The Northview High School Jazz Band has burned through another take of Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” at a peppy pace, when director Greg Wells decides it’s time for a pep talk.
“We need to play this way always,” Wells tells his 20 or so players at a recent rehearsal. “I see Lexi up here and she’s literally like bouncing in her chair.” This draws a grin from Lexi Martin, the sole clarinet on this swingin’ tune.
“This music is dance music,” Wells exhorts the band. “I mean, Elijah’s totally drivin’ it,” he says of drummer Elijah Cosby while snapping his fingers. “Don’t you feel it? Ya gotta have bounce, otherwise the music’s going to be flat.”
This is how Wells drives his honors-winning jazz band, as well as the three concert bands he directs and, in fall, the marching band. Altogether, some 200 student musicians – about 20 percent of the school – learn their chops and crescendos under him, as did Wells from his predecessor, Max Colley Jr.
Band is big at Northview. The program takes top state festival awards, regularly plays Festival of the Arts and will take its 11th European tour in summer 2019. The jazz band recently returned from its second trip to the Swing Central Jazz festival in Savannah, Georgia, where it was one of 12 bands selected along with the Byron Center High School Jazz Orchestra.
Wells grew up as part of this proud tradition, in a family of music educators, and feels honored to carry it on.
“Music is so much of who I am – I get edified playing music,” says Wells, who’s taught at Northview since 2010. “To see other students find that passion and appreciation for music and the arts, it’s a lifelong thing. For me to be a part of that is great.
“To see their growth, weekly, monthly, yearly, is just amazing – to see what they can do and where they go.”
Passing on Passion for Music
Some of his jazz band members plan to go far with music, whether professionally or personally. First trumpet Ben Piela, a senior, plans to pursue jazz studies, probably at Western Michigan University – Wells’ alma mater – and aims for a performing career. He says Wells has been a mentor to him.
“Mr. Wells has always challenged me with new things every year,” says Ben, who warmed up for a recent rehearsal with a classical solo by himself. “He continually finds ways to challenge me as a musician and push me to grow further.”
Wells’ enthusiasm for his art rubs off on Caitlin Tay, a sophomore trumpeter.
“I see Mr. Wells have such a passion for it, and it translates to the students,” says Caitlin, who also hopes to play for a career. “I see him get so excited about it, and it makes me excited about it. He tells all these amazing stories of experiences he’s had in his career, and it makes me want to have that as well.”
As an active freelance trumpeter and bassist who has played with many bands, including the Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra and River City Jazz Band, Wells regularly plays with other Northview grads. While he’d love to see his students join the ranks of working musicians, more important to him is that they go on to love and appreciate music the rest of their lives – and pass it on.
“If they would just sing to their kids growing up, that would be amazing,” he says.
A Musical Upbringing
Wells grew up immersed in music, in Northview. His father, David, was a middle school band director there. From a young age Greg sang, took piano and began playing trumpet in fifth grade, with his father his first director.
“I lived and breathed it,” Wells says of his musical upbringing.
When he hit high school, he played under Colley, who built a first-class jazz program in his 40 years of directing, and took private instruction from his son, Max Colley III. Last year, Wells organized a concert honoring them and other Northview band directors.
‘So many people would love to be able to teach at a place like this.’ — Band director Greg Wells
But he didn’t immediately jump into teaching music. Upon graduating from Northview in 1996, “I ran away from it. I had to prove to everybody I wasn’t just good at music – I could do other things.”
He started out studying physics and engineering at Grand Rapids Community College but went back to music his sophomore year, earning a bachelor’s at WMU and his master’s at Michigan State University.
“I found I was fed personally by performing music,” Wells reflects. “Being able to potentially pass that on to other people was just exciting.”
Filling Big Shoes
He fed the excitement of music to other students, first for eight years at DeWitt Public Schools. Then, in a move he never thought he’d make, he was hired to succeed the somewhat legendary Colley when he retired in 2010.
“I literally would say to people, ‘Pity the fool that takes the job from Mr. Colley,’” Wells says with a smile. “I knew what this job was. It’s a huge job with huge shoes to fill and big expectations.”
But his thinking changed after Colley himself urged him to apply. He realized, “I care about this program. I have some pride in that program yet. And I wanted that program to keep going.”
He was already living in the district so that he and his wife, Michele, could raise their children in Northview. He applied, was hired, and stepped into Colley’s size 35 shoes.
Inheriting such a storied band program is an honor he and middle school director Mark Lago take seriously, Wells says.
“So many people would love to be able to teach at a place like this,” he says. “(Students) choose to be here. I get to motivate, I get to encourage, and just try to be a positive guy – and hopefully be a positive light to them through music.”
However, maintaining the program takes not only work but a lot of money. Unlike many programs, Northview does not charge students fees for marching band and other costs, and relies on between $40,000 and $50,000 a year from Northview Band Boosters to help the school pay for uniforms, large instruments and travel. It’s “a continual fundraising cycle,” Wells says.
“The program couldn’t exist in its state without them,” he says. “The Boosters are absolutely amazing.”
High Expectations, but Fun
Back in rehearsal, Wells pushes the jazz band to polish the Ellington tune, in preparation for an upcoming festival at MSU. We want to drive it, he tells them, but not too loud. He has the trumpets hum into their horns to get “a growling sound.” They go over the ending again and again. “We’re getting closer,” he tells them.
He’s demanding, but laughs abound. Sophomore Lexi Martin grins in between taking solos on clarinet, an instrument she learned only a year ago for jazz band. She also plays saxophone.
“He is so funny,” Lexi says of Wells. “He has this way of making the music fun to play. His personality is always up.”
That could be because he knows how lucky he is.
“I am truly honored and grateful to be here,” he says. “It’s just a dream. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a dream.”