Waldo King, the founding father of Seattle’s renowned high-school jazz programs, died at his home in Sutherlin, Oregon, on March 19. He was 92.
“Everybody always wonders why Seattle-area bands do so well in competitions around the country,” said Clarence Acox, Garfield High School Jazz Band director. “That can be attributed to Waldo King.”
Mr. King started the first student jazz band programs in Seattle, first at Garfield in 1960, then briefly at Franklin High School, and for more than a decade at Roosevelt High School, from which he retired in 1983. Along with John Moawad and Hal Sherman, Mr. King was one of three roots of the Seattle high-school jazz family tree.
Mr. King’s lifelong love of Count Basie’s finger-popping, blues-based swing set the pace, said Acox, and helped local bands succeed later at events such as the Essentially Ellington competition in New York City.
A singer as well as an alto saxophonist, Mr. King loved the sparkling vocals of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, which prompted him to launch the area’s first jazz choir, at Roosevelt, a Northwest tradition that spread across the nation. Mr. King wrote his own arrangements and also taught students such as Dave Barduhn, who would go on to teach at Mt. Hood Community College and become an A-list arranger himself.
From early on, jazz was Mr. King’s passion. Born Waldo Wendell King, he grew up in Centralia, Lewis County, during the swing era, playing music with high-school band mate and future Count Basie saxophonist Bill Ramsay. After a stint in the Army during World War II, Mr. King attended Central Washington College of Education (now Central Washington University), in Ellensburg, where he helped found the Collegians jazz band in 1946. A master’s degree in music education from the University of Oregon led to a 32-year career as a band director.
Mr. King was known as an inspiring teacher.
“He was very nurturing,” said Barduhn. “He was more about creating a culture where you would discover your own shortcomings rather than having them pointed out to you …. He was a very gentle guy.”
Though Mr. King emphasized vocal improvisation, he also encouraged his students to listen carefully to lyrics.
“He would pick tunes that had meaning in life, like ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green,’” which gave heart to kids who felt “different or that they did not belong,” said his widow, Kathleen King.
Scott Brown, who took over from Mr. King as band director at Roosevelt, described him as “a master music educator, but even more than that, a master of values. He taught humility. He taught students to listen to other bands, to have a love of the music and to play what you feel.”
Brown said he became acquainted with Mr. King’s personal style through his former students.
“Some of them would even speak in Waldo’s low, slow voice (saying), ‘Yeah, man. Cool,’” said Brown.
Mr. King did not keep his enthusiasms to himself.
“I was at a Count Basie concert and he was sitting behind me and he was whooping and hollering so much everybody was wondering who this crazy guy was!” said Acox. “He loved Basie!”
Mr. King was married for 23 years to the late Patricia Fenno, with whom he had two children. He met his second wife of 38 years, Kathleen, also a music teacher, at a jazz camp where he was a judge.
Music was part of the fabric of the King family life.
“It was a great childhood,” said Mr. King’s daughter, Pam Lakman. “Music was our language. And it was the language of the soul. We were lucky.”
Though music was his passion, Mr. King found time for other pursuits. After he retired in Sutherlin, he was devoted to his vegetable garden and fruit trees. He also loved to cook.
“Meatballs and macaroni and cheese were two of his favorites,” said Mrs. King.
After he retired, Mr. King continued to be active as a music judge and clinician. He was a charter member of the (now defunct) International Association of Jazz Educators and served on its national advisory board.
Many of Mr. King’s legions of students, such as Barduhn and South Whidbey High School band director Chris Harshman, became music teachers themselves,
“They are all still spreading his legacy,” said Barduhn.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. King is survived by his son, Ted; his stepson, Michael Hogsett; and six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
A public memorial is scheduled for May 19 at Roosevelt High School. (Details to be announced on Facebook; search “Waldo King.”) Donations may be made in Mr. King’s name to the John Moawad Jazz Scholarship Endowment at Central Washington University.