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Retired academic turns to first love of music

November 29, 2018

Former Lamar University president Jimmy Simmons is headlining Thursday’s Jazz on the Lake, which will double as the release party for his first original album. Simmons is a multi-instrumentalist who has made an mark on the music community locally and beyond, having played alongside acts like Frank Sinatra, The Temptations and Ray Charles.

After retiring from academia last fall, music is helping him keep busy. We caught up with Simmons to chat about his career, his current musical projects, and Jazz on the Lake.

Q: What will the show be like?

A: We have a really great group of musicians. We will be starting off with the Jazz Quintet from Lamar University and they will play for about thirty minutes to open up the show and my band will follow. It’s a terrific event hosted in a great facility that offers a good sound for the music. People who come seem to really enjoy it, and I think it has been a real asset for Beaumont to have.

Q: How did you get into music?

A: I was about 11. I remember seeing my father using a clarinet to pantomime for a theater show. From that point on all I ever wanted to play was clarinet. My parents got me one and I took lessons and played my way through all the bad junior high and high school bands.

Q: Any other instruments?

A: Yes, I took piano lessons when I was young so I had those piano skills early on, and when I was in high school I began playing the saxophone. When I got into college I added the flute to that list. Most woodwind players will play flute, clarinet, saxophone.

Q: What is your go-to instrument?

A: I have a master’s degree in clarinet so I am proficient in that, but I love jazz so I am also very close to my tenor saxophone.

Q: You’ve played with some big names — Sinatra, Ray Charles, and The Temptations to name a few. What is that like?

A: Well, you know you end up on the stage with some of these people and it is just hard to believe. It is a great thrill to be able to sit on the stage and play with Sinatra or join The Temptations or Four Tops or Chicago. You think about it growing up and next thing you know you’re up there doing it.

Q: How did you make the jump from music to academics?

A: That is what all my friends want to know as well! Well, you know I started off as a band director at Crockett Junior High, then Beaumont High School. Then I am on the music faculty for Memphis State University where I went to school, then at Lamar University. I became department chair, then dean, and then an interim vice-president. I just decided at one point I just didn’t want to work for any more presidents and I would rather do it myself — put my name in the hat and was fortunate enough to be selected. It was a great 15 years.

Very few college presidents start off as a college president. You begin in some specialized field and you work your way up. Many professors don’t want to be administrators but I enjoyed it. It was a wonderful trip for me.

Q: How’s retired life?

A: I just quit teaching this fall — the first fall I am fully retired. But I am staying busy. I am playing more music now than I have in years. I have never been so busy musically and it has been great.

Q: So what about the album?

A: Well, it is my first solo album. I have been featured on CDs with different bands I have been in. I had a former student and colleague in Lufkin who has a wonderful studio and he asked me if I had written any music, which is something I have always thought of doing but just never gotten around to it. He said, “Well, why don’t you sit down and write some.” So I got to work and all of the sudden I composed a whole group of tunes and he wanted to put together an album for me. We have been working on it for almost a year now — had former students come in from Houston and Dallas, as well as other musicians from Detroit, Memphis, Los Angeles. We got together a wonderful group of musicians and it has been so much fun. I have been on other people’s records but this is the first time it has been my music featuring me.

Q: Would you have made the album without the push from your friend?

A: Not at all. Not if Dixon Shanks did not take the time and effort to produce it and put it all together. Most of it is original, so it is different than getting together with a group of musicians and playing something everybody knows. This had to be written out and I had to make trips up to Lufkin, so it has really been a process.

Q: What do you see for the future?

A: Not much before 10 in the morning, that is for sure! But I think music is just my calling. It has always been a major part of my life and I think I will probably continue performing as much as I can. The invitations to perform seem to be coming in now more than ever. It’s just a great time of my life.

Daniel Pemberton is a freelance writer for Cat5.

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