Making the (Big) Band

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – At the end of the 1950s in this industrial town, there was plenty of blue-collar toughness, but not a whole lot of jazz.

Then came Don Lawrence in 1959, and along with him came a new era. It was the beginning of Columbia Falls High School’s reign as a premiere big band jazz institution – the birth of the student jazz group known as the Columbians. This year, the Columbians are celebrating their 50th birthday.

Last week at a rehearsal for a May 20 alumni concert commemorating the 50-year anniversary of the Columbians, trumpeter John Nelson recalled his days in the Columbians with fondness. Nelson graduated in 1980 and today is a middle-school band teacher in Pasco, Wash.

Nelson arrived by train the morning of the alumni concert and left that night to arrive back in Pasco the following morning. He made the trip to, once again, play for Lawrence, who was taking turns with current Columbians’ director Karen Ulmer leading the band at the reunion concert.

“Don got kids interested in music and kept them interested,” Nelson said. “He was able to show students that music was an important part of their life.”

Lawrence was born in Kalispell and grew up playing music. After high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he played in talented field bands. He moved on from the Air Force to study music at the University of Montana, where he was a trumpeter in a big band jazz group similar to the Columbians.

Members of the UM band ended up earning a college credit for big band jazz, though nobody would call it that at the time. Lawrence’s transcript gives him one credit for “mixed-wind ensemble.”

“Those days, jazz was kind of a no-no word for music school,” Lawrence said.

That band at UM helped spark an embrace of jazz among academics at the university, Lawrence said. It may have also sparked Lawrence’s penchant for creating new musical traditions, as he did in Columbia Falls.

Seeking a music teaching job after graduation, Lawrence nearly accepted a position in Sidney, on the other side of the state from his native Flathead. But at the last second, a job as band director at Columbia Falls High School opened up.

The previous band director had done a superb job at teaching music fundamentals, Lawrence said, but the kids weren’t quite ready for his improvisational jazz tastes. Nor was the school.

“When I came here, there wasn’t a drum set,” Lawrence said. “There weren’t any amplifiers or a string bass.”

Staying true to his jazz instincts, Lawrence improvised. He had the tuba players perform the string bass parts of jazz tunes and taught his students on the fly.

“That first session was pretty bad,” Lawrence said.

But over time, the music department’s equipment repertoire expanded, as did the kids’ musical repertoire. And Lawrence was learning, too – he discovered that he could relate to kids.

“No teacher knows he can teach until he has to do it,” Lawrence said.

Jerry Knutson, who graduated from Columbia Falls High School in 1972 and performed at the alumni concert, said Lawrence was more than a teacher to him. Lawrence taught Knutson to play trumpet from fifth through 12th grade.

“He was my mentor,” Knutson said, adding that there was no way he would turn down Lawrence’s request for him to travel from Seattle to Columbia Falls for the reunion concert. “It’s hard to say ‘no’ to Don.”

In the 1960s, the Columbians began turning heads. No longer a disjointed collection of high school horn-blowers, they were now a legitimate jazz band, with a respected leader in Lawrence. By the 1970s, as Lawrence puts it, the band’s musical prowess had reached “roaring proportions.”

“But we had to start somewhere,” Lawrence said. “They had to have the Model T before they could have the Lincoln.”

The Columbians participated in prestigious jazz festivals throughout the 1970s and twice won what is now called the Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival in Moscow, Idaho. They took top honors in 1974 and 1976, competing against big schools from Seattle, Spokane and elsewhere. Lawrence said other schools had jazz band in their curricula, whereas the Columbians still met once a week on their own time.

“That’s something I like to brag about,” Lawrence said of the Lionel Hampton honors.

Lawrence retired from Columbia Falls High School in 1984 but over the last two years has volunteered to assist Karen Ulmer, who’s in her 10th year as band director. After Lawrence’s retirement, Mike Sachs took over the school’s music program, followed by Andy Alley, Jeff Sizer and then Ulmer.

Under Ulmer, the Columbians have achieved one of Lawrence’s longtime dreams: they are part of the daily curriculum. Ulmer has taken it a step farther, adding two other jazz bands as well. If the Columbians are the school’s “varsity” jazz band, the Jazz Factory is the junior varsity and the Jazz George is the freshman squad.

The Columbians get the cream of the school’s crop of music students. And the crop is substantial. Ulmer, who plays saxophone in the band Cocinando, said out of the school’s 750 or so students, about 300 are involved in music: roughly 150 in both band and choir, with 60 in the three jazz groups.

At the rehearsal for the alumni concert, Lawrence led a band of players ranging in age by multiple decades, including some who haven’t performed in front of a crowd in years. But they sounded good, and Lawrence looked comfortable. He paced, motioned and joked in between tunes. He didn’t miss a beat.

He looked like he’d been doing it for 50 years.