Band students at Warren County High School were hitting the high note last Thursday when Chris Crenshaw became their director for two class periods. Mr. Crenshaw is a professional musician with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis.
"They were shy at first," Mr. Crenshaw said between classes. "I was like that, too, when I was their age. But once we started talking music, they got into it."
Mr. Crenshaw told the band members that he was "not much older than most of you guys," and "music has been a big part of my life, even as a baby." He began playing the keyboard when he was 3 years old, moving on at the age of 12 to play in his father's gospel group, the Echoes of Joy.
Then, when he was in the eighth grade at Thomson Middle School, he heard Wycliffe Gordon play the trombone.
"He wowed me with it, he made it talk. He played jazz and I got inspired by that," he said.
From that point on, Mr. Crenshaw has played the trombone. He graduated from Thomson High School in 2001, from Valdosta State University with a bachelor's degree in jazz performance in 2005 and from The Juilliard School with a master's degree in jazz studies in 2007.
Mr. Crenshaw was invited to speak to the WCHS band by Milledge Samuels, who is the director of the Warren County Recreation Department. Mr. Samuels said he has been close friends with the Crenshaw family for years and feels like Mr. Crenshaw is his son.
With obvious pride, he introduced Mr. Crenshaw to the students. Just as obvious was his desire that each of them succeed in life, also.
"Hopefully, he'll be an inspiration and motivation to you," Mr. Samuels told the students. "If not to pursue a music career, then to set a goal and accomplish it."
Although the jazz musician spoke mostly of music, Mr. Samuels urged him to talk about his accomplishments, what it took to achieve them, and the benefits he now enjoys.
Now 26 years old, Mr. Crenshaw said he lives just outside of Atlanta with his wife, Melody, and their 15-month-old daughter, Jazzlyn. His location allows him to be close to family, while allowing him to "hop on a plane" for performances in New York City or anywhere else in the world.
He traveled down memory lane to when he played gigs as an aspiring musician in college, and said he'd receive $50 to $175 per gig.
"Trying to pay rent out of pocket was hard that way," he admitted.
But he continued to practice, to excel at higher learning and to "get to know my instrument, what it can do and what it can't do." Mr. Crenshaw said he'll never forget receiving his first paycheck from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
"They handed it to me, and I looked and it was $1,426 for one gig that was three days," he said, while he play-acted looking down at a paycheck in his hands. "I said 'I could get used to this.' "
Even though he didn't initiate the bragging, he ended it there, saying, "That's enough of that, I want to get into the music."
Mr. Crenshaw then had the students play the songs they were supposed to be working on during that time -- Michael Jackson's Dirty Diana , and Man in the Mirror.
"It's very great to have him here because he plays the same instrument that I play, and maybe I can learn how to be better," said sophomore Joshua Burns, who is WCHS concert band's lone trombonist.
Occasionally, Mr. Crenshaw stopped the band's playing to talk about what he heard from each instrument section and gave points to "take it to the next level." His examples could be easily understood by the most unrehearsed rookie -- "It needs to be like a toddler yanking on his mama's clothes whispering 'I gotta go to the bathroom.' It's soft and quiet, but noticeably intense."
Sometimes, he demonstrated how the songs should sound with his own trombone. But mostly, he scatted. And the students caught on.
"You always need to make the audience think you know what you're doing, and you just did that," he praised the band after their second attempt of a piece.
Warren's band director, Scott Richardson, enjoyed having someone of notability taking his spot for a few hours. In fact, he even grabbed a drum and played along with the students. But his teaching never stopped, as he sometimes reminded the students that what Mr. Crenshaw was saying was something they had been working on.
"These kids love the band," Mr. Samuels said. "They light up the field on Friday nights. I mean, they bring it."