Popular Music Teacher Helena Jack Gives Up Full-Time Teaching
The beloved and respected band teacher and creator of the award-winning Oakland Eastside All-Star Ensemble reflects on her teaching career.
Helena Jack teaches students more than sharps and flats.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
For generations of Oakland kids, the road to college — or at least a lifelong love of music — started with Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” in Helena Jack’s music class.
“I get them playing that on the first day they pick up an instrument. Anyone can play it — it has one note, maybe two,” said Jack. “So right away they get that feedback of success. They get to sound good, quick. Then I go through the back door and teach them how to read music, the literature of music. But by that point they’re hooked.”
After more than 20 years teaching music in the Oakland Unified School District, Jack hung up her conductor’s baton in June and retired from full-time teaching. Beloved for her high standards and easy rapport with students, she leaves behind a music legacy in Oakland Unified that thrived amid years of budget cuts and program reductions.
She turned thousands of kids on to jazz, funk, and blues, inspiring them to show up for school when they didn’t always want to, practice when they didn’t feel like it, and go to college when they didn’t imagine it was possible. Her students have gone on to the best universities and music schools in the country, and many say they’ll be lifelong musicians because of her.
Among her crowning achievements is creating the Oakland Eastside All-Star Ensemble, a district-wide, award-winning jazz band that tours, records, wins competitions, and performs Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” like the rapture is upon us.
But Jack’s impact goes beyond the band room, said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell.
“Helena Jack is an amazing educator and amazing person,” she said. “She is deeply respected by her students and her peers. Ms. Jack has had a profound impact on music education, particularly jazz education, in OUSD, which continues to this day.”
But Jack’s career as a music teacher did not start out so rosy. After years as a professional trumpet player, she decided to try teaching in her 40s, earning her credential from Cal State East Bay. Her first assignment: teaching band at Elmhurst Middle School in East Oakland.
The students were so uncooperative and belligerent, she said, “the only way I could psych myself through the day was by pulling the shades and blasting ‘I’m Every Woman.’”
She started going to after-school sports games and talking to her students about basketball or whatever else they were interested in. Then one day at lunch, a student started shouting insults at her, and, rising to Jack’s defense, another student punched him.
“This was a tough school. But I’ll tell you,” she said with a laugh, “that was the end of that. After that it became a different conversation. I told them, ‘you all can’t run me out.’ They weren’t used to someone sticking around, going to their games, getting to know them and their families.”
The principal respected her, too, and helped her get a grant to expand the music program. She was able to hire 10 music teachers, so every student could learn an instrument and take music for all three years. From there, arts education expanded to include theater, and the whole school started to turn around.
“I experienced that transformation,” she said. “The principal wasn’t just supportive, he made it so music was the most important thing happening at that school. That school went from being crazy to beautiful. That’s where I learned that if you want to change a school, start with the arts.”
Music has been a part of Jack’s life since she learned to play piano at age 6, when she was growing up in Guam. Her mother, who was Fillipina, pushed her to play piano, and her father, an Army employee, played trumpet. She and her sisters and father would play Sousa marches and march around the house, “driving our mother crazy.”
When she was 12 the family moved to San Francisco, where she continued to play trumpet, eventually winning a music scholarship to San Francisco State University. She played in local bands, including a stint with the Pickle Family Circus and the Golden Gate Park Band, a jazz band, and attended college on and off — mostly off, she said — throughout her 20s and 30s. Then, in the early 1980s, a severe motorcycle accident brought everything to a stop.
Recovering in the hospital, she made a deal with the universe: “Let me walk again, and I promise I’ll go back to school.”
The universe agreed, and before long she was in the classroom. She taught for more than a decade at Elmhurst, followed by stints at Castlemont, Oakland Tech, and Skyline.
“Why music? It’s tangible. Sometimes students don’t connect with the academics, but music is universal. The discipline is transferable, and it crosses cultures,” she said. “There’s not one person alive who doesn’t listen to music. That’s what makes you human.”
Her relationship with her students goes beyond sharps and flats. She takes them on college tours, arranges community service jobs, has the bands perform for seniors, and play Christmas carols around town. She has an open-door policy where students can tell her anything in confidentiality. Each year she travels around the country to watch her former students graduate from college.
And she cooks for them. Regular barbecues and dinners are mixed in with rehearsals and concert performances.
Railey Stern Yen, a senior alto sax player at Oakland Tech who’s headed to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, credits Jack with his musical success.
“She never says, ‘you better do this.’ She just shows you how to play something and lets you run with it,” he said. “And at the end of the day, she wants us to listen to each other. That’s the most important thing in music. And life, too, I think.”
Mary Nguyen, a senior at Tech, had played classical piano most of her life. Then, as a freshman in the Oakland Eastside All-Star Ensemble, Jack told her to go home and listen to Count Basie. She did, for hours, falling asleep that night listening to the Big Band great.
“She really pushed me to expand musically, and try something new. She taught me that music is about communication,” said Nguyen, who’s going to UC Berkeley in the fall. “She taught me to keep improving myself, and not worry about what other people think.”
Jack has also been a role model for girls hoping to pursue careers in music.
“There’s not a lot of female jazz musicians who aren’t singers,” said Grace Gulli, a freshman at Tech who plays the alto sax. “But we get to practice with Ms. Jack every week. She’s amazing. … She’s definitely the coolest band teacher I’ve ever had.”
Jack plans to work part time in the fall, probably teaching music to middle-school students, she said. Retiring altogether is unthinkable (she tried to retire last year but signed up for another year when a music teacher at Skyline High quit just before school started).
And there’s always “September.”
“They love playing that. They play it with such joy. They always put a little Oakland in it,” she said. “I can’t miss that. I love, love, love this job. And I just love the kids, I really do. … It’s never been a job for me. It’s been fun as heck.”