Hank Swindull (aka Doc Swinson)
The J.R.E. Interview
Looking back over more than thirty years, it is pretty difficult to find points on the map of human experience even slightly comparable to Hank Swindull, aka Doc Swinson. He led us. He directed us. He challenged and motivated us. He made us learn multiple octave scales, arpeggios and musical terms - what's up with all of that? He let us get away with many "things" but, somehow, he managed us ... OK, some of us. Along the way, we found ourselves learning, developing sophisticated musical tastes, having a great time, bonding, making lifetime friendships and, yes, accomplishing a thing or two. This month, J.R.E. dug deep into the man, the legend, the concept: Hank Swindull. Here are our 10 questions:

JRE: Retirement. What is that? When did it happen? What does it mean? What are you doing with yourself? Where are you doing it? And, yes, that is all one question.

Swindull:  After my son, Ryan, graduated from High School, Jill accepted a position in Richmond, VA as an underwriting manager with the same company she worked for in Orlando. After 3 years there her boss changed jobs and moved to Dallas and recruited her to take a similar position to the one she held in VA but with a substantial pay increase. Jill found the perfect house in Plano while I continued to work, so we sold the one in Richmond and became Texicans. I didn’t look for a job right away, electing to just get settled into the new house and so forth. I discovered that this was not a bad life so I decided to retire from the work force. I started taking my golf game a little more seriously, so I joined the Plano Senior Men’s Golf Association. Every Monday morning about 100 or so of us get together and strike the ball repeatedly and enjoy the hell out of the game and the camaraderie. 

JRE:  Our reading about The Versatiles forced to us to confront the possibility that you may very well have had a life before JRE, and that it may have had significance, meaning, and even some degree of satisfaction. Let's explore that a bit. When did music first become a big part of your life? What were the early influences?

Swindull: Music always seemed to come pretty easily to me in high school. My brother was in the band so it was just a natural thing for me to play too. I started on a hand-me- down clarinet that my brother had used, then changed to the flute my sophomore year and played it non-stop until I graduated. I never had any private lessons or anything and picked up a multitude of bad habits but since I had been in the top all-state band, I was offered a scholarship to play in the band at Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi). So, so off I go. I was just a happy-go-luck goofball enjoying the college life and loving every minute of it. I still practiced from the time the music bldg opened until it closed at night, with one small difference. In high school I just played all the time now I practiced all the time.

JRE: What kind of music were you listening to in college and how would you describe your experiences there?

Swindull:   In college we were required to listen to a variety of music as part of the curriculum, so I listened to the music and followed along with the scores in hand discovering a world that I never knew existed. I would always go to the band hall and listen to the jazz band rehearsals and as we used to say back then “Just diggin’ it.” I listened to the popular tunes of the day but Rock N Roll was just coming into its own. And to us “serious” musicians, it didn’t take any talent to play that crap. So, we turned up our noses at that type of music. I was like a sponge during my entire college career. I wanted to see and hear everything. Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson both came to our campus my freshman year. The next year the lead trumpet player in our jazz band went on to play lead trumpet with Kenton for several years. I played in the pit orchestra for several of the musical productions and loved that as well. My college years were filled wonderment and I hated to graduate.

JRE: What would you like to tell us about The Versatiles that we would not know or understand from simply reading the article featured last month?

Swindull:   My first teaching job in Florida was at Blount Junior High. While I was teaching there, a friend from my college years came to town to teach at Brownsville Junior High. He had been the keyboard player in our college Jazz band. He had also played in a duo in Panama City, FL with a drummer who also played trumpet with one hand. I practiced on all of the instruments my whole teaching career and could play all of them about as well as the average student - of course some of them better than others. My college friend and I would get together several times a week and he convinced me to try this playing for money thing with him. So I bought a drum set and started writing out charts with me playing flute, clarinet and trumpet. Our first gig was in steak place playing dinner music. We lasted two days. We kept playing at his house several nights a week, adding more instruments and that summer someone who had heard us play at the steak house got us a job on Pensacola Beach playing six nights a week in a restaurant. At the end of the summer we got a job playing 3 nights a week at the Torch Lounge on Navy Blvd. The next summer we went back to the beach and played one more summer over there. That is when the article in the Florida Magazine was written. We had mounted all our stuff on platforms with wheels so we could move them around more easily. He had a piano and an organ on his platform and I had a drum set, a throne, a music stand and a tree to hold all my instruments mounted on my platform. We bought a truck and would roll this equipment onto it so we could play in remote locations. We played a couple of times on local TV in Mobile on the midday show. We played a few dances, a few bar mitzvahs a few parties and that kind of stuff. But most of my career as a professional musician occurred at the Torch Lounge where we had a pretty loyal following. Just to keep things interesting we added a reel to reel recorder to the group. We would record other instruments and play along with the recording to it making it sound like a full ensemble - like a full Dixieland band or a flute quartet, or whatever we could dream up. We had a great time doing all this. During this time my skills developed to where musicians would even come and listen to us play and occasionally sit in with us. I had a few pretty good banjo solos and I could improvise a little bit on tenor sax and trumpet, play tear jerking flute solo and an occasional drum break. We played 3 nights a week during the school year then 6 nights a week during the summers. My partners name was Herb Holman. He played piano, organ and trumpet. I played drum, flute, trumpet, clarinet, tenor sax, guitar and banjo.

JRE: What were you doing right before you came to Woodham? Why did you come to W.H.S.? What were the circumstances?

Swindull:  Before coming to Woodham I was teaching at Workman Middle School and playing 3 nights a week. I was very satisfied with the way things were going. I had a steady stream of students coming through the system feeding into Woodham and Washington. I really had no aspirations about moving on up to the high school level. Then, my musical partner and I had a parting of the ways at about the same time a friend of mine, Ken Pouncey, took the band director job at Woodham. About a week or two into the school year, he was offered a high profile job in Mobile, where he had just come from. Well, he starts working on me to take the Woodham job so he can leave. I say to him, “Isn’t that a lot of work?” It had been 8 years or so since I had had a marching band, but I knew a lot of kids that were in the band and decided that since I was no longer playing that maybe it was time to jump in with both feet again. It was like daylight and dark. A nice calm middle school where all you had to do was teach, to a continual frantic pace of performances and the never-ending frustrating FUND RAISING campaigns. (I hated those things.)

JRE: You "let" us do some pretty risky (for lack of a better word) things. We lampooned the Choctaw scream routine during a half-time show, shouted "Eat Sauce" in a competition, we played "the Stripper," and there was the "Organic Sax" gig at Tate High School. Did you ever catch grief from anyone? Or, were we pretty much always flying under the radar?

Swindull:   I am sure you guys know that I was not aware of EVERYTHING you did, but I was pretty laid back about most of the stuff. However, I never caught any “grief” for the shenanigans you pulled.

JRE: You are looking at the marching band knock down a "superior" in brand new USC-like uniforms. When you started, we were wearing sashes and berets, and getting the old "good looking group" commentary from judges. How did you feel experiencing that kind of transformation? From your perspective, did it seem like it was all the logical - if not expected - result of a lot of hard work? Or was it more like a bizarre dream? Or, maybe a mix of feelings?

Swindull:  I could never express how proud I was of you guys the first time we got a superior in marching band. There was certainly a learning curve for me as well as for the students. For a time we were learning it together. I always talked to you guys about what we were doing and how we were doing it. One of the most perceptive guys in the band at the beginning was Edward Obie. I wish he could have been around a couple of more years, so he could have seen how far we progressed after he left. We had a number of conversations about the band and the people in it. Another huge factor in the success of the band was Chris Tredway. We all know what a wonderful drum major and leader on and off the field he was and our success was due in no small part to him. I got lots of feedback from students regularly about ideas that were later put into the marching shows. After a time, I did expect our hard work to result in the “superior” ratings.

JRE: Some argue that music education increases academic performance generally. Others say that any such relationship is a matter of self-selection (better students are simply more likely to take music classes). You have any strong opinions about that debate?

Swindull: I used to preach the “music increases academic performance” theory, but I think it was more of a selling the band program tool. I don’t think educators are going to be particularly pleased with that attitude, but I think it was more valuable as a means for students to get involved in a school activity - giving them something to do in school besides just going to class and studying. For whatever reason, I always felt like the better students in school were involved in extra-curricular activities. The trick was to get them involved in the band activities. Now that was the real challenge. Bright students who were thinking down the road and were weighing the benefits of band vs. another math class, or a physics class, or some other class that might help them get into the college of their choice. It was tough on students, with them trying to make the right decisions.

JRE: It is 6,000 years from now and, of course, the legends of jazzrock have adopted the JRE folder in the afterlife. You stand before them. You take a sip of coffee. You scratch your elbow and look over your shoulder at the clock on the wall. You reach into the folder. What piece do you choose?

Swindull: I would probably go with one of the Maynard tunes like Chameleon or Gospel John.

JRE: We reserve the right to ask more questions later. But, for now, just sit back and say a little something about what JRE meant/means to you. What perceptions do you have about it now, looking back?

Swindull: This is the toughest question of all. Warning, I can feel a little mushiness about to issue forth, so if you are turned off by that sort of drivel, you should stop reading now. A teacher always hopes he can give a student a little something that he/she can revisit for the rest of his/her life and remember events or positive experiences that can be attributed to them. Trying to make possible the kind of musical experiences that I have had over the years was my goal. Some of the most memorable moments of my life were musical moments. Some of those moments were in college, both playing and listening, some of them were playing professionally, and some of them were at Woodham High School with the concert band and the JRE. I can remember just beaming when I put down my baton after a performance. You guys gave me so many of those moments and I am thinking that I probably got more from you than I gave you. You guys were like extended family and I loved every one of you. I know I picked on some of you more than others, but I hope the statute of limitations has expired on the occasions, and that you have forgiven me. I appreciated all the effort that you gave me and I look back at those years and just hope that you have had - and will have - an opportunity to have similar experiences in your life. Thank you all for all that you gave me during those years.