The University of Arizona

Longtime Band Leader Jay Rees Returning to Alma Mater

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Relations - Communications | July 28, 2014
Jay Rees has written arrangements for jazz, wind ensemble, concert bands and athletic bands. (Photo credit: Norma Jean Gargasz/UANews)
Jay Rees has written arrangements for jazz, wind ensemble, concert bands and athletic bands. (Photo credit: Norma Jean Gargasz/UANews)

Jay Rees is leaving the UA after nearly two decades directing the UA's nationally recognized Pride of Arizona marching band.

Jay Rees (second from left), a UA School of Music Professor, is a conductor, composer, arranger and performer who has been a member of touring jazz-fusion ensemble Sylvan Street, serving as bassist, leader and composer. (Photo credit: Margie Wrye)
Jay Rees (second from left), a UA School of Music Professor, is a conductor, composer, arranger and performer who has been a member of touring jazz-fusion ensemble Sylvan Street, serving as bassist, leader and composer. (Photo credit: Margie Wrye)

When Jay Rees began directing the Pride of Arizona Marching and Pep Bands – having just completed his graduate studies at the University of Arizona – he had a revolutionary idea that would drastically change the band's identity, bringing it international fame.

The idea was unconventional: introduce more rigorous demands to professionalize the student experience, and infuse the band's traditional, somewhat militaristic feel with popular and alternative music. It was a risk to build custom arrangements around music by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, the Talking Heads and others, and Rees withstood backlash from colleagues across the nation and, at times, his own students.

But as Rees leaving the UA and now heading up University of Miami's marching band, reflections on his nearly 20-year tenure illustrate an unyielding pride in having transformed the band from its purely traditional college marching band to one know for its innovation. 

"People thought I was crazy. A lot of people didn't understand bringing this kind of music into this setting," he recalled.

"But who wants to do what others are doing. It's not challenging and it's not engaging," said Rees, who had directed the band since 1995 and also taught at the UA School of Music. "Now, when people talk about the Pride of Arizona they talk about it because it is unique and it has an identity. And I'm very proud that bands are now playing more unusual music. That wasn't happening in 1995."

Allison Howard, a UA alumna and assistant director of bands, will serve as the interim director while a national search is conducted to find Rees' successor.

Rees, the second-longest-serving band director in UA history, also took his passion and energy to the classroom, where he taught music education, jazz studies and a course in leadership.

"Jay Rees is focused and exigent as a professor, and he trained music education students in his philosophy, procedures and materials and sent them out to build on his work," said Rex Woods, the UA School of Music director 

"He builds an esprit de corps and uses well-timed humor and is in tune with the musical preferences of young people, using that awareness to identify direct entry points for learning," Woods said.

"He expects much of himself and inspires his students to dedicate themselves to excellence that they themselves can measure. Student motivation quickly becomes intrinsic because progress, individual and collective, is vividly evident. He has left a lasting mark on the Pride of Arizona and a challenge to continue to excel."

Rees often involved students in community-based service, believing they were representatives of the UA and state and had a responsibility to connect with the community. Among his students, given his sharp leadership style and open communication, Rees gained a reputation for being equally hard-edged, compassionate and genuine.

"He instilled in us a sense of teamwork and a never-ending desire to reach our highest potential," said UA alumna Karin K. Nolan, who served as a Pride of Arizona baritone and tuba player.

"In an age where 'good enough' sometimes passes, Rees taught us to go back and do it again until it 'can't get any better,'" said Nolan, now the coordinator of field experiences for the UA College of Fine Arts.

Rees, who said he especially loves teaching college students, refused to accept average performance. He worked with his students to reach their potential, holding them accountable for their missteps, often unapologetically.

Rees' efforts to build "a culture of uncommon discipline" within the marching band is chronicled in "Marching Bands and Drumlines: Secrets of Success from the Best of the Best," published in 2009.

"It is my job to push the student, or drag them kicking and screaming, into professionalism. I don't want them to just get a job. I want them to do something they are amazing at doing. I want them to be energized to be great," Rees said.

"I am always honest, and sometimes people don't want that," he said. "But when I tell them, 'That was wonderful,' then that means something."

Lindsay McDonald Johnson, a former Pride of Arizona member who completed a UA nursing degree in 2008, said it was through Rees' teachings that she was able to expand her capacity for hard work, dedication and meeting high expectations.

"One might wonder how a music professor could teach a cardiovascular nurse anything relevant in health care. But throughout my time as a student, a staff member, and a friend, I have not had a mentor quite like professor Jay C. Rees," said Johnson, now a cardiovascular critical care nurse at the University of Arizona Medical Center.

His passion included excitement and heated exchanges at rehearsals and performances alike, Johnson said.

"He holds no emotion back," Johnson said. "Through this, he has formed a unique connection with each of his students and demonstrates what it means to be a leader. He has taught me that if I’m going to do something, I should do it well and care about it. He's a pretty powerful teacher."

UA alumna Kelsi Sullivan, who was involved with the band beginning in 2010 before graduating in 2014, also recalled his excitment, remembering one of the band's performances during her freshman year.

"He was jumping and screaming and slapping the railing, his ponytail becoming undone from pure excitement," Sullivan said. "He is so passionate about everything that he does that sometimes he cannot physically handle how amazing his masterpiece is when it comes to life."

While moving to Miami was a homecoming for Rees – the University of Miami is his alma mater – many said he would be terribly missed in Arizona.

"The mark he has made on students, faculty and music lovers connected with the UA will resonate in the halls of the School of Music for years to come," said UA alumnus Dan Kruse, senior radio announcer for Arizona Public Media. Kruse worked directly with Rees while serving as a percussionist with the UA Wind Symphony.

"Working in the Wind Symphony, I learned a great deal – not only about how to perform the particular piece of music placed before us on a given day – but also about the composer’s intent, the deeper meanings of the music itself, and the tools that were at our disposal to bring those meanings forth," Kruse said. "When that happens, truly happens, the result is a musical experience that is enriching to both the performers and audience members, on a profound and deeply rewarding level."

Jane McCollum, general manager for the Marshall Foundation, meet Rees about 20 years ago while organizing a fundraiser for the UA Bands. The performance gave her goose bumps, she said.

"I still get goose bumps today when I hear the Pride at Bear Down Fridays and in Arizona Stadium," McCollum said.

"When I hear the booming voice of Jay during band camp, I know that students' and other’s lives will be changed forever by this brilliant composer, arranger, choreographer, mentor, teacher, community servant, musician and friend," she said. "Mine has. I will miss that voice. I will miss my friend."

Rees and the band also drew attention for their musical efforts outside the UA.

In 2009, the College Band Directors National Association named the band, which has released a number of CDs and has appeared on the Today's Show and Fox Sports, among the top five in the nation. That was the same year Rees established Sylvan Street, a Jazz group.

In 2006, Pride of Arizona performed a Radiohead set, which drew the attention of The Guardian and the band's singer, Thom Yorke.

In 2001, Rees choreographed about 10,000 citizens into a "live human flag" after Sept. 11. The memorial aired on CNN and was featured in Sports Illustrated.

Although Rees and his wife, Wendy, have moved to Miami, they remain connected to Arizona. Their eldest son is attending Arizona State University and their younger son, who begins his freshman year at the UA this fall, will be a Pride of Arizona member.

Rees' influence will also be evident at Arizona Stadium: He completed arrangements for the 2014-2015 season focusing on the music of Daft Punk, which came at the suggestion of several of his current and former students.

"I love all these student so much, and I want them to be the best ever," Rees said. "I always want to create an environment of excellence and unique talent. And if I have a legacy, it's about the students and the experiences they had."