How desegregation led this TSO trumpeter to the teacher who changed his life
Originally published on November 18, 2018.
In September 1981, 10-year-old Andrew McCandless was bused from his white working-class Kentucky community to an overwhelmingly black middle school. It was part of the U.S. mission to break segregation, and his family wasn't happy about it.
But at Iroquois Middle School, he met Robert Jarrett, a remarkable black band director who became his mentor.
"Mr. Jarrett really changed the entire course of my life," McCandless told The Sunday Edition.
Andy was the type of student that you could just love from your heart.- Robert Jarrett
Today, McCandless is a celebrated musician and principal trumpeter with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
He has never forgotten his former teacher. In fact, in honour of his mentor, he named his son Jarrett.
In October, Jarrett was made an honorary fellow of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, and McCandless honoured him with a live performance at Koerner Hall.
McCandless is certain he wouldn't have succeeded as a musician, had it not been for Jarrett.
Their relationship also reshaped him as a person.
"I remember asking him, in seventh grade, why he was so nice to me, as a black man taking care of a white kid. He said, 'I don't see a white kid. I see Andy. And when you look at me, I don't want you to see a black man. I want you to see Mr. Jarrett,'" said McCandless.
"That was a very life-changing lesson for me. That's not a typical Southern point of view. And pretty amazing that he can do it, considering he grew up in an era where he can remember being moved to the back of a bus."
'I didn't know that it could be this way'
McCandless grew up in Shively, a white working-class suburb of Louisville, Ky. Until the end of the 1960s, Shively was a sundown town, where anyone who wasn't white had to leave by dark. Iroquois Middle School was just eight kilometres away, but it existed in a completely separate world.
McCandless wasn't a committed trumpet player when he arrived at Iroquois. Even so, Jarrett saw something special in him.
"Andy was the type of student that you could just love from your heart, because of … the way he improved," he said.
Partway through sixth grade, Jarrett asked him to join the advanced band. McCandless vividly remembers standing in the middle of the band as they rehearsed Michael Jackson's Beat It.
"Mr. Jarrett was up at the front, kind of conducting, dancing, and it rattled me. I didn't know that it could be this way," said McCandless.
"The miracle of what I do — like in an orchestra — is still that you can get 100 people doing the exact same thing, at the exact same time, in the exact same way, and come out with this really incredible sound. So that was all new to me. That was a real turning point for me."
Jarrett began tutoring him individually at lunchtime and after school. Two years later, Jarrett decided he needed a new teacher, so he arranged — and paid for — McCandless's lessons with a teacher at the University of Louisville.
"I didn't tell his parents nothing about it. It was only, I think, $35 or $40 a lesson. I paid so that he could be successful," Jarrett said.
'He made it'
In Grade 8, McCandless learned the busing rules had changed, and he was supposed to go back to Shively for high school.
"I had no interest at that point, because my relationship with Mr. Jarrett was so strong," he said.
He found a way to remain at Jarrett's school by signing up for the Navy Reserve Officers Training Program. But in Grade 10, after a director approached him at a music festival, he left for a youth performing arts school in Louisville.
"[Jarrett] was hurt because he thought that was it. He'd never hear from me again," said McCandless.
"When his wife told me that, years later, I said, 'He should've known better. That's not who he raised.'"
The two men have remained close. As his career took off, McCandless often called his former teacher to tell him about upcoming auditions.
"I would pray that Andy would be successful, and he would write back and tell me he made it. He made it," Jarrett said.
Click "listen" to hear Alison Motluk's documentary, Who He Raised.