DECATUR — As a sophomore in the 1979 class at MacArthur High School, music educator Mark Crawford was present for the first year of long-time band leader Jim Culbertson’s long tenure.
Trumpet player Lee Watts, on the other hand, was a Culbertson student in what was supposed to be the last year of his time at MacArthur, in 2009.
Now, the former is an instructor and the latter a student at the same school, Tennessee State University, but both still keep the lessons that Culbertson taught them fresh in their minds.
“I remember that he immediately took charge and had things for everyone to do and be involved with,” said Crawford, who played trumpet, baritone and bass guitar in Culbertson’s jazz bands. “Now being a teacher myself, my experience with him has been a major reference point for me. As a teacher, I have only recently realized the extent of his knowledge of music. One thing that amazes me, for instance, is how he stays current with the songs he selects for the jazz band; he’s always picking contemporary songs and new writers. I wish I knew what his sources were, because I would use them.”
Today, Crawford is the coordinator of commercial music for the Tennessee State University program, a major that he compared to the local commercial music major at Millikin University. Watts is a student at the university primarily studying elementary education, although he is getting a minor in music and has performed with many of the university ensembles and bands. But even with three decades of separation, both musicians remember Culbertson in almost the exact same way.
“The guy never ages,” Crawford said. “He’s got the cool shades, the stocky build, always wearing black. I don’t want to say he’s cocky, but he’s confident. And if you can back it up, why not? I just remember he was the guy who we could tell knew what he was doing and enjoyed what he was doing. He wanted us to do our best and wouldn’t settle for anything less.”
Watts was surprised to find just how closely his current instructor’s description fit his former instructor.
“When Mr. Crawford describes Mr. C, I think to myself ‘Wow, he hasn’t changed at all,’ ” Watts said. “He still carries that confidence and drive to make sure you’re learning everything he wants you to know. He pushed me to join the jazz band because I guess he saw the potential in me. He helped get me ready for college.”
Both Crawford and Watts also reminisced on the lessons they learned from Culbertson that they’re still applying today. Crawford sees Culbertson as the model for continuing to play and perform during a career in education, and Watts believes the time he spent in Culbertson’s bands helped improve his own self-image.
“I learned a lot about confidence from him,” Watts said. “I wasn’t really confident in my own playing abilities, but he brought that out of me. Mr. C had high expectations for each student in his band, and that meant that he cared a lot.”
Culbertson initially intended to retire at the end of the 2009-2010 school year, which would have made Crawford and Watts student bookends to his career there. The director returned for one more year, however, when the school was unable to find a replacement in time. Now officially retired, he continues to direct the Decatur Municipal Band in the summer months, and he enjoys traveling with his son, successful jazz artist Brian Culbertson. He was pleased to see that the cycle of education he put into place in MacArthur is still unfolding, with students teaching students.
“We always said in that program that it’s the older students’ responsibility to teach the freshmen and sophomores,” Culbertson said. “It was kind of our musical creed. I’m glad to see that’s still going on today.”