Saint Louis University High School’s Jeff Pottinger stopped a conversation to point out the music outside his office. The saxophone player was a beginner and the bass player was inexperienced when they came to SLUH. “I just love it, they’re so good,” Pottinger said. “I’m really proud of these kids.”
His students, he said, keep him young and happy.
Harrison Petty is one of those students who make Pottinger’s day. He played some guitar growing up, but his choice of instrument to play at the high school was something new.
“The upright bass is a whole different beast,” Petty said. “It’s taller than me, no frets (strips of metal on the guitar’s neck). Frankly, I picked it freshman year because I thought it looked cool.”
Pottinger helped him with the instrument, which is hard to learn. “He was very willing to help me if I was willing to put in the effort, and I’m grateful for that,” Petty said.
He started out in freshman fundamentals band — what students call “fun band.” Sophomore year, Pottinger invited Petty to be in the Jazz 2 band, sort of a junior varsity band. He moved up to the Jazz 1 band this year.
“I never played or really even listened to jazz music before that, but I instantly fell in love with it. I kept making the zero-hour drive, so before school I’m here playing jazz, and I couldn’t be happier,” Petty said.
Zero hour is the time before school when SLUH students take part in various activities that aren’t part of classwork. Students attending the zero-hour activities all “really want to be here,” Petty said. “We all come together to play music and have fun.”
The hard work paid off, and now Petty will join other Jazz 1 students in performing at the 82nd annual Missouri Music Educators Association In-Service Workshop/Conference in January in Osage Beach, Missouri. It’s the highest statewide honor to which a school jazz ensemble can aspire.
Being with other talented musicians makes it fun, the musician said. “The bass is a background instrument. I’m in the rhythm section. I’m not the star of the show. When I’m playing with the trumpets, the saxophones, the trombones and the drums and piano and guitar, I feel like I’m part of something bigger.”
Pottinger starts every class starts with a prayer. Petty, a St. Clement of Rome parishioner, said his teacher’s approach helps him ease into the school day. “He’s really into his faith and encourages people to get with that, too. One of his big catch-phrases is after the prayer, “Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Yay, God!’ He’s excited for everything God has done for him and grateful for it. It may seem cheesy, but it’s like him thanking God for a chance to teach at such an amazing place like SLU High with such a great group of guys.”
When the prayer ends, the musicians also say “Yay, God,” indicating their thanks for being in the band and using the talents they’ve been given to be their best, Petty said.
Pottinger explained, “I’m a big fan of St. Paul, who said pray without ceasing. I’ve never been regretful when I pray. The more I do, the better.”
Twice a week, five jazz combos meet simultaneously before school. SLUH already had what Pottinger called a fantastic jazz rhythm section program. When he started jazz combos, they split off, practicing on their own, and it’s been a success because the students are self-motivated and excited about learning. “When you give them leadership and freedom, they run with it in a very positive way,” Pottinger said.
SLUH has about 175 band students in its band programs, from beginner to advanced and including chamber orchestra, symphonic band and jazz band. Jazz band is similar to what’s known as a big band. Jazz combos are smaller groups from a duo to about six members.
Pottinger said there’s a heart and soul to the arts. “I feel blessed to be able to teach it. You can’t help but listen to certain pieces of music and get choked up or whatever. You get excited and energized,” he said.
‘For the sake of music’
Peter Michalski, a senior from St. Justin Martyr Parish and a Jazz 1 trumpet player, began playing the instrument in third grade at St. Justin School. The first time he played jazz was at SLUH. “I’m able to play in three bands without it hurting my schedule. I’m playing at least 45 minutes a day. It makes me a stronger player. I’m always able to get feedback from the other musicians we have here.”
Music “is a fantastic release,” he said, and he’d be a little less eager to get to school if he didn’t head straight to practice his music. “It helps me to focus.”
Andrew Normington, a trumpet player in Jazz 1 and a St. Gerard Majella parishioner, said “I get to wake up every morning and play music that gets me going every day and is exciting.”
“Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” written by Lin Hardin and made famous by her husband, Louis Armstrong, is his favorite piece. The concert at the music educators’ event will be unforgettable, he said, playing for people of a professional stature.
Of Pottinger, he said “I’m humbled by the fact that someone would work that hard for the sake of music.”
>> Highest honor
SLUH’s Jazz Band 1, under the direction of Jeff Pottinger, has been invited to perform at the 82nd annual Missouri Music Educators Association (MMEA) In-Service Workshop/Conference, Jan. 22-25, at Tan-Tar-A Conference Center in Osage Beach, Missouri. The invitation represents the highest statewide honor to which a school music ensemble can aspire.
Jazz Band 1 was the only high school jazz ensemble in Missouri selected to perform. The MMEA Conference hosts 3,600 registrants with total foot traffic of 10,000 attendees over the course of the four-day event.
>> Music man
Jeff Pottinger’s parents were music teachers, his mom also playing piano at their parish and his dad serving as choir director there. He had music teachers in choir and band at school he also admired.
He began college at Missouri State University with the idea of becoming a lawyer, but he had a music scholarship and continued with that. Eventually he switched to education.
Pottinger admired a music educator at Mehlville High School, Don Kinnison, and began studying with him. He began his career teaching music at seven Catholic high schools. He later worked in the Hazelwood School District, at Chaminade High School and the Parkway School District. He missed the spiritual life at Catholic schools and began work at SLUH in 2014.
His wife, Kathleen Pottinger, director of music and fine arts at Cor Jesu Academy, led a school choir on a trip to the Rome several years ago, which gave him the the idea of taking his band members there. In the spring of 2018, SLUH jazz band members played in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. They received an unexpected audience with Pope Francis when he stopped and listened as they played “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and then visited with the group, complimenting them on their performance and asking about the school.
The pope asked Pottinger, a parishioner of St. Cronan in St. Louis, to pray for him, and “it was like the weight of the world kind of hit me on my shoulders,” Pottinger said. “I thought what an incredible responsibility this man has.” He found an email subscription, Click to Pray, that the Vatican sends daily, and now he uses that with classes.
Pottinger noted that the music program has extensive support from administrators and parents, including helping fund the trip to Rome.