By Linda Greer
Globe Staff Writer
Two local high-school band directors who each kept their halls alive with the sound of music for more than two decades will lay down their batons this month.
James Kelso of Neosho and Bill Punch of Webb City knew at young ages they wanted to make their living doing something musical. Neither dreamed they would be fortunate enough to actually do it.
Now both say it is time for the next generation to have fun leading the band.
“I feel truly blessed to have made my living my whole adult life in music,” said Kelso, who equates music to magic. “There is no music in that room until we breathe life into it.”
Punch, whose parents were educators, said, “A lot of kids go to college not knowing what they want to do, but I did.”
For Punch, teaching and music were his greatest academic interests. To teach music was the ultimate. From the time he first picked up his father’s old trumpet in the fifth grade, after acknowledging he did not get along with the piano, he was hooked on jazz.
“I thought the jazz band was the greatest thing in the world,” said Punch, who led the Webb City High School jazz band to many first-place trophies.
Fifteen miles to the south, Kelso was leading Neosho’s jazz band to award after award.
Yet both directors speak humbly of their accomplishments, preferring instead to commend the strong support of their communities and school administrators and the discipline of their students.
Kelso, who in 1978, at age 28, became the youngest ever band director in Neosho, credits much of the band’s successes to the community.
“The community support in Neosho has been phenomenal,” he said. “I never intended (being a band director) to be anything but a career, but I never dreamed it would be 28 years.”
There were a few highlights, he said. One was when the Wildcat marching band played at a Kansas City Chiefs football game in 1980. Another was when the jazz ensemble won the Kansas City Jazz Festival in 1986, competing against bands from 11 states.
In 25 years, the Neosho High School jazz band has not received anything less than a first-division rating, said Kelso.
Punch said he doesn’t have have the tales of woe that he’s heard other directors complain of regarding scheduling, budgeting and student discipline.
“And that’s the way it should be,” said Punch, who became the assistant band director in Webb City in 1980. “Over the years, I never felt I wanted to go anywhere else.”
In 1989, Punch took over as band director, the same year he asked the high-school principal if the band could travel to a competition at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn., at a cost of $25,000 or $30,000.
“To my surprise, he said, ‘Sure,’ and we ended up winning first place,” he said. “So, right off the bat, I had a good start.”
Between the symphonic and concert bands, Webb City has earned 25 first-division ratings in state competitions. The jazz band has never earned anything less than third place at any level, said Punch.
The bands play on
Both directors are confident their schools’ respective bands will do well in the future under the direction of new, young leaders.
Elizabeth Rogers will start in Neosho in the fall, and Diana Williams, Webb City’s marching-band director, will take Punch’s place.
“She has high ideals and high expectations for the kids,” Kelso said of Rogers.
He predicts Neosho will begin to place more emphasis on a marching band and has already begun buying new uniforms and setting aside money to increase the band’s inventory.
Kelso and his wife, Cary, are involved in international orphan rescue and intend to do more traveling for that cause. He also intends to attend jazz festivals, albeit from another side of the stand.
Punch plays trumpet with the Crowder Jazz Orchestra and a Bella Vista, Ark., band. He tells his students he can play any instrument, but that the trumpet is the only instrument he should play in public.
He is also a licensed Realtor and intends to become more involved in music at his church.
“I will miss this, but it is good to get out while on top,” said Punch. “It’s been a great experience in Webb City.”
“We need beauty in our lives,” said Kelso of the arts. “If someone can do something nonstop they love, they will be a fortunate person.”
Neosho High School band director James Kelso loves the Beatles, John Philip Sousa, circus and military bands and, of course, jazz.
Webb City High School band director Bill Punch is a huge fan of “American Idol,” ‘70s rock and roll, anything to do with the Count Basie Orchestra and contemporary jazz.
By Linda Greer
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