By Leslie D. Rose
When local musician and teacher, John Gray got the call that he was to receive the Teacher of the Year award from the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra (BRSO), he said he expected to be among two other recipients – but he was the only one there that day.
Each year since 2005, BRSO has given awards to outstanding teachers in band, ensemble, and an overall music teacher. BRSO Director of Education and development coordinator Jessica Ottaviano said the selection committee found Gray’s nomination form to be so outstanding, that they only saw fit to award The Dunham School teacher this year.
As a member and leader of several local bands, including Baton Rouge brass favorite, The Michael Foster Project, Gray started his teaching career in 2001 as a teaching artist through the Arts Council of Greater Baton Rouge. It’s through his experiences as a working artist that he has been able to form his teaching pedagogue with his students at The Dunham School.
But while Gray may be the cool teacher with a trumpet, he’s still, very much ‘tie those shoes’ and ‘tuck that shirt in.’
“Things that I deal with addressing my students have to deal with more than just the X’s and O’s of playing music,” Gray said. “It’s also professionalism, and being able to talk to people in a certain way, and to be able to manage themselves before they go do a gig, dressing appropriately and correct – all of those details that go into the things that I do professionally as a musician, they need to know also.”
Gray’s classes perform shows outside of the school as part of their professional development and volunteer service hours. This year Gray had been confident enough to send his students out to perform shows without his direct guidance – he said the reports have always been positive.
“Getting to the point when I can send the band out without being there, physically says where this band program is going,” he said. “Getting where I’d like to get it – where I can train up musicians to go and do gigs and performances and represent the school and the band program well. It makes me very proud when people are very receptive to what they do.”
The band program at The Dunham School started under the leadership of Baton Rouge Music Studios (BRMS) owner and director Doug Gay. Gray worked as Gay’s substitute teacher until Gay referred him for the full-time position upon his departure to grow BRMS.
“The situation at Dunham wouldn’t be what it is today without Doug,” Gray said. “We taught together for many years and the type of groundwork that he laid down made it easy for me to take over and keep it moving. He’s been a partner helping me from the time that he left up ‘til this point, so I gotta give it up for Doug.”
It’s a mutual respect between Gay and Gray as Gay was the person who sent BRSO the nomination for Gray.
“It was an honor to nominate John,” Gay said. “John is not only a loyal and dedicated friend – he is an excellent teacher who is just as loyal and dedicated to his students. He has too many irons in the fire, and somehow he manages to give 100% to all of them. He must be a pretty exhausted guy at the end of the day.”
One of those irons is managing, booking and performing with his own bands – The Soul Jukebox and The J. Gray Jazz Trio, both of which perform as frequently as or even more often than the Michael Foster Project, who fans can see nearly every week in the Baton Rouge area.
And while working what appears to be 22 hours a day, Gray credits his wife and mother for helping and inspiring the balance he is able to maintain. Incidentally, his mother Cathy received the Senior Mother of the Year award from Shiloh MBC on the same weekend he was named Teacher of the Year.
“I’ve been able to do a lot because my mother set me up with experiences – from being at McKinley middle and high and Southern University to having me around certain people,” he said. “I didn’t even realize the tradition I was being led into – I look at her and see where I get certain things from – we’re definitely cut from the same cloth and she’s a bad chick!”
And appropriately so, John said he’s humbled about his own award.
“It sounds very cliché, but I do feel very humbled and excited,” he said. “It was inspiring and it makes me that much more amped up about the band program because this ain’t where it stops. I look back to the time I’ve put into this job and I’m not bashful in saying that I work my butt off and there’s no other way that you can build a program or tradition – you can’t do it by punching in and punching out – I think about the band and my students all the time. When it comes down to it, you got to either handle business or be content with being extra alright – I handle business.”