Jim Sherman, rock and roll teacher: 1947-2016

We just stayed and jammed.

shermanI’m not even sure why Mr. Carter, a social studies teacher, was in the music trailer behind the gym. But he and I and Mr. Sherman, the merry ringleader of the eclectic “music” offerings in this trailer, were hanging around after school and playing — Mr. Carter on keyboards, me probably on guitar, Mr. Sherman on whatever. We’d always heard he played every instrument except harp and bagpipes, and he was learning bagpipes.

Ted Pecchio, now a professional musician, poked his head in the trailer and said he had his bass with him. Could he join in?

And that’s how the Athens Academy Jazz Band was formed.

Not that we really played “jazz” in any conventional sense. “Jam Band” would’ve made more sense. We took any old tune or just a 12-bar blues progression and played.

At our first performance, we had about five minutes left in a school assembly. We played considerably longer than that. Everyone was late to the next class. Everyone loved us.

We wound up adding a couple of people after that. I can’t remember who else joined besides Matt Sligh, who was our emcee of sorts.

All of our music had that ad hoc improvisational quality to it. We were a small school. Our “band” would be whatever permutation of people we could find. Some of us did lunchtime music in the cafeteria — one day, I played saxophone, though I could only play in one key because the fingerings in that key were identical to those on my clarinet. Picking up a new instrument wasn’t new for me — I wound up on stand-up bass because it was just the top four strings on a guitar, turned sideways. Right?

It would’ve sounded like a train wreck if not for Mr. Sherman, who could pick up any instrument at hand and save the day.

At times, he was the clown prince of music. He would play a saxophone with a rubber chicken hanging out. At graduation rehearsals, he would gradually morph Pomp and Circumstance into something else — maybe Take Me Out to the Ball Game or the Budweiser jingle.

His jolly demeanor masked a prodigious mind. He spoke several languages, having grown up in a diverse part of Chicago. He had trained to be a priest — on one road trip, he suggested he could do a quick Mass in the parking lot if anyone worried about missing church.

And he had impeccable musicianship, showing me how much more the human brain could process. I sat next to him when he played Christmas tunes for a holiday singalong. For some reason, we did Joy to the World twice. I noticed that he changed keys the second time around, transposing it in his head. He told me never to play the same song in the same key twice.

So I felt anything was possible in music. Play multiple instruments, including one you just picked up. Make people laugh. Get a “fake book” that gives a couple of chords and figure out a song on the fly from there.

That’s the life he lived. In addition to his position at the Academy, he gave lessons and performed. I remember going out to dinner at a nice-ish Athens restaurant and seeing him at the piano, cheerfully setting the ambiance. (I think he skipped Take Me Out to the Ball Game.)

My music teachers all meant the world to me, and they’ve continued their work for decades. Jane Douglas, who taught me piano and encouraged my interest in music theory, was still playing music in Athens in her 80s. Earl Ayers, whose band classes were the highlight of my Clarke Middle years, switched schools but is also still teaching in Athens. Rodney Wynkoop, the Duke Chorale and Chapel Choir director, was such a good teacher that I wound up majoring in music.

On Saturday, Mr. Sherman was at the piano at Piccolo’s Italian Steakhouse in Watkinsville. On Sunday, he passed away.

Far too young, of course. He had only been retired from the Academy for a few years. But I take some comfort in knowing he was making people smile in his last evening on this earth.

Now there’s probably a great jam session going on in Heaven. A departed Scotsman on the bagpipes. A harpist. And Mr. Sherman on everything else.

And I see his spirit in my son, sitting down at the piano or the drums and figuring out how to make something work. If I can pass along any of Mr. Sherman’s attitude, I’ll be as successful a parent as he was a teacher.

Thanks for the education. And the jam sessions.