by Richard Wang
Long before Jazz was an accepted study within the music education curriculum, a black South-Side band director was busy preparing his students for professional careers in this music called Jazz. Beginning in 1931 with his appointment as the band director at Wendell Phillips High School, Captain Walter Henri Dyett trained more than 20,000 musicians until his retirement from DuSable High School thirty years later in 1961.
He was a commanding leader and a demanding taskmaster, a teacher who would accept nothing less than the best his students were able to produce. His personal and professional creed “He can who thinks he can” sustained his students through the difficulties which lie ahead of them in a highly competitive profession—a profession made more difficult by a society not free of racism.
The list of famous Jazz musicians who passed through his program is legion: saxophonists Gene “Jug” Ammons, Johnny Board, Von Freeman, Joseph Jarman, John Gilmore, and Clifford Jordan; trumpeters Sonny Cohn and Paul Serrano; trombonist Julian Priester; bassists Wilbur Ware, Richard Davis, and Fred Hopkins; pianists Dorothy Donegan and John Young; drummers Wilbur Campbell, Walter Perkins, and Jerome Cooper; violinist Leroy Jenkins; singers Dinah Washington and Johnny Hartman—the list could go on and on.
Walter Henri Dyett was born on January 11, 1901, the son of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church whose calling required the family to move frequently. The family eventually settled in California where Dyett began studying the violin seriously and became the concertmaster of his high school orchestra in Pasadena. Later, while pursuing premedical studies at the University of California in Berkeley, he played in the university symphony orchestra. In 1921 he came to Chicago and by the mid-twenties he was playing with Erskine Tate and conducting the orchestra at the Pickford theaters. It was during these years that he acquired the title “Captain” when he was appointed the director of the Eight Regiment Army Band.
Of the many ensembles Dyett directed at DuSable —beginning band, concert band, honors band, marching band, and ROTC band—it was the Booster Band and Orchestra which played for school dances, special assemblies, and the annual Hi-Jinks shows which gave his students their most important pre-professional experience. Dyett began producing the Hi-Jinks musicals in 1936; the tradition became so deeply rooted at DuSable that the shows continued to be produced well into the 1960s after Dyett had retired.
Dyett wrote and arranged most of the music for the shows which featured the singing, dancing, and theatrical talents of the student body as well as the Booster Band. It was in the pit that the musicians in his 25-piece band sharpened their reading skills and prepared for careers in music. In conjunction with DuSable’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1985, Hi-jinks was revived and dedicated to its creator Captain Walter Henri Dyett.
Dyett/DuSable alumnus Joseph Jarman reflecting on the legacy of Captain Dyett in 1980 stated: “He was like this eternal spirit manifested in living form. One had to experience his vibrancy. We can talk about his vision, but for him to look at you with those eyes, to smile at you, for this giant to say you’re cool. . . .”
Richard Wang, a past president and current board member of the JIC, is Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Ensembles at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Chairman of the executive committee of the Chicago Jazz Archives of The University of Chicago.
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