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Saluting Capt. Walter Dyett, who made stars at DuSable

Howard Reich

August 21, 2013

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Before Nat "King" Cole conquered the world, he studied music under Capt. Walter Dyett.

So did singer Johnny Hartman, pianists Dorothy Donegan and John Young, tenor saxophone giants Von Freeman, Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin and other musicians too numerous to name.

Some brushed up against Dyett when he taught at Wendell Phillips High School, in the early 1930s. Others during his far longer and more celebrated tenure at DuSable High School, from the mid-1930s to the 1960s.

But without Dyett, Chicago surely wouldn't have produced so many legendary jazz artists, the master teacher altering the course of the music through the young players he trained and launched.

To acknowledge Dyett's enormous achievement, three Dyett-DuSable alums will converge next Tuesday evening to play a most unusual concert at the school, at 49th Street and Wabash Avenue. Chicago saxophonists Mwata Bowden and Edwin Daugherty and trombonist T.S. Galloway, who's based in Holland, will premiere original works inspired by the aphorisms that Dyett famously dispensed to his students.

Anyone who studied with Dyett – or talked to those who did – will recognize some of his worldly-wise sayings: "If you think you can, you can." "You can be the best, if you want to be the best." "You have to more than want to do it – you have to will yourself to do it."

Some of the new pieces will carry these phrases as titles, but all of the Dyett proclamations clearly conveyed a single, underlying message: Anything is possible if you believe – and work like crazy.

"It was a whole mind-over-matter concept that he was putting on us," recalls Bowden, who graduated from DuSable in 1966 and today stands among Chicago's most accomplished jazz musicians.

"Everyone who came from Cap can tell you something that he said to them and, over a period of time, he said it again and again and again. And all of those things provided some guidance and approach for everything you had to face in life.

"You couldn't use the word 'can't' in the band room. He would blow up. … He wouldn't allow you to get away with that."

Of course, there was much more to Dyett's success as teacher than just his words of wisdom. He also drove his kids hard and was feared as much as he was revered.

"I went in five minutes late for one performance," the late bassist Fred Hopkins told me in 1998, "and he kicked me out of the band. They did that whole show without the bass!

"The next day I showed up for rehearsal, and Capt. Dyett says to me, 'What are you doing here?' 'I'm in the band,' I said. He told me that because I had been late, I was going to have to sit outside the band room – on the floor – for a month and listen to the band practice without me. …

"Once, after I had left DuSable but had come back to visit, one kid wanted to lip him and said, 'Hey, man, screw you,' and Dyett went over and jumped the guy. … And I'm thinking, 'Nope, the old man hasn't changed a bit.'"

But above all, it was Dyett's musicianship that transformed his students. Born in St. Joseph, Mo., in 1901, Dyett studied violin in California and came to Chicago in 1921, playing in theater orchestras and becoming intimately familiar with vernacular music of the Jazz Age. His subsequent studies at VanderCook College of Music and Chicago Musical College extended his knowledge of the classical-symphonic repertoire and deepened Dyett's reputation as proficient on practically any instrument he picked up.

Commissioned as a captain, he led the U.S. 8th Infantry Band in the 1930s and applied military rigor to the art of training young musicians.

"If you made a mistake, he would begin screaming," pianist Donegan told me in 1993. "That man could hear anything. He could hear a mosquito urinating on a bale of cotton."

All of which turned DuSable High School into a jazz nexus.

"Everybody in Chicago who had an instrument and wanted to play music back then tried their best to get to DuSable," Freeman told me in 1992.

Under Dyett's tutelage, Freeman and uncounted others became pros, with no less than Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton and Jimmie Lunceford dropping by the school to recruit talent, such as tenor prodigy Johnny Griffin.

"Hamp actually heard Johnny playing alto saxophone, but he loved what he heard – I was there that day," guitarist George Freeman, Von's brother, told me in 2008. "So Johnny went out on the road with Hamp, playing tenor."

The era that produced the great talent that Dyett nurtured obviously has come and gone, and the network of South Side clubs that gave these students the opportunity to hone their art unraveled long ago. But Dyett and DuSable remain integral to the history of jazz, Dyett's achievements worthy of remembrance and potential a source of inspiration for a younger generation of musicians.

"It's like that movie 'Mr. Holland's Opus'," says Bowden, referring to a 1995 feature film starring Richard Dreyfuss as a music teacher whose influence reached far wider than he realized.

"It's important that we recognize these kinds of people, their work and their life's focus, what they were really about. They may not have gotten all the cheers and accolades, but the number of people that they have touched and have come under their influence … was an incredible list," especially in the case of Dyett, who died in 1969 at age 68.

"When (students later) were faced with life challenges, they could go back to the teachings of this particular man."

One phrase that Dyett often repeated still echoes with Bowden.

"He said, 'You will never forget me. You might forget your English teacher, your math teacher, but you will never forget me.'"

We shouldn't forget him either.

"Tribute to Walter Dyett," presented of by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in partnership with the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago and the DuSable High School Alumni Coalition for Action, will run from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at DuSable High School, 4934 S. Wabash Ave. Admission is free; phone 312-744-3316 or visit chicagojazzfestival.us or jazzinchicago.org.

Another DuSable alum

Guitarist George Freeman, who also has brought glory to DuSable's name, will lead a quartet with guitarist Mike Allemana at 9 p.m. Thursday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave. Freeman carries forth the legacy of a family that has contributed greatly to jazz, including the work of his brothers, saxophonist Von Freeman and drummer Eldridge "Bruz" Freeman. Allemana collaborated prolifically with saxophonist Freeman, and the quartet also will feature organist Pete Benson and drummer Mike Schlick. Admission is free; constellation-chicago.com.

Delmark 60th bash

Lurrie Bell, Jimmy Burns, Sharon Lewis, Dave Specter and other leading blues figures will play a "Delmark Records 60th Anniversary Blues Show," celebrating the indestructible Chicago jazz-blues record label. A grand occasion by any measure. 7:30 p.m. Friday at Evanston SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston; 847-492-8860 or evanstonspace.com.

Chicago legends converge

Singer Frank D'Rone, singer-pianist Judy Roberts and vocalist Denise Tomasello will collaborate during "On Stage With … Chicago Music Legends" at the Auditorium Theatre. As the show's title suggests, the audience indeed sits on stage with the performers, beneath the Auditorium's grand proscenium, the exquisitely lit house serving as a backdrop. Saxophonist Greg Fishman, who's Roberts' husband, and pianist Beckie Menzie also will participate. 8 p.m. Saturday at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy.; $50-$75; 800-982-2787 or auditoriumtheatre.org.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich