Studio Visit appears first in print, in Sunday editions of The News-Gazette. Here, Melissa Merli visits with musician Nathaniel Banks, who after 30 years at the University of Illinois now is directing the Urbana High School Jazz Band. In the March 4 newspaper, we'll have a studio visit with Phoebe Lenear, a choir member and worship director at Canaan Baptist Church in Urbana.
Q: When did you start directing the Urbana High School Jazz Band?
A: January 2011.
Q: Were you recruited or did you seek the position?
A: I did apply for the position. Jazz has always been my love, so once I retired, I knew I would have time to work on that.
Q: When did you retire from the African American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois?
A: Actually, I didn't retire from the cultural center. But I retired from campus in 2010, after working there for about 30 years.
Q: Why did you want to teach, particularly at the high school level?
A: That was the opportunity that presented itself, but I've been interested in working with teenagers most of my life. So it was a natural fit.
Q: Are you still doing the Mo' Betta Music program?
A: Yes. It's an after-school program. Actually, a couple of Mo' Betta students are in this band.
Q: Is the Mo' Betta program only in the summers?
A: No, it's year-round. We rehearse on Thursdays and Saturdays and have two one-week summer camps.
Q: What age group is that?
A: As young as 10 years old and up to 18 and 19.
Q: How's Mo' Betta going?
A: It's going well. We operate with volunteers. We've had a good group. One of our volunteers, Abbie Harris, is a teacher in the Champaign schools. Ron Bridgewater is one of our volunteers; he's a jazz professor on campus, and Robert Lewis and myself.
Q: Do the Mo' Betta musicians play in the area?
A: We play around town. Actually, they're performing (this past Thursday) at the Boys and Girls Club Steak-N-Burger Dinner. Ron is leading that group because the Urbana High Jazz Band is playing the same night.
Q: I thought the UHS Jazz Band really swung the other evening when I heard them at Parkland College.
A: We strive for that a lot. What we call it is playing within the context of the music. We play music from the '30s, '40s and '50s, so getting the feeling of that swing is basically what we've been working on, a lot.
Q: What do you emphasize in the Mo' Betta program?
A: We use jazz as our primary vehicle, but we also work a bit with popular music. We'll play Earth, Wind & Fire charts. We have a Kool and the Gang piece. The idea of Mo' Betta is to play music the kids like and to get their skill levels up. The purpose of Mo' Betta is to get students to participate in their school bands beyond the sixth- and seventh-grade level. Usually after the sixth and seventh grades, students start finding other interests and drop out of band. I think a lot of it is because they can't find that bridge to success so we're trying to fill that gap, and it seems to be working.
Q: Do kids nowadays like jazz?
A: That's an interesting question. Actually, they do. Students like good music, like all of us do. That's why jazz is such a great medium. It's great music. When you learn the idiom, it's fun to play. I think the future of jazz is bright because of programs like this. We (UHS Jazz Band) just came back from a jazz festival at Western Illinois University and one at Eastern before that. They're very vibrant festivals, and even the smaller school districts have good jazz programs. Jazz as a music is definitely not going anywhere. I think it will remain popular.
Q: As a jazz trumpeter, are you still playing with groups around town?
A: Not as much as I would like, but I do play. I have an ensemble, Nathaniel and Friends. Basically, I try to get talented musicians who are available for any given outing.