Oak Mountain Band’s Jim Duren set the bar high
By MADOLINE MARKHAM
Jim Duren never accepted limitations of directing a high school band. His ensembles played professional and orchestral-level music like Don Juan by Strauss, Mendelssohn’s Metamorphosis and pieces by Tchaikovsky.
“As he likes to say,” said Helen Caldwell, last year’s head drum major at Oak Mountain High School, “‘We’re not just playing “Here We Go Up the Road to the Birthday Party.” If we were playing that, we wouldn’t have to practice.’”
Duren is a legend in the band world for getting such high quality musicianship out of such young people in his nationally recognized programs.
Since the school opened in 1999, his bands at OMHS have never received less than a superior rating at any festival. In 2010, both the Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble concert bands performed at Carnegie Hall. Duren retired in May after a nearly 40-year career.
“People always ask me how he got us to play like that and want to know where JD [Jim Duren] gets his pixie dust,” said Joanna Finch, a 2001 Oak Mountain graduate and current assistant band director at Briarwood Christian School. “I tell them we didn’t know any different. It’s just the result of his dedication and love.”
Even the first year at Oak Mountain with a band of mostly freshmen and sophomores, the marching band received best in class and best drum major awards at competitions.
“We set the bar high that first year,” Finch said. “We had to rise to the occasion, but I never felt like he put expectations on us we couldn’t reach. We wanted to honor him in what we did.”
The football team might not have won games in those early years, but the band did.
This past year, the marching band had about 215 members.
Duren has been beloved by generations of musicians for his dedicated teaching, motivation and mentorship but also for his dry wit and sarcasm, spoken with what Caldwell calls his “trademark Southern accent.”
“There was always a smile, always a joke, always a laugh,” Finch said. “Even when we had a bad rehearsal, he was back to smiling and laughing after the rehearsal.”
Caldwell recalled him telling the clarinet section they sounded “like a bunch of screaming strawberries.” “If you haven’t heard them, you haven’t been to Gordo,” he said, referring to the small town in Pickens County where he grew up.
His students wrote down “Durenisms” he said on the top of their music during rehearsal and compiled them at the end of each year for a senior memory book.
“Y’all looked like someone just slapped your dog,” he once told the trombone section.
For Duren, getting your cat dry-cleaned was never an excuse for missing band practice.
“I never know where he comes up with these bizarre analogies,” Caldwell said. “They don’t usually make sense, but you always remember the point of what he is saying.”
Still, Caldwell says her fondest memories of Duren were sitting in his office with other drum majors and field captains and talking after football games.
“If I ever need advice, especially musically, he is always there to listen,” she said. “He can also look at someone and tell what potential they have. Sometimes he would choose someone for drum major that others didn’t expect, but that person would blossom to become a great leader. He is insightful beyond what people think.”
Finch recalled the joy he takes in seeing former students.
“Even if you weren’t in the [music] profession, he wanted you to keep playing and find that joy he had,” Finch said.
Duren dedicated hours to the marching band practice field in the summers just as he did talking with students late on Friday nights. Still, he had other interests.
“We all knew about his love of cars,” Finch said. “He had a big Ford 150 when I was there, but now has a Mustang he always dreamed of.”
Duren also played trombone in the orchestra at Valleydale Church for years and now plays at Hunter Street Baptist. Finch recalled when she played with him at Valleydale that he would only miss a Sunday once or twice a year, and that was usually for a band trip.
A Mr. Holland’s Opus-sort of band of alumni formed to perform at Duren’s retirement party on May 20. Melinda Ponder Goode, who was Duren’s student at Mountain Brook Junior High and High School earlier in his career and has had four sons in the band at Oak Mountain, said she wouldn’t have miss it.
“He has not changed a bit,” Goode said. “He still has the high expectations and a way of drawing kids in that I don’t think other teachers have. He still continues to be that positive influence today like he was for me. He just has something that no other teachers ever gave me. He’s a legacy.”
A University of Alabama graduate, Duren was a member and student conductor of the Million Dollar Band, principal trombonist in the Symphonic Band and member of various other ensembles at the university. He began his career directing the Mountain Brook Junior High in 1973, led the Mountain Brook High School Band 1978-1987 and was the director at Pelham High School Band 1987-1999. He received the John Philip Sousa Legion of Honor Award in 1996 and was named Honorary Conductor of the University of Alabama Wind Ensemble in 1999.