As an educator, Mary Jo Papich has empowered multiple generations of youth to pursue the arts with passion. Her career spanned nearly four decades, from teacher and award-winning band director to coordinating the fine arts district-wide in Peoria and the Chicago suburbs. She co-founded the global Jazz Education Network, which produces the world’s largest jazz conference, and sits on the selection committee for the Grammy Music Educator of the Year award. In Peoria, she serves as board president of ArtsPartners of Central Illinois and works with numerous organizations to keep the arts scene thriving, making a positive difference in the lives of all those around her.
Tell us about your formative years and your earliest influences.
I am who I am thanks to the love and support I received from family and friends growing up in the small Iowa town of Lovilia (population: 650). My dad died of an aneurysm when I was 11 months old, so we were raised by a wonderful, loving mother whom we all adored. With seven kids to raise, she immediately went to work running our family business, the Papich Sundries drugstore. We all grew up working in the store, from dipping the ice cream cones to loading the old coal stove. Meeting and greeting customers was always easy for me, so I grew up to be a very people-oriented person. My mom was a liberated woman before I even knew what that meant. It’s no wonder that I grew up extremely independent, thinking that a woman could do anything.
Music was always a big part of our lives. I remember singing with my sisters at St. Peter’s Church and family gatherings, while my older brother was a great jazz trumpet player. My high school band director was like a father to me, and I worked hard to earn that first chair trumpet spot. I equally loved singing in the choir and participating in debate and other activities.
I was also very involved in 4-H, winning most of my blue ribbons not in cooking or sewing, but in demonstrations of public speaking. In 1970 I received the National 4-H Automotive Safety Award in Chicago from Mr. Firestone himself! I credit 4-H for giving me opportunities to stretch myself and develop leadership skills beyond the scope of my little town. From then on, I always wanted more from life.
Can you describe some of the memorable highlights of your life’s work in education?
I enjoyed teaching every day of my 37-year career! Beginning in Moulton and Ottumwa, Iowa, I learned so much—then I fell in love, and that’s what brought me to Peoria. I subbed in Peoria Public Schools District 150 and had 10 great years at Woodruff High School, where we traveled and competed in marching and jazz. We played over 50 events each year, performing at the Peach Bowl, Citrus Bowl, the Chicago Holiday Parade, on national television and many other places.
I eventually became district fine arts coordinator, overseeing all the schools in the district. We started the award-winning Peoria Jazz AllStars, and I was also hands-on with the band program at Roosevelt Magnet School for the Arts. I instituted jazz into the curriculum, and the result was an outstanding program that spurred many careers in music.
Working with young students is never boring. Some of the most memorable times are the simple “aha” moments when they finally understand how to go over the break on clarinet or reach that high note on trumpet. Ensemble work is exciting, as you have the privilege of motivating and inspiring students to perform to the best of their ability. So many transferrable life skills are taught through music: responsibility, dependability, self-discipline, punctuality and confidence. I believe arts education at all levels is not optional—it’s the backbone of a just world.
My professional journey next took me to Highland Park High School, where I served as fine and applied arts chair, leading a dynamic team of educators and producing the unique “Focus on the Arts” program. When I retired, Niles Township High Schools District 219 recruited me to work part-time as interim fine arts director, overseeing concerts, arts shows, dance concerts and a full theatre schedule in Skokie. The bigger budgets afforded by these more affluent suburbs allowed us to provide a different level of education and performance. I would think, ”Our students in Peoria deserve this, too.” Our state’s current educational funding system through property taxes is simply not fair.
What career and lifetime accomplishments are you most proud of?
I have more awards and plaques than I deserve. My continued relationships with students and colleagues are the real rewards of teaching. Seeing and hearing former students performing brings me such joy. The accomplishment that pleases me most is my involvement in starting the Jazz Education Network (JEN), which now has members in 44 countries and is recognizable all over the world.
It was such an honor to be recognized with the lifetime Medal of Honor and Legend in Music Education Award in 2018 by the Midwest Clinic, the largest instrumental music education conference in the world. Imagine my astonishment riding up the escalator at McCormick Place to see my photo on a 40-foot banner where more than 18,000 were in attendance!
Another exciting moment was receiving the Jazz Education Achievement Award by DownBeat magazine in 2012. DownBeat has been around over 80 years and has long been the international gold standard of jazz magazines. My inbox was overflowing with messages from all over the world.
Being selected for the Wall of Fame at my alma mater, Albia High School, was a hometown honor that made my family proud. A couple scholarships are also given in my name: the MJ Papich Leadership Award at Highland Park High School and the Mary Jo Papich Women In Jazz Award, which goes to a deserving female or non-binary college student at the annual JEN conference. I continue to stay in touch with nearly all of the young female jazzers as they venture out into the world. I believe that mentoring piece is vitally important.
Equally fulfilling and memorable for my Jazz AllStar students was performing twice (in 1996 and 2000) at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, at the North Sea Jazz Fest in Amsterdam and the Umbria Jazz Fest in Italy, and for 16,000 people at the American School Board Association Conference in New Orleans. Every Fourth of July, I watch the Macy’s Summer Spectacular in New York City and recall when our Woodruff High School Marching Band was the featured band in 1992. Then there was the time we took more than 100 students from Roosevelt Magnet School to perform at Disneyland in Orlando. We had so many performances planned, we hardly knew which direction to go when! It warms my heart to know these students have the fondest of memories.
You co-founded the Jazz Education Network (JEN) and served as its first president. Please introduce this prestigious international organization and describe its growth over the years. What is your current role?
JEN has been thriving since day one. Together we have grown to thousands of members across the U.S. and around the globe, providing performance resources, promoting educational outreach, and producing the largest performance/educational conference in the global jazz community. JEN has become a world leader in networking students, educators, the industry and performers in this incredible art form that started in the United States and now belongs to the world.
It was spring 2008 when my colleague, Dr. Lou Fischer of Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, and I were working together to fill a void in the jazz education scene. Thirty-four passionate jazz lovers met for two days at a Best Western by O’Hare and left with a mission statement, website, draft bylaws, a board of directors, and officers. I was elected board president. It was a pivotal point in my career, and my life has never been the same since. I remain on the board today and am grateful to all those who have served on the board of directors and our committees. I am especially indebted to the other past presidents, who are like family to me.
During the startup, I was doing so many interviews, press releases, daily communications and keynoting that it was a challenge to keep up while working full-time in Highland Park. We had no paid employees, so I also served as CEO and secretary, answering emails and questions from the website. I worked to develop a year-round community engagement program that could bring jazz concerts and clinics into schools and community centers, and assist musicians financially.
One day I cold-called the Herb Alpert Foundation, which does not take applications, and told them my idea. They gave us $10,000, and JEN’s JAZZ2U program was born. Since 2013, the Foundation has given more than $150,000, and we have reached over 100,000 people in schools, hospitals and community centers while supporting musicians. I continue to oversee the JAZZ2U outreach program and am thrilled that we have had such success!
During the pandemic, we did a quick pivot to free webinars in order to assist teachers with online teaching, culturally diverse programming, and other pertinent areas. Our JENxperience conference will take place online January 6-9, 2021, streaming live and recorded from the Galt House in Louisville. I will present a panel of authors from my book Rehearsing the Jazz Band, published last year by Meredith Music. We feel it’s an opportunity to expand globally and bring more jazz to even more people.
Being active in the jazz community has brought me so many wonderful relationships with such incredible musicians and educators. I am friends with so many jazz greats, including Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Wynton Marsalis, Victor Wooten, Dee Dee Bridgewater and many more. I hope Illinois remembers me as an effective teacher and administrator, while the global jazz community will have the Jazz Education Network.
Why did you decide to return to Peoria after retiring in Highland Park?
It’s a good life on Chicago’s North Shore for an arts lover like me, but Peoria still felt like home. Whenever I came back to visit, everyone was so welcoming and it felt so good to reconnect with friends and family. The Riverfront Museum is world-class; we have the Riverplex, Civic Center and great healthcare; and the music and arts scene is pretty happening! We even have a beautiful airport, which I use often, producing student jazz festivals in New Orleans and Puerto Vallarta.
How have you become engaged in the community since your return?
Peoria welcomed me back with open arms in 2016. Superintendent Kherat asked me to get involved with the Peoria Jazz AllStars again, so I directed them as we celebrated their 25th anniversary with alumni at the Riverfront Museum. I also became active with ArtsPartners of Central Illinois, which I currently serve as board president.
ArtsPartners has been of great service to artists and arts organizations during the pandemic, offering a list of resources for COVID assistance at ArtsPartners.net. We produced an online version of IGNITE Peoria with over 100 local artists, makers and performers that was viewed by more than 10,000 people from 15 countries. Our Sky Art Peoria initiative features local artwork on billboards, seen annually by over 23.9 million people, and our Sculpture Walk on Washington Street is a model for other cities. In addition, we have hosted many roundtable discussions for arts leaders that have resulted in action plans and real problem solving. We exist to improve the quality of life for everyone in central Illinois, and that is foremost to me in these challenging times.
Serving on the 100th anniversary committee of Peoria Players Theatre last year was historic, as I asked the incomparable Tami Lane, former Woodruff student and Academy Award winner, to be our keynoter. How wonderful it was to reconnect with old theatre friends and meet the new talent directing now! Getting an opportunity to conduct and sing with the St. Anthony Camerata Chorale Festival Choir has been a joy. Working with the Central Illinois Jazz Society and Peoria Park District on producing the Jazz and Arts Festival on the riverfront has been fun, and we even added an educational workshop sponsored by JEN. Peoria is also fortunate to have the OLLI program, and I have enjoyed presenting and leading a study group on jazz appreciation.
At the national level, it has been my honor and pleasure to serve on the Grammy Foundation’s review panel the last five years for the Grammy Music Educator of the Year Award. It is very time-consuming, but gives me a window into the classrooms of the top educators in the country.
What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
I have been in a male-dominated field as a trumpet player, band director, administrator and in the jazz world, and I can tell you the playing field is still not level. I say, embrace who you are! You have everything you need inside of you right now. Be diligent and faithful, and do the job to the best of your abilities. Learn from others because life is too short to make all the mistakes and learn from them on your own.
Get involved in your community. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Be kind to everyone. Remember that the custodian matters as much as your boss—this advice has taken me all over the world. Follow your passion and utilize your God-given talents, but also use your head. Dream big! If you want it, go for it.
As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Know that our voice needs to be heard… everywhere. We bring a different and much-needed perspective to the table—and I don’t mean the dinner table!
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I believe the arts are essential to a holistic life. The arts enrich our lives, and never has the need to express ourselves been more urgent than during this pandemic crisis. It was Picasso who said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Be sure and take your cultural bath every day! Listen to music or sing, draw fun sketches or color, or dance like no one is watching!
I have always connected to this quote by Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It has guided me on my personal and professional path and reminds us to be totally present to others. PM