Thursday, May 19, 2005



(Run originally 10/18/03 on the old site)

Ernie Simpson,

When we are very young, sometimes a role model will come into our lives that inspires us, and causes us to look at them with awe or, at least, great admiration. Bill Laas was a wonderful teacher who recognized something, I know not what, in a barefoot sixth grader that he would spend his important time to try to cultivate. He loaned me an old Buescher cornet, because my family didn’t have money for a horn, and that kind of thing was totally foreign to my parents anyway. Only rich people had the desire to play such a sophisticated instrument, essentially because it would wind up being a hobby. This, because there was no way to get a job playing a horn and you, of course, could not make a real living playing a horn; maybe a fiddle or guitar, but not a horn. Everyone knew that.

Why barefoot? Well, in the summer before my 6th grade, several of the incoming 6th graders were invited to come to the band room to meet Mr. Laas and, if we would like to join the band, he wanted to talk to us. It was summer, I was barefoot and having summer fun, but I also wanted to join the band. So I walked to the band room from Grandma’s house at 1705 North Main to meet Mr. Laas. He talked to me about playing a horn, and tapped out a rhythm with his toe, and asked if I could copy it, with my foot pat. Gosh, if I had known he would ask me to tap out a rhythm, I surely would have worn shoes. Years later, my paternal grandfather, J.B. Lowrey, did his best to convince me to go to L.A. and try out for the Lawrence Welk Orchestra. Nothing doing, because I at least knew the real story behind the group, having met a couple of members of the troupe on a tour, and asking them a lot of questions. Besides, I wanted to be a teacher.

Bill Laas is gone now, but it was him, before Al English, who set a standard for what a hero a teacher could be in the life of a young kid. I thought he invented the word ‘embouchure’ and when he said my embouchure was a natural for a cornet player, I was totally impressed that he recognized anything I had that might help me become a good player. He was continually hounding the school to take us on field trips for concerts, outings and anything musical that would cause us to be inspired.

It was he who took a quartet of players to the Mayfair Hotel to play for the Kiwanis club luncheon. Jimmy Chandler, Don Christian, and Larry Killough played Sophisticated Lady, a clarinet trio. And the 6th grader played, ‘Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms’…. on the old Buescher cornet.

It was he who took our band to Conway to hear THE United States Marine Band in an evening concert. He told us all it would be 50 cents. I told my mom and she said, “Son, we really can’t afford it.” I apologized to Mr. Laas and said I couldn’t go, and he told me, tell your mom don’t worry, I’ll pay your way. She sent me back with the 50 cents, and said, “If Mr. Laas thinks it’s important for you to go, then we’ll find the money.” From then on, Mr. Laas had two other fans: my mom and dad.

What a wondrous occasion it was, those beautiful uniforms, shiny horns, and wow, how they could play. The trombone soloist was featured in the Del Stager’s arrangement of Carnival of Venice, and for the third movement, he tied the trombone slide to the toe of his shoe, and played sitting down, with one hand on the horn, and his right toe making the position changes! Impossible!

It was he, Bill Laas, who took a school bus to Memphis State to hear a clinic and concert by the World’s Greatest Trumpet Player, Rafael Mendez. By this time, I was about in the 9th grade. I could not believe a trumpet could be played like that. How could it be, the wondrous sounds coming from this horn?

Just One of My Heroes Posted by Hello

In the clinic, Mr. Mendez answered questions about playing, practice, endurance, and range. The auditorium was full of Memphis State musicians, and other high school guests who came from far and near to hear him speak and play. The balcony was full where we were, but we could see very well, and hear as good, too.
One of the college kids asked about chewing gum and playing at the same time, and Mr. Mendez artfully explained about the importance of keeping the tongue and lips clear for the work they had to do in performance. Others asked about how much practice is important, and questions of a really technical nature. We were taking it all in.
Finally, he said, “ Are there any other questions from the audience?” Silence, then one of the hands in our little group went up. I looked over, and it was fearless, obnoxious little Billy.
Mr. Mendez said, ‘Yes, there’s a question in the balcony?’ Billy said in a loud voice, “Yeah, how loud can you blow?”
Omigod, I wanted to crawl under the seat, as the whole audience erupted in one huge guffaw. I looked over at Mr. Laas, and he was sitting with his hand over his mouth, stifling a chuckle.
It was, after all, pretty funny, and the Great Rafael Mendez replied after things settled down, “Well, you know, I think I can blow pretty loud.” Another huge laugh from the audience.
This was a wonderful experience, except for that one embarrassing moment, and all we little band kids from Searcy got to hear and see the Worlds Greatest Trumpet Player, Rafael Mendez, thanks to Mr. Bill Laas.
So, this is a story about a good man, a true and compassionate teacher, not Rafael Mendez, the worlds greatest trumpet player, but Wm.E. (Bill) Laas, who started me on a path and a love affair with music that continues to feed my soul, lift my spirits and has given me a wondrous, life-long gift, and a burden lifting power. Here’s to you, Mr. Laas, God Rest Your Soul, and may you never be forgotten. Not by me, and not in my lifetime, my hero, for sure.

Tom Pry
Ernie told me I could footnote this, so I will.
First of all, for you non-musicians, “embrochure” is the way you hold your lips when you’re playing, and it’s critical to the sound. With my buck teeth, the only way I managed the French horn was to find a mouthpiece with a very large cup and, consequently, a very narrow bore – all this for a decent embrochure.
Ernie had a good one.
Bill Laas was seminal in a lot of lives, mine included. In my case, he let me join the band at the beginning of the 10th grade (there’s a long story there), because I could read music, and he figured he could teach me enough about drumming to get me through. He was right, but I never would’ve went where I did if he hadn’t taken a flyer on me.
Ernie and I differ on our memories of that Rafael Mendez trip: I would swear it was Al English who herded us to Memphis to participate in an afternoon seminar with Sr. Mendez, then back that night to hear him in concert with the Memphis State Band. I could also be very wrong.
Al was a worthy successor to Bill. Both were excellent musicians, both genuinely cared about the students under their care, and both were worthy of emulation, as judge the rather large number of their high school students who went off to College intending to be a “ director, just like Mr. Laas/Mr. English.” I was one of them, as was Ernie, Larry Maness, Bobby Scott Fuller, etc.
At the end of the 53/54 school year, Bill Laas accepted an appointment in Michigan City, Indiana; his departure was counterbalanced by the arrival of Al English; as I said, a worthy successor.
Bill died some years ago. Al is in his native Texas, apparently in pretty bad shape, but still alert and reading the notes we send him from time-to-time.
A lot of lives would’ve been radically different had these two gentlemen not come into our young lives – and hearts.
A couple of other fast notes. Don Christian went on to become a star quarterback. Larry Killough became a doctor.
No one in their right mind would work for Lawrence Welk. To say he was a cheap, chiseling, insulting bastard is to insult cheap, chiseling, insulting bastards everywhere. Ernie has apparently made a lot of wise decisions in his life (more than I did, at any rate), and not chasing the Welk entourage was one of them.
Bill .. Al ... thanks for paving our ways to interesting and, sometimes, even productive lives. We hope we've returned the favor.


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