DB Lifetime Achievement Award for Jazz Education: Ollie Liddel, The Reward of Teaching


Ollie Liddell

(Photo: Ceylon Bond)

Given his family background, it might have seemed predictable that Dr. Ollie Liddell, director of bands at Memphis Central High School in Tennessee, is being honored with the 2022 DownBeat Lifetime Achievement Award for Jazz Education at the high school level. After all, his father, Lewis Liddell, had a distinguished four-and-a-half-decade career as a high school and college music educator that included almost 20 years as a professor of music and the director of bands at Jackson State University.

“I come from a musical family — especially my dad,” Liddell recalled during a telephone interview from his home in Memphis. “I wanted to play tuba growing up, but it was too big for me. My dad came home one day and dropped a trombone by my bed and said, ‘That’s what you’re playing.’ And trombone was cool. I played throughout high school in marching band and jazz band. And when I went to Jackson State, I continued playing with the Sonic Boom marching band and jazz band, too.”

But Liddell admits that jazz wasn’t what he preferred listening to in high school. It wasn’t until he began to play with the Jackson State Jazz Band that he really began to focus on it.

“At the time, jazz was old-folks stuff to me,” he said. “Although we had a jazz band in high school, I wasn’t really serious about it. I could read and play jazz when I got to Jackson, and I did get into the top jazz band. But the older cats in the band said to me, ‘Dude, you can’t swing!’ Thankfully, someone gave me a J.J. Johnson tape — The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson Volume 1. That was it. I lost my mind listening to that tape — I was in love!”

Liddell played in the jazz and marching bands at Jackson State for four years. He had earned both academic and music scholarships at the university and graduated with a major in chemistry and a minor in music. After graduation, he quickly realized he would rather play music professionally than become a chemist.

“I decided I didn’t want to work in a lab and ended up working on the chitlin’ circuit instead — playing music with anybody who would pay me,” Liddell said. “But things changed when a band director I knew at a high school in Memphis asked me to write arrangements for his marching band, and then come and work with the band. When I did that, I realized teaching is my calling — this is what I should be doing. I got a certificate and began teaching middle school. It’s what I love to do.”

Liddell earned his master’s degree in music and his Ph.D. in music education from the University of Mississippi as he continued to teach in Memphis.

“I taught for four years at East High School in Memphis, then took the job as director of bands at Memphis Central High School, and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.

Under Liddell’s leadership, the Memphis Central High music program has expanded to include a concert band, a symphonic band, a wind ensemble, a percussion ensemble and several jazz combos. “We’ve even been able to have a saxophone choir some years,” Liddlell said. “This school year we’re starting an after-school jazz band. I told the kids, come one, come all — French horns, oboes, I don’t care. Just play jazz.”

Memphis Central High School’s music program has won a number of awards in recent years. The Jazz Band won first place at the Savannah Swing Central Jazz National High School Competition in 2019, and was named a finalist in the 2020 and 2021 Essentially Ellington Competitions. The Memphis Central Marching Band was named Grand National Champions in the 2017 and 2018 High-Stepping National Show Band Competition.

“Some band directors specialize and focus on their jazz band or their marching band,” Liddell said. “But I believe that’s cheating your students. You really need to push every aspect of every band and combo you teach and strive for excellence. It can be really difficult and a lot of work, but everything has to be stressed. That’s my philosophy.

Over the course of his teaching career, Liddell has learned that he can’t meet every teaching challenge on his own. He pushes for grants that help bring in other music educators and professional musicians to provide clinics and create additional educational opportunities for his students.

“Sometimes we band directors think we can do it all,” he explained. “But I try to get help from my musician friends to come and work with the students, and I reach out to organizations like the Memphis Jazz Workshop as well. I’m also a firm believer in YouTube university. Whatever I can do to get to get kids better on their instrument, I’ll do.”

For Liddell, it all comes down to seeing his students succeed.

“You know, I always thought it would be the coolest thing to walk into a professional gig and see one of my students playing. And that happened recently when I saw Michael Price, one of my students at Central who went on to study at the University of Tennessee. He was playing saxophone in Gregory Tardy’s band. That’s the reward.”

It’s a reward that has earned Liddell this DownBeat honor. DB

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