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  • Dan Gallant

A Tribute to John Upchurch

Updated: Dec 10, 2021

From our international wheelhouse to your house, this one’s for you, Dr. Upchurch!

So lie back, fire up a colortini, and watch the pictures as they fly through the air!

It’s a celebration!

John Upchurch was my trombone professor at Queen’s University, Kingston during my first year there, 1976-1977. He came up to Queen’s from The Crane School of Music in Potsdam, New York biweekly.

As a teacher and a person, John had a huge impact on me, as well as all of his other trombone students…

He had “the magic touch”: that rare ability to motivate and draw forth the best from his students, all the while adjusting and tailor-making his methods to accommodate the needs of each one...

John went way above and beyond the call with his many students. After he accepted the position of Chair of Fine Arts at Brevard College, North Carolina in the spring of 1977, I invited him to direct the concert I organized for Sonaré, an ensemble for which I was co-founder with David Stewart and Kirk MacKenzie.

In August of that same year, we staged this concert at the Bernard Childs Auditorium in Deep River, Ontario, with 16 trombonists from Queen’s, McGill, and The University of Western Ontario.

We invited a number of Canadian and American composers to write pieces for premiere at the Childs Auditorium, and a small group of these so invited gifted us with new pieces to perform for this event.

A friend is a person who goes out of their way for you…John went thousands of miles out of his way from his then residence in North Carolina to direct our fledgling band of university and high school trombonists! This is a textbook definition of the word dedication.

He set out by air from Asheville, North Carolina at 7:30 in the morning, traveling to New York City, then to Toronto, and finally to Ottawa, a 1,460 mile trip, where he was then greeted by Sonaré trombonist David Lytle.

Here is what happened next, in David’s own words:

“Dr. Upchurch’s flight came in quite late at night. I had been given his name but no photo or other form of identification. He had no idea either what the arrangements were or even if someone was to meet him at the airport. Somehow we managed to find one another as the crowd of arrivals began to thin out and we both looked inquiringly at everyone who passed. As we asked each other a few questions to get oriented, I realized that he really had no idea what he had got himself into. Despite this uncertainty, he soon began to relax and it was close to midnight when we set off into the Ottawa Valley darkness on the two-hour drive to Deep River, chatting all things trombone.

It was a clear night, the sky sparkling with myriad points of light. Suddenly, somewhere after Renfrew or perhaps Pembroke, I thought that I was beginning to hallucinate from fatigue and the night drive. To the north above the Ottawa River on my right, bright lights were dancing across the sky. It took a moment to realize that this was no hallucination but a breathtaking display of the Aurora Borealis—the Northern Lights. I pulled the car off the highway and we both got out to take a long look. Dr. Upchurch had never seen them. For me, it had been a long time and since that night, I have seen them only one other time. The rest of the drive was much in silence as we both reflected on the rare and beautiful spectacle we had been privileged to witness. It was an auspicious beginning to a remarkable weekend.”

As part of this tribute to John Upchurch, or “Doc” as we who know him well call him, I have created a feature length high definition video film of John’s masterful direction of our Sonaré Trombone Choir three days later on Saturday, August 20th, 1977 at the Child’s Auditorium. Here is that performance for your entertainment:

I created the Sonaré Collection, a seven disc five-year history of the trombone choir project I co-founded, in part to celebrate John Upchurch’s 80th birthday, which occurred recently.

You can explore this entire archive of recordings, photos and documents here:

This was Doc’s reaction to receiving that large parcel in the mail last fall:

GASP! Not that I am one for hyperbole, but I know not what else to say. We were off to Maryland to visit my older daughter, Elizabeth, prior to the arrival of "THE BOX." We made a point of going to the postal facility on the way home today to retrieve said box and my first thought was, "Awful large box for a CD." First I read the "love letters," and both laughed and fought back the tears. Connie read them and was also quite emotional. Nothing to do, but put on the CD. Hard to believe that these came out so wonderfully well. Wonderful music performed amazingly well by really talented performers. This is something my daughters and grand kids will cherish, likely long after I am gone. In retrospect, the things that have always seemed the most important to me were ensemble precision, dynamics, lyrical phrasing, and allowing the audience to "rest" their ears occasionally. The Sonaré CD has it all. But just remember, I DID NOT PLAY A SINGLE NOTE! All I did was referee. From the bottom of my itty-bitty heart, thanks for making such a monumental effort and creating a keepsake like none other I have or will ever hope to have. Doc

John now has a much larger, more expansive keepsake in this international online tribute, thanks to the wonderful contributions of his friends and colleagues in the U.S.!

He recently shared this with me:

“If having friends like you and so many other former students results in a long and healthy life, I should live to at least 100. It has been such a blessing to have been able to stay in contact with so many former students and long-time friends.”

I thought we could all help John live many years longer than that instead in creating this new international tribute to him, in which people who have known him in New York, North Carolina and Georgia were invited to participate in the online festivities!

With this in mind, I will now outline the progression of John’s career which unfolded in those three locations, as a context for what comes next.

John Upchurch was born on May 24, 1940 in Louisville, Kentucky. He grew up in several towns in Indiana and mostly Atlanta, Georgia, where he attended Brown High School and played tuba in the band. He also started as a tuba major at Stetson University in Florida and studied trombone with Bill Hill in the summers. In his sophomore year, there was a shortage of trombonists and his teacher, Don Yaxley, convinced him to change to trombone.

He attended Indiana University in Bloomington for his Master of Music and Doctor of Music degrees. His trombone teacher was Tom Beversdorf and he studied tuba with Bill Bell.

He met his wife Gail in the cafeteria at Stetson University. She was a year older and they married when she graduated. They had a big wedding in Decatur, Georgia on August 7, 1961.

Part way through his Doctoral program, he took the position of Low Brass teacher at Northeast Louisiana University. Here he was a founding member of the Louisiana Brass Quintet. After three years, he returned to Indiana University to finish his doctorate.

He was also a faculty member with The International Trombone Association Workshop, Nashville, Tennessee, a specialist in baroque performance practice, a clinician with Yamaha International Musical Instruments, instructor at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Twin Lakes, Michigan, and a professor of trombone at The Crane School of Music in Potsdam, New York, and at the Department of Music, Queen’s University, Kingston.

It was during his tenure from 1970-1977 at The Crane School in Potsdam that I first met John, when he traveled to Queen’s to give his Canadian trombone students lessons there.

In Potsdam, he was professor of trombone, and director of the Crane trombone studio.

The trombone choir he directed at the Crane School performed at the International Trombone Workshop in Nashville, Tennessee in 1975.

Here is that performance which took place at George Peabody College, Nashville, on June 4, 1975, with John’s comments to preface your listening pleasure here:

“These were my “kids” in Potsdam, playing their hearts out for the trombone deities at the time. Needless to say, I am extremely proud of their performance.”

John was also a member of the world class Potsdam Brass Quintet when he lived in upstate New York.

Here are the two albums he recorded with this ensemble, and also a performance the Quintet did with the Crane Wind Ensemble which demonstrate his brilliance as a chamber music performance artist:

Album 1, New York Composers:

Album 2, The Later Years:

After serving in Potsdam for 7 years, John accepted an invitation to join Brevard College in North Carolina as its Chair of Fine Arts in the fall of 1977.

John supervised activities in art, music and drama in his movement into the administrative sphere at Brevard. He also directing the Varsity Stage Band, the Nabraska all-state band, the Brevard College Concert Band, and conducted engagements in his role as a clinician for Yamaha International Musical Instruments in Philadelphia, Chicago, Anaheim, Dallas, Atlanta and Nashville.

His former student Terry Robinson recounts some of his activities in this locale:

“He (John) recruited me to attend Brevard College so that I could study trombone with him. Little did we know that this would be the beginning of a friendship that has spanned four decades.

As a student at Brevard, John was more than my teacher, he was my mentor. His drive, his dedication, his organization, his interaction with people and his approach to life were all greater lessons than any of my formal college education. I was fortunate that he took me under his wing, gave me responsibilities and included me on many projects that had nothing to do with playing the trombone, but everything to do with my personal growth. His door was always open for me.

One of the greatest skills I learned from John was problem solving. For John, there was always a solution that was in his grasp even if it was, “Just hit it with a hammer.” He never accepted that he couldn’t do something. This attitude continues to serve me on a daily basis.

John facilitated many opportunities for me. Memories of loading up the Volvo with Bojangles chicken and biscuits and taking the traveling slide show on the road to Nashville, Louisville, Bloomington and beyond are special.

Having the who’s who of the trombone world in our dorm room at the Trombone Workshop all hours of the day and night is unforgettable. They stood around telling war stories while John performed his wizardry on their slides. As his assistant, I interacted with these artists in a personal way that undergraduates would rarely have the opportunity to do.”

In 1986, Terry Robinson graduated from Brevard and John moved to Brenau.

At Brenau University in Georgia, John moved from his initial role as member of the Admissions Committee, to Chair of the Admissions Committee, to the position of Dean of Admissions over a period of 11 years and in 2000 assumed the position of Assistant Vice President for Enrichment Programs.

Terry Robinson recounts some of John’s most important innovations at Brenau during the latter’s tenure there:

“A few years later, John would invite me to participate in the Firespark! summer program at Brenau, teaching electronic music and recording technology. It was the highlight of my summer every year to spend time with John and rekindle our adventures of the past.

Firespark! is one of John’s great legacies. He brought together a carefully selected group of practicing artists and teachers with high school and middle school students for two weeks every summer to create a special synergy.

Most students were “different” in their schools because they were highly creative and artistic and their schools did not have adequate programs to foster their needs. At Firespark! these students connected with others who shared their passion and were mentored by a faculty who loved what they were doing.

The term survivor was coined to describe students who had participated in the program. It didn’t mean that they survived the two weeks of the program, but rather they survived the other fifty weeks of the year without the program.

It was a life changing experience for hundreds, if not thousands, of students. No one will ever fathom the impact John had on these lives.

In the late 90’s, John invited me to assist him with planning, organizing and running the program. It was a treat for both of us to be together on a regular basis, solving problems and slaying dragons. Together, we crafted solutions better than we would have individually.”

In addition to his career as a professor and administrator at three universities, John had two side-careers as an instrument clinician, and as a trombone repair expert in his role as “The Slide Doctor”.

The title of “The Slide Dr.” was given to John by Buddy Baker. When John completed his Doctor of Music degree at Indiana University in the summer of 1970, and moved to Potsdam, NY to teach low brass, it became apparent to him that the ability to do simple repairs would be a useful skill.

The Crane School had a wonderful instrument repairman, Burton Stanley, who furnished basic information and sources for tools and supplies. A current trombone student, Dick Beamer and the Slide Dr. decided to learn how to fix slides the “old fashioned way…” by trial and error.

John was frustrated when the instrument repair manuals in the Crane library suggested that slide repairs be left to professionals. He purchased the tools and taught himself. Because he did not attend a “repair school” he was able to develop new ways to improve slide function. He pioneered the process for repairs on slides with tuning in the slides as well as introducing the trombone world to the use of polymers to greatly increase slide function.

When the Crane Trombone Choir performed at the International Trombone Workshop in Nashville in 1975, John was eager to share the knowledge he had gained in instrument repair with other players. At subsequent ITW’s, he gave slide clinics and set up shop in the display area.

During his years at Brevard and Brenau, John kept a busy performing schedule, and repaired and set up slides for many of the best known players in the country and several international players, including Carsten Swanberg, Art Moore and Albert Manglesdorf.

After retiring from Brenau University in 2004, the Slide Dr. moved full-time into serving the needs of trombone players with all levels of proficiency and from all over the United States.

In addition to his tenure in administration at Brenau University, John’s performance career has included engagements with The Philadelphia Orchestra, Jimmy Dorsey, Liberace, Glen Campbell, The Nelson Riddle Orchestra, The National Arts Centre Orchestra, the Asheville Symphonic Orchestra, the Olympic Orchestra, PBS National Television, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

He was bass trombonist with the Macon Symphony Orchestra for many years, where he performed such works as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Copeland’s Rodeo and Billy the Kid, Schubert’s C Major Symphony (“The Great”) and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

No self-respecting Canuck would host these festivities without reference to our shared international pastime, “Le Hockey!”

With this concern front and center, here is The Theme from Hockey Night in Canada, performed by Tim Solinger in this premiere performance of Pierre Gallant’s arrangement for trombone quartet:

He shoots, HE SCORES!

And score John Upchurch has big-time, in every area of his life:

Here are 90 tributes and well wishes from John’s American and Canadian friends that speak to what kind of life this man has led over these past 80 years, and the enormous positive force he has been in the lives of so many who have been lucky enough to cross his path:

Like some benevolent pied piper, he has led us down his path of creativity and goodness wherever he has gone, and is clearly greatly loved by many people, yours truly included!

His many successes in the professional world are matched by his success as a family man. Here are reflections on their friendship and subsequent marriage by John’s wife Connie, which testify to his prosperity in the personal realm:

“John and I met when attending Graduate School at Indiana University in the 60’s. I was getting a degree in Library Science and my former husband was a trombone major. John and he were in university performances together.

John has always written lovely Christmas letters and our families kept in touch that way. The letter always included an invitation to them. So, nearly forty years later, when I was single, my work took me to Chattanooga and I phoned John and Gail. We had a lovely lunch together.

John contacted me about Gail’s death and I quickly wrote back. When John’s pastor encouraged John to go to Machu Picchu and take me with him, I could not refuse. However, I suggested that he come to Michigan, where I was living, so we could become better acquainted. We found that we were soul mates. Soon John gave me a little brown box with a ring inside.

John’s daughter, Elizabeth, when small, once said “my daddy can fix anything”.

This is true, and combined with his perseverance, he accomplishes miraculous things.

I appreciate his honesty and true goodness, as well as his ability to be a good communicator.”

Connie Hildebrand Upchurch

John’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was an honor graduate at Georgetown University majoring in Arabic language. She works for the US Department of Defense.

His other daughter Catherine graduated from Georgia Tech and teaches second grade in Roswell, GA.

John is clearly an outstanding individual, and we are all exceedingly thankful for his transformational presence in our lives.

Here is a visual, aural and written record of John’s talents and good works:

*In Potsdam, New York:

*At Brevard College:

*At Brenau University:

*At Queen’s University:

*At Yamaha Canada & USA:

*Special features / “Easter Eggs” :

Thank you to all of you who have made this international salute to John Upchurch possible:

To Connie Upchurch in Georgia; Mark Hartman, David Mathie, Roy Schaberg, Jim Petercsak & The Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam; Melodie Farnham, David Joyce and Terry Robinson at Brevard College; John Burd, Jody Wall, Tracy Moore and Anne Skleder at Brenau University; John Marcellus & Tim Solinger for making the recordings of Hockey Night and The Big 8-0 happen; Steven Butterworth at Yamaha Canada; Douglas Burden in Ottawa; to my friends from Queen’s University and Sonaré; and to all of you who have contributed letters and well wishes to make this a year that John will never forget!

This would never have happened without all of your help and effort!

Reaching 80 is a milestone in anyone’s life, and in ending, we celebrate you, John, in all of your uniqueness, creativity, and for a life filled with good works and wonderful achievements in this most special of years.

Here is The Crane Alumni Trombone Ensemble performance of Variations on Auld Lang Syne that you helped to create recently:

And the world premiere of “The Big 8-0” by Pierre Gallant, performed by Eastman School of Music graduate Tim Solinger, to leave you humming a tune that you will undoubtedly recognize!

Thank you, Doc, for everything you’ve done for all of us, and for having made all of our lives much better because of your presence in them!

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