mair’s immediate goals are to expand the High School All-Star Jazz program and the Jazz Summit, add two more months to the very popular “Jazz by the Lake” series and revive the program of Wednesday lessons. It will be hard, however, to improve much on the Summer Camp, not with the likes of former Glenn Miller lead trumpet Steve Molloy, 3-time Grammy nominee Rod Fleeman (guitar and three Governors Award winners, organist Everett Devan (Missouri); saxophonist Doug Talley (Kansas); and NPR radio host and percussionist Scott Prebys (North Dakota).