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English prof rocks a jazzy beat

By ELIZABETH SCHAFER, Associate Editor

At first glance MMCC’s senior professor of English, Barry Alford, wouldn’t appear to be “a rocker.” There is certainly a side of him, however, not always visible to staff and students, that rocks.

Word on the street from some of the past profs who rock is that Alford is quite the drummer. This fall semester, I have Alford for humanities. His teaching style is what first impressed me. His knowledge is obviously boundless, his sense of humor is a bit crass, and he speaks very rationally to students. A no-nonsense sort of man. He tells it like it is. But a rocker?

Growing up in Atlas, MI, Alford started playing the drums in marching band and went to a couple music schools in Ann Arbor, discovering how much he loved jazz drumming.

Alford says that he more than likely began playing the drums because his parents didn’t have to buy an instrument; he would just need the drumsticks and a table. He played up to and throughout his high school years.

However, “Being that it was the late 1960’s, there was not a real need for jazz drummers,” Alford states. That’s how he became part of the rock band called, Jimmy and the Naturals.

In those early days on Friday and Saturday nights the place to be in Michigan was Mt. Holly or Lapeer. Apparently these places had incredible music venues, which included several stages. Mt. Holly had a main stage, patio, and a loft — Michigan’s original rock and roll scene.

Jimmy and the Naturals usually played the loft and patio, performing mostly covers. As drummer, Alford just wished each night he might get the chance to play “Wipe Out,” which is well known for its epic drum solo.

Playing in these same venues were also bands like Terry Knight and The Pack, who would later become Grand Funk Railroad. Bob Seger and The Last Heard were also among the weekend performers. I think we all know Michigan’s own Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band. Alford played and saw where Seger began his much heralded music career.

“Being around musicians like this gave you the illusion you were important when you weren’t,“ recalls Alford, again, telling it like it is. Hearing him recall stories and memories from this time in his life, it is clear that music really touched him throughout his life. He says he still finds the most enjoyment in jazz drumming and music.

Eventually Jimmy and the Naturals split, and Alford went on to explore his educational career. I have never heard him drum, but if it is anything like the way he teaches, one can imagine he must have been talented indeed.

Alford approached a topic at the end of the interview that really stuck with me, and I have been thinking about it since. He noted that classically trained musical education is really something of the past — a lost art form.

Schools now, especially public, just do not focus on music like they did in the generations before us. Surely parents can go out and get their children any sort of music lessons they desire if they are willing to pay. But everything is an “option” and not a requirement.  He was trying to touch on the fact that it is not required curriculum for kids to be taught music, like it should be taught. It just seemed logical to him that music should be part of that. For example,  if I asked my children who Bach or Miles Davis were, they would look at me dumbfounded. I am part to blame because it is now up to today’s parents to instill the true values of music in their children.

(“Professors who Rock” is an ongoing series about MMCC professors, adjunct faculty, administrators and staff who spend their free time as a part of the local music scene.)

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