Former director of jazz band Fort Vancouver High shares CD from last day of class in 1977
Retired music teacher Ray Johnson has a goal he’d like to achieve by the New Year.
During the pandemic, Johnson, 81, searched for his former students in the 1977 Fort Vancouver High School jazz group.
“I’ve located 11 so far and I have 11 left to go,” Johnson said.
The former group director wants to give them a recording of their very last session together on June 6, 1977. It was also Johnson’s last day to teach there.
“This one is special because it’s the very last day of the very last class and the very last minute I got to see my kids. It’s special, ”Johnson said. “There are so many old people in the group; I wouldn’t have so much talent to work with in the years to come. It was time for me to move on.
It turned out that Johnson had made a reel-to-reel recording on a Wollensak tape recorder at the back of the group room. After rediscovering the recording, Johnson spent time putting the sounds on tape and then onto CD.
“This is what makes history come to life for me,” he said. “I’m so excited to let them know, here’s a blast from the past. They may also think it is important.
Those he has found so far are scattered all over the United States. Some of them continued to play music, some did not. Regardless, several students had one thing in common about Johnson: he had a big impact on their lives.
Although his hearing isn’t as good now, Johnson’s memory of all things musical is still fresh.
Johnson remembers coming from a musical family: his mother played the piano and sang; his father played the banjo, guitar and harmonica.
“My brother had a cone. I found it in the closet; he had already gone to war. He lost his life in a German death march, ”Johnson said. “I found this old cone and entered the Aberdeen School District fifth grade group. Finally, I got a better instrument.
He took music lessons and performed all over town. Johnson went on to obtain scholarships to attend college from the former Central Washington State College (now Central Washington University).
Then Johnson continued to teach music.
After teaching at Fort Vancouver High School, he taught at Hudson’s Bay in the voice department and also taught music at the elementary level. He ended his teaching career in 1992.
Although his career is over, he still finds time to play music. It kept him busy during the pandemic. He even recorded videos of himself singing and playing the piano and uploaded them to his YouTube channel. Most recently, Johnson performed for his family on a Zoom video call for Thanksgiving.
“I was like OK, that helps, because we’re trapped,” he said.
Finding his students also allowed him to focus more during the pandemic, he said.
A trip to the casino
Although he has taught many other students, the class of 1977 holds a special place in Johnson’s heart – which is why he tries to locate them.
It all started with a trip to Ilani.
Tim Zieman, 61, was spending an evening there earlier this year watching the Major League Baseball World Series. He started talking to someone else afterwards.
They shared names of teachers and talked about other events.
“I got to another teacher. I said ‘Do you know Ray Johnson?’ I said I was in a group and probably of all the teachers he was the biggest influence in my life – as he is with a lot of our classmates, “Zieman said.
“He smiles, he says ‘Yes, he’s married to my sister,’” Zieman said.
Zieman shared his phone number. Zieman and Johnson reconnected and Johnson shared the 1977 recording.
“I forgot we did this,” Zieman said. “We were one of the best groups to come out of this region. Not because it’s me, but because the talent that was there was incredible.
Although Zieman remained in the area – he lives in Washougal – he did not focus on music; he is a building contractor. Nonetheless, Zieman began to work with Johnson to find the other students.
One includes Dr Rob Murray, 62, professor of trumpet at Columbus State University in Georgia.
“(Johnson) had a huge influence on me in high school. He would give me private lessons; he presented me with a lot of quality material and studies, ”said Murray. “It inspired me.”
In fact, Murray wasn’t going to pursue music initially after graduating from high school and going to college. He considered medical school.
“I’ll never forget it. I got into the spring term, sat down with my advisor and watched next year’s program. My advisor told me all the musical stuff had to go because that wouldn’t fit on the schedule, “said Murray.” It gave me a real break. It probably took me the rest of the quarter to make a decision. I haven’t regretted it at all.
Anthony Hawkins, 62, was also a trumpeter. But after high school he joined the army. Now he lives in Maryland and works for the federal government. He was delighted to hear from Johnson.
“I thought it was a great idea,” Hawkins said. “I think he made us a lot more curious about each other.”
Hawkins said he passed Johnson’s teachings on to his own children. Her son is now a music teacher in Texas.
“I’ve always taught them to be a part of something bigger than them,” Hawkins said. “The group, for example, to have a common cause or goal. And learn to respect how your actions or inactions can impact the success of that more important thing, like in the case of a group.
“(Johnson is) so underrated,” Zieman said. “But not by someone who was in the group with him.”
“The comments are worth it,” Johnson said. “I give them something and they give it back to me.”