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‘Bear Down’ composer dies

Photo courtesy of Deon Doulein
Former UA director of bands and composer of the UA’s ‘Bear Down, Arizona’ fight song, Jack Kenneth Lee died Dec. 23 at the age of 84. The memorial service honoring Lee was held in the Bear Down Gymnasium over the break.
By Seth Mauzy
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
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Jack Lee served as band director for 33 years

A piece of the university’s musical heritage was lost over the holiday break as Jack Kenneth Lee, former UA director of bands and composer of the school’s fight song, died Dec. 23 of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 84.

Lee served as the UA’s director of bands for 33 years, brought prestige and notoriety to the Pride of Arizona marching band as a member of the American Bandmasters Association, and touched the lives of more than 2,000 students who played under his direction.

Lee began his legacy at the UA in 1952, when the then-assistant marching band director at the University of Michigan flew to Tucson to interview for the job of director of bands at the UA.

On the return flight, Lee noticed the motto “Bear Down” painted on the roof of the Bear Down

Gymnasium, and he spent the rest of the flight composing a tune that would become the most well known song on campus.

Lee had his hands full as director of bands at the UA. He directed the marching and symphonic bands as well as The Hepcats, a jazz combo that played at basketball games and other smaller events that would later become the pep band.

“He was such a multitalented individual,” said Alice Breazeale-McLaughlin, who played flute under Lee between 1962 and 1966, and served as his student secretary for her senior year. “I had a lot of one-on-one time with him,” she said.

Breazeale-McLaughlin remembered that Lee strove to make the Pride of Arizona an ensemble of distinction. He wrote (and had his students memorize) a new field show with different music every week, and strove to make the 200-piece marching band as dynamic and expressive as any concert band.

“He taught his students to appreciate perfection. He was a perfectionist,” Breazeale-McLaughlin said. “But we didn’t resent it. He wasn’t a harsh person.”

Breazeale-McLaughlin said Lee’s desire to craft a perfect musical performance, whether on the stage or on the field, was just one more example that the man was both an expressive artist and an inspiring educator.

“He was very good at interpreting, paying attention to the subtle nuances, even though we mostly played marches in those days. That was the artist in him,” McLaughlin said. “We might spend a half hour on two measures, but we wanted to do it right for him.”

But music wasn’t the only thing about marching band that Lee wanted to perfect. He was also an innovator in marching and arranging formations. Lee pushed the boundaries of what bodies on a field could do visually, and wrote two influential books on the subject.

His talent at crafting fine field shows week after week was made all the more impressive since the synchronizing of music and motion, which is now done mostly on computers, was done in his head.

“He would be writing at the piano, and suddenly he would fly over to his desk and work on some (marching) charts, then fly back to the piano and keep writing without skipping a beat,” McLaughlin said. “Nowadays they have computers to plot out the show, but he did it all in his head. His brain really functioned like a computer.”

Lee’s talent did not go unnoticed, and soon his band was receiving invitations to a number of prestigious events.

Lee and the UA band, in a joint performance with Rutgers University, performed the pre-game and half-time shows at the first Super Bowl in Los Angeles in 1967, marched in both Washington D.C. and Philadelphia for the Bicentennial celebration, and returned to Washington a year later to perform at the inauguration of Jimmy Carter.

“We were always invited because we had such a fantastic band,” said Shirlee Bertolini, a baton-twirler and a student of Lee’s at the University of Michigan who became the UA’s first twirler when she came to Tucson in 1954. “His reputation as a great director was known worldwide.”

She went on to become the twirling coach, and is now in her 51st year as the coach.

Kay Ruckison, who succeeded Breazeale-McLaughlin as Lee’s secretary in 1967, continued to help chaperone many of these trips after her graduation and remembered that Lee was equally skilled at maneuvering students off the field, and always made sure each trip was enjoyable.

“We had six buses and a huge number of people, but Jack made sure to stop at all the memorials, and there were concerts everywhere,” Ruckison said of the Bicentennial trip. “It was a real treat for all the musicians.”

Lee cared as much about his students’ health and comfort as he did about their performance.

“It poured on the Fourth (of July), and after a day of marching we were all sopped. But Jack wasn’t about to let his kids ride a bus back to Tucson in wet clothes, so in his usual style he commandeered a hotel,” Ruckison said. “He talked them into letting us use their laundry service, and the girls all got to use the spa and the guys were in the gym and he got us all dried up. That was so his style, to not have his kids suffer.”

Breazeale-McLaughlin credits Lee, particularly his handling of these trips, with teaching her a lot about the teaching profession.

“A lot of my classroom management skills I learned from Jack,” said Breazeale-McLaughlin, who is now a retired schoolteacher in Scottsdale. “You don’t move 200 students around the country on buses without learning a thing or two about managing students.”

Ruckison, who also became a teacher, said that Lee’s teaching style and his connection with his students inspired her in her career.

“I wasn’t a music major, I was in education, but I was never about to miss a band class,” Ruckison said. “I learned so much from his teaching technique, the way he would cut us off and ask ‘Now, why did I stop the band?’ stayed with me when I became a teacher.”

While he will always be remembered as a marching innovator and for reminding everyone to “bear down” every day at noon, Lee’s full legacy is truly that of a multifaceted artist. He was a musician, composer, conductor and painter, and as Breazeale-McLaughlin said, he was truly passionate about them all.

“I was a flutist, so I sat right under him,” McLaughlin said. “I’ll never forget he was conducting Danny Boy, and I looked up and he was singing it to himself and tears were rolling down his cheeks.”

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