Under the shroud of darkness, the crew of Decatur students leave their cars and filter into Mr. Chang’s band room.
It’s 6:20 a.m., and these teenagers — some in pajamas — are still waking up as they unpack their instruments and start to warm up.
With precision, Chang stops and starts the band as they practice, jumping from section to section and individual musician to fix a note held too long or a chord that’s just a bit off. The students pipe in, too, pointing out parts that sound off, and over the next 45 minutes the class combs through every knot they can find in their songs.
Near the end of the zero-hour class, while going over Duke Ellington’s “Just Scratchin’ the Surface,” Chang has an idea.
This is a dance tune, he points out. Why not get on our feet?
“The most important thing of this is groove,” Chang tells his students. “You have to be able to groove.”
So, the students stretch and stand, and with big smiles, they dance, sing aloud and play the tune a few more times to finish the early morning out. By the time class is over and the rest of the school is just yawning itself awake, the jazz band kids are yelling, laughing, and yes, able to groove.
Band Director Jeff Chang, 46, has been sharing his love of music with students at Decatur High School for a decade, and that’s why he’s the Mirror’s Hometown Hero for January.
Chang directs the school bands, teaches AP Music Theory and is the jazz curricula officer for the Washington Music Educators Association. His students have thrice performed for local NPR affiliate KNKX’s studio sessions, including a performance just this past November. Chang has taken groups of students to perform at the 2018 Taichung Jazz Festival in Taiwan and at Central Washington University’s Wind Festival. His band room is adorned with awards from his students’ performances.
But trophies and medals aren’t what really matter, Chang said: “When I was younger, that (winning competitions) was kind of my focus. But not anymore. I don’t care as much.”
Competing is very valuable, Chang said. Earning trophies can be rewarding, especially for younger musicians, and the drive to win can motivate musicians to practice and give performances their all. But as his musicians mature, they start focusing on things that will stick with them longer: Did I play well today? Did I do my best? Did I have fun?
”When we have a good rehearsal, that’s better than winning a trophy,” Chang said. “Because that was real.”
Humankind’s enduring love of music is due, in part, to how it stimulates so many different parts of the brain.
Some students are fascinated by the structured principles of music theory like scales and chords — something akin to math where “instead of just crunching numbers, we’re actually building a sound together,” Chang said. “You’re using math to create sound.”
Music also, of course, brings people closer together.
As Sydney Jackson, a 17-year-old senior and bassist in the jazz band, puts it: “We’re all connected through the music. When we’re playing songs, I’ll listen to certain people. … It’s crazy how I might not know anything about [their] lives, but I can hear everything that they’re playing, and it helps me understand.”
Jazz band has an “inspiring” energy, said Joseph Alvarez, a 17-year-old senior and baritone sax player: “Usually, whenever we take a solo, we always like to cheer and hoot and holler for everyone.”
For Mr. Chang’s part, he can’t fully explain why he’s drawn to jazz. He’s had it in his soul since he was a kid and it’s still his true passion to this day.
But he didn’t start with many opportunities as a fledgling musician. Born and raised in Taiwan, Chang began with the recorder — the only instrument he could reasonably access in middle school.
“When I was a kid in Taiwan, music was reserved for privileged kids,” Chang said. “You needed to have money, resources. … Buying me a saxophone was way too expensive, and [my parents] didn’t know where to find lessons for it.”
When his family moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, Chang got the chance to spend the last two years of high school performing in a full school band. He had his eyes set on being a freelance professional musician after graduating.
“I wanted to be Miles Davis,” Chang said. “I wanted to be John Coltrane. … The industry was different back then, and I was young. … But I realized, that wasn’t the most realistic thing for me. For the life I had in mind, that wasn’t the right career path for me.”
Chang earned his undergrad at Cal State Hayward, studied at the Berklee College of Music and Peabody Conservatory and earned master’s degrees in jazz saxophone and jazz composition at the New England Conservatory. He got his certification for teaching and found a consistent career that would still allow him to apply and share his musical skills.
“I realized that it’s really my calling,” Chang said. “I feel lucky I made that decision, even though it wasn’t my first choice at the time. Now looking back it’s probably the best decision I have made.”
Chang and his then-fiancé, now-wife moved to Washington, and he started his education career teaching at the Yakama reservation for about six years. Chang began teaching at Decatur High School in 2013.
One of his Gator students early on was Chase Alm, a musician inspired by Chang to pursue an education career. Alm started his first school year as a contracted staff member at Decatur in the fall and is the school’s choir, orchestra and guitar teacher.
Alm called Chang “a marvelous human being” who is honest about life as a professional musician — and he said Chang demonstrates that teaching is both a healthy and rewarding way to be one.
Chang, now a colleague, is “one of the most dedicated teachers in our district,” Alm said, and someone who brings out the best in his students.
“The students feel like, ‘Yeah, I can play with him,’ ” Alm said, “like you were really working on your craft. That’s something he’s really gifted at doing, treating his students more akin to musical colleagues than just a pupil [who] you’re teaching how to play an instrument.”
Figuring out each new class is one of the joys of the job, Chang said. Each year brings a new crop of students who force you to grow and improve your skills as a teacher.
“That keeps you on your toes,” Chang said. “You’re dealing with students, you’re dealing with people, and people feel differently every day, and I just love that. … I just feel really fortunate to be part of their musical journey.”
(Plus, Chang said, his students help him stay hip to new music.)
The pandemic threw a wrench into every educator’s plans, but Chang said he and his fellow teachers responded by getting creative. Chang had some of his students send in at-home recordings of their songs, which he digitally stitched into full performances as if they were playing together. He even made and shared with the students an 8-bit remix of the Decatur fight song.
It was all a way of demonstrating to his students that being inside, even being apart, doesn’t have to stop you from creating music together.
“The band program here is really special to me, because everyone here really cares about it,” 17-year-old senior, trombonist and euphonium player Carter Mitchell said. “Mr. Chang … is very inviting to anyone who wants to learn to play an instrument. He makes it a fun experience. Even if rehearsal is tough … there’s still a level of, ‘we want to get better, and we want him to be our director.’”
Every month, you can see — and more importantly, hear — that for yourself.
Chang hosts monthly free-flow jam sessions at the Federal Way Library on 1st Way South so that students of all ages can play live jazz outside of the typical 21-and-over bar or nightclub venue. Check with the library or the school district to visit the next one.