Off Topic: Ron Koen, RIP

Ron KoenRon Koen died on Saturday. Mr. Koen was the band director at James Bowie High School in Arlington, Texas until he left teaching for a new career in 1980, right after my classmates and I graduated.

When Mr. Koen decided to leave teaching, I knew then a lot of kids would miss out on what my classmates and I had – I dedicated teacher who loved his students and loved music.

I first met Mr. Koen in 1974 or 1975 when he showed up one day at Short Elementary School trying to recruit students to join the band in junior high school. I wanted to join the band and he had me try out several different instruments, and when I got hold of a trombone, Mr. Koen declared that I was going to be a “trombone player!”

Three years later, I showed up at Bowie H.S. and joined the marching band and the concert band and the jazz band.

I was a stubborn high school student and I knew everything. But Mr. Koen knew how to deal with kids like me. He also knew how to put together a great marching band and jazz band. He asked me one day, “Mullanax, what kind of music do you listen to?”

I said, “The Beatles and The Doobie Brothers.”

He told me I needed to listen to jazz. He lent me some Count Basie records. And Buddy Rich records. And stuff like that. He would crank up the jazz in the band hall and make us listen to Count Basie and Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton. Once, he actually synced a Count Basie track with an electronic metronome, and I’m here to tell you that the Count Basie Orchestra stayed in time, all the time!

We went to contests and won them all. And that was due to Mr. Koen.

He used to smoke cigarettes and some of my classmates would do things like hide his cigarettes or “accidentally” sit on them.

I remember once at Farrington Field in Fort Worth, we had just finished our marching band performance at a contest. While waiting for our score to be announced, Mr. Koen lit a cigarette as he would do when nervous, and I swear he took a drag on that cigarette and I watched the little red spot just climb halfway up the cigarette! Man, he was nervous, and we got the highest score.

Mr. Koen was always there for any of us. Since I knew everything in high school, I often did not listen to authority figures, including my parents. But I could always go to Mr. Koen with questions. Questions about anything. But sometimes I was so stubborn I would even give Mr. Koen a hard time.

Once when we had chair tryouts, we had to go into a room and tape record our solo. After an apparently pitiful performance, Mr. Koen approached me in the hall. “Mullanax! I just listened to your tape, or tried to, and smoke started coming out of the tape recorder. That was awful, man!”

“Well, George Martin wasn’t here to produce my recording,” I snarkily replied, thinking to myself how witty I was.

“You have until tomorrow at noon to record it again. I am so disappointed in you right now.”

I disappointed Mr. Koen. That damn near killed me, so I practiced and recorded it again and was back on Mr. Koen’s good side.

Once while the concert band was rehearsing, Koen stopped the band by striking his baton on the music stand and he then pointed that thing right at me and said, “Mullanax, shut up! We’re trying to make music here!”

“But I wasn’t talking!”

“I heard you, now knock it off!”

And because I knew everything, I got up and walked out. I packed up my trombone and a few minutes later Mr. Koen saw me walking down the hall, horn and all.

“Mullanax, where are you going?”

“I quit. I don’t need this anymore.”

We jawed back and forth for a few minutes and I stormed off, determined never to return.

But that night I started feeling guilty and I went back the next day. I didn’t say anything to Mr. Koen, just returned to my chair when rehearsal started, and Mr. Koen looked over at me a few minutes later and winked.

Mr. Koen knew how to deal with high school kids like me and he knew his music. He kept a lot of us out of trouble and introduced us to a lot of music we may have never paid attention to otherwise.

I was blessed to have Ron Koen as my teacher and my friend. After we all left high school and went our separate ways, many of us always kept in touch with Mr. Koen.

I saw him last about two years ago when a few of my classmates and I took Mr. Koen to eat Mexican food in Arlington. Mr. Koen had some old recordings of our band on reel to reel tapes and I had them digitized and sent them back so Mr. Koen could listen to the results of his brilliance.

Here’s our jazz band from 1980 in Dallas:

And here’s our concert band from 1980 in Corpus Christi:

Ron Koen was gifted. He should never have left teaching music.

I am very sad Mr. Koen left us, but I will never forget him. He was one in a million and we all won the lottery when he was our teacher and our guide during those crazy years of high school.

Ron Koen, RIP.


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