The song remains
River East music director to retire after 35 year career
It’s always been about the music.
On June 2 and 3, the River East Collegiate Jazz Orchestra performed concerts for family, friends, staff and fellow students — the band’s first concerts since the COVID-19 pandemic shut live performances down in March 2020. Comprised of classic jazz numbers from the likes of Duke Ellington, to contemporary, full band renditions of hit songs by Adele and Taylor Swift, the performances also featured the premiere of Midnight Melodies, an original composition from Grade 12 student Kayly Nim.
“It is completely different than any song I’ve written before,” Nim said. “It expresses my personal side I don’t show a lot.”
Vocalists Sienna Cariati and Madelynne Klapprat took centre stage for a pair of numbers each, while saxophonists Nathan Unger, Rooj Ali, and Tyson Schellenberg also performed lead parts over the course of the hour-long performance, which was capped off by a rousing rendition of Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy.
The concerts were a welcome return to performing publicly for both students and staff. But for Jeff Kula, REC’s longtime music director, they were also bittersweet. After a 35-year career teaching in the River East Transcona School Division, Kula is retiring on June 30.
“I feel blessed for all the wonderful people I’ve met along the way. These students are outstanding,” Kula said. “It’s time to pass the torch along. I just want to be able to see the River East music program continue to do wonderful things. I’m just glad I had a chance to be a part of it.”
An alumnus of Springfield Collegiate in Oakbank, Man., Kula did a double-major in music and education at the University of Manitoba, while teaching drum lessons on the side. Upon graduation, he taught music at John Henderson Junior High for 10 years before moving over to REC, where he taught for 25 years.
“When I was finishing high school and deciding what to do,” Kula recalled with a chuckle, “I thought I was going to play my drums and be a rock star. As my father said, you better go into teaching, so if I didn’t make it with my playing I could always fall back on that. Here we are 35 years later and it’s been a wonderful thing.”
Along the way, Kula has taught thousands of students, working hard to create an environment where creativity and exploration can thrive.
“I’m so very fortunate that I’ve had a lot of support here in the division, from the trustees to superintendent and my administrators and staff I’ve worked with, for some of the projects we’ve undertaken,” Kula said. “I’ve been lucky to be around when these great kids have come through my door, to get to know them as musicians and also as people. It just knocks me out, the level of talent these kids possess.”
Outside of the classroom, Kula has continued to gig regularly as a drummer. With a busy summer lined up, Kula is looking forward to having more time to practice.
“About 25 years ago, I was gigging and I didn’t practice much between gigs, but I made a deal with myself to practice every day,” Kula said. “And I have. But now, I’ll be able to practice more and work on my own skills.”
Along with more time practicing, Kula is looking forward to spending more time with his family, taking long walks year round, and exploring new ways of being of service to the community.
“The idea is there’s always something to be done,” Kula said. “I just want to keep busy.”
Sheldon Birnie is a reporter/photographer for the Free Press Community Review. The author of Missing Like Teeth: An Oral History of Winnipeg Underground Rock (1990-2001), his writing has appeared in journals and online platforms across Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. A husband and father of two young children, Sheldon enjoys playing guitar and rec hockey when he can find the time. Email him at email@example.com Call him at 204-697-7112