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Saturday, December 2, 2023
Dec. 2, 2023

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Washougal High jazz ensemble performs surprise concert to lift spirits of cancer patient in Vancouver


One day earlier this spring, Blake Perkins, a Washougal resident and Vancouver-based dentist, learned that one of his longtime patients, Ray Johnson, was struggling with cancer treatments and was in a lot of pain.

Johnson’s wife told Perkins that her husband “wasn’t having many good days.”

Perkins decided that he wanted to try to give his patient a good day. He ended up giving Johnson one of the best days of his life, thanks to a little help from the Washougal High School band.

Members of the Washougal High jazz ensemble surprised Johnson with an impromptu concert at his residence April 25.

“I think there were 15 to 18 kids that came, everything from a sousaphone to saxophones and even a drummer. They set up in (Johnson’s) driveway and put on a concert for him. It just was a super enjoyable time for everyone,” Perkins said. “I think they played for a good 45 minutes. We got some chairs out front and invited the neighbors over. Cars pulled over, and (the drivers) stopped to listen. It was super cool.”

Musical connection

Johnson and Perkins have bonded during the past 20 years over their shared love for music. Johnson served as a music educator, primarily at Fort Vancouver High School in Vancouver, for several decades. Perkins was a trumpet player when he was younger, and for a short while was a member of a band that played gigs at local farmers markets and the Clark County Fairgrounds, among other places.

“We would always connect and chat about stuff like that and just share our love for music,” said Perkins, whose son, Caleb, plays tenor saxophone and serves as the Washougal High band’s president. “He’s a trumpet player by training, and that was the first instrument I learned as a kid, so it’s been fun to connect with him over the years about the trumpet. He would write songs and send them over email to me and say, ‘Hey, take a listen.’ ”

After Perkins learned that Johnson was struggling with his treatments, he contacted Washougal High band director David Duarte and asked about the possibility of putting together some kind of musical performance for his patient. Duarte said he agreed “instantly.”

“I think it is huge for kids to understand the world as a bigger place,” Duarte added. “It’s so important to me that my kids get to experience what it is to be a part of this world, good or bad. The kids need to be a part of that and understand what the power of music has to offer. The kids just love to share their music. I believe that it’s important for them to share their talents and uplift (a person’s) soul for all the right reasons.”

Duarte asked his students if they would be interested in putting something together for Johnson, and their response was “overwhelming,” according to Perkins.

“There’s a reason that I (chose to come) to Washougal, and 99 percent of it is that I believe in the power of what a small community has to offer,” Duarte said.

“I constantly tell my kids, ‘If you want to do something, just raise your hand,’ and then it happens. They have never, ever let me down. Those kids are just a super amazing part of the school and the community as a whole.”

The concert was supposed to come as a complete surprise to Johnson, but Perkins believes his patient may have seen it coming.

“I called his house just to check in with his wife to make sure his day was good enough that he could come outside,” Perkins said. “He picked up the phone and he saw the caller ID, so I think he got it out of her that we were coming over.”

Even so, Johnson relished the performance.

After it was over, he invited the students into his house, showed them his “music room” and chatted with them about his career and their experiences. As the students were leaving, Johnson told Perkins: “This was one of the best days of my life. Thank you very much.”

“For me, it was rewarding to see the kids get a vision of what they can do with the musical talent that they have — that it isn’t just concerts at the high school. They can take that music and change somebody’s life,” Perkins said. “I know David has always promoted external gigs that are not school related — he wants the kids to give back to the community by playing music. And so I thought, ‘This is a perfect opportunity for them to get out of Washougal and go give back to the community and share their talents with other people and put a smile on people’s faces.’ ”

‘How the world works’

Duarte confirmed that he hopes that his students can perform for the community more in the future.

“I’ve been telling my kids, ‘Washougal is kind of tiny, but there’s a larger group out there,’ ” he said. “I want to start hitting retirement homes and those kinds of places because the kids just love sharing who they are and what they are. It’s not about just showing up, learning music, playing a concert, lather, rinse, repeat. It’s literally like I’m trying to teach these kids like professional musicians — this is how the world works, this is what you want to do. They’re seeing more and more of the world, and that’s what it’s about.”

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