BATTLE GROUND — Greg McKelvey was skeptical when he interviewed for a job teaching music in this rural Clark County town in the mid-1990s. You didn’t have to hunt to find Confederate emblems on cars in the high school parking lot, he said.
“I had a lot of reservations coming out here,” said McKelvey, who is Black. “I didn’t see too many people who look like me.”
He put it blatantly during a meet-and-greet with music students: “Am I going to be accepted here? Am I going to be safe here?”
Students vowed that he would be, and McKelvey believed them. Starting in 1996, music educator and band teacher McKelvey has trained ensemble after ensemble of Battle Ground students in the fine art of making beautiful sounds together — be it jazz, classical or concert-band music — at Battle Ground High School and Chief Umtuch and Tukes Valley middle schools.
Across a quarter-century, McKelvey and his student groups have blazed a steady trail of prizes at music contests and jazz festivals all across the country, from the annual Clark College Jazz Festival to the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition & Festival in New York City.
The 67-year-old McKelvey said he’s planning to retire — probably — at the end of the 2022-23 school year. He’s got many things he wants to do: focus more on his own musicianship, play some “age appropriate” basketball and spend more time with his growing brood of 16 grandchildren.
While McKelvey has been leaning toward for retirement for a few years, he said didn’t want to disappear from his students during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I didn’t want to go out on Zoom,” he said.
Hoops vs. horn
McKelvey grew up in the Bay-area city of Richmond, Calif., in a family that wasn’t especially musical but did prize athletics. His father, Eural, tried out for pro-level basketball and was first accepted, and then rejected because he was Black. Eural wound up playing for the Harlem Globetrotters, an exhibition team that’s more skilled than many NBA teams, McKelvey said with pride.
McKelvey was gifted at basketball, too, but his strong academics earned him the privilege of studying music. That was a new direction in life, he said.
“I didn’t even know what a saxophone looked like,” he said.
When McKelvey’s early struggles with his horn elicited mockery from his peers, he vowed to practice hard all summer and blow everyone away in the fall. That’s exactly what he did, he said.
Take note, music students: McKelvey insists that practicing every single day — not every once in a while — is what lifts you to the next level.
“If you have talent, that’s one thing,” he said. “To develop that talent, you have to have an incredible work ethic.”
In the ninth grade, a band teacher took McKelvey to a classical performance by Black concert pianist Andre Watts.
“It was the first time I’d seen an African American doing that, performing amazing music, and he looked like me,” McKelvey said.
McKelvey won a basketball scholarship to Warner Pacific University, a Christian school in Southeast Portland. He was devoted to music and performance, he said, but another talent emerged: teaching.
“I wanted to play, but I was advised to get an education degree,” he said.
That fit him just fine. McKelvey seemed to have a knack for communication and inspiring younger people.
“I like seeing kids start at a certain level and get better,” he said. “I love it when that’s happening.”
McKelvey taught at Portland’s Wilson High School for 13 years. (One of his students there was bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, who’s gone on to contemporary jazz superstardom.) Then Oregon’s tax-cutting Measure 5 went into effect, and music programs in Portland Public Schools suffered. That’s why McKelvey went back on the job market, and eventually came to Battle Ground.
“I figured I’d stay a few years and move on,” he said.
But the talent and determination of his music students impressed him, and he realized there was no point to moving elsewhere and starting all over again.
Swinging by 7
McKelvey rises at home in Aloha, Ore., at 4 a.m. in order to arrive at school in Battle Ground no later than 6 a.m.
When The Columbian stumbled sleepily into McKelvey’s band room at 7 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, the advanced jazz combo musicians seemed cheerfully awake, swinging hard and absorbing their teacher’s compliments and critiques.
“It sounds good,” he said. “The stuff you’re doing now, you couldn’t do back in September.”
But, he added, the soloists needed more metronome work to clean up their timing.
“He’s laid back, but he’s very truthful,” said high school junior and lead trumpet player Jonah Lipovitz. “He’s not going to hold back if it sucks. He has high standards and he wants you to do better.”
McKelvey and his band students spend regular time listening carefully to recordings of the jazz greats, even welcoming a few into their classroom. They’ve had visits from luminaries like Motown singer Martha Reeves, horn player Mic Gillete of Tower of Power and McKelvey’s own star student from his days teaching in Portland, the multiple-Grammy-winning Spalding.
“When I get a chance to come by and hear the jazz bands playing,” said Battle Ground High School principal Charbonneau Gourde, “it’s a highlight of my day.”
There’s no question in McKelvey’s mind that jazz music has a future.
“When we go these festivals, there are so many great kids who play so great,” he said.
McKelvey’s personal concerns about safety and racism inspired him to help create the Black Student Union. Despite his music students’ best wishes, there was a serious need for dialogue about race in Battle Ground, he said. McKelvey is still faculty adviser for the club, which meets in his band room and is open to any student who wants to promote better understanding between different ethnicities, according to the school’s club roster.
“My presence has created some change,” McKelvey said. “Things have gotten a lot better, but there have been some times.”
What’s true of many schools is true here, he noted. Kids who don’t seem to fit in anywhere else often wind up in the band room. It’s their safe space, he said.
McKelvey said he never eats lunch in the faculty room. He hangs out in the band room and gets to know his students.
“I love my kids. The love is genuine,” he said. “And when the kids know you love them, they can take constructive criticism a lot better.”
Return to roots
During his many jazz-band travels, McKelvey once returned to his own elementary school in a majority-minority neighborhood of Richmond. “I wanted to let my kids see how it was where I grew up,” he said. “And I wanted to show the kids at the school that I was just like them, and if I could make it out of there, they could too.”
The school principal was in tears while thanking McKelvey and his students for their visit, he remembered.
“It was one of the highlights of my career. They made us feel like rock stars,” he said.
That’s the real reason McKelvey keeps putting off retirement, he said. He admitted that he still might change his mind about next year.
“Music is fun. I want my students to have fun,” he said. “I’m in heaven when I’m in front of the band.”