Jim Ketch, a professor of music and the director of jazz studies at UNC, came to the University in 1977, hired on a one-year job. Now, Ketch is retiring after 43 years, leaving behind a legacy through the classes he’s taught, the programs he’s created and the students he’s inspired.
Ketch was a fourth-grader living in Illinois when he realized his interest in music. One day at school, Ketch was brought down to the band room, where the local music store had created a display of all the instruments in the band. He remembers stopping in front of a coronet, a smaller version of the trumpet.
“The man invited me to pick it up, he showed me how to hold it, and he talked a little bit about how you take a big breath and move the air into the instrument,” Ketch said. “The man asked, ‘Why don’t you give it a shot?’ and out came this very clear tone, and that was pretty much it. I went home that night and told my parents that I really wanted to do this.”
Ketch studied music at Indiana State University, followed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was teaching at a small college in Utah when he was asked to teach trumpet and jazz at UNC for a year while someone took a sabbatical to work on their doctorate. Ketch thought that UNC would be a bigger and more professional opportunity, so he accepted the position.
When Ketch arrived at UNC in 1977, he was involved with teaching all the trumpet students, directing the jazz band and instructing a course called “Introduction to Jazz History.” Also during this year, Ketch created the first Carolina Jazz Festival, an event that occurs annually in February where high school jazz ensembles come to UNC, perform for judges and receive critiques.
“I’m just so pleased with the maturity of high school jazz in the state from when I came in 1977,” Ketch said. “I feel like I have had a big hand in sort of raising the awareness, the musicality and the vitality of jazz study within the state. I’m certainly proud of the festivals and certainly hope they will continue. It’s a labor, but it’s a labor of love.”
Ketch ended up staying at UNC after his first year, and after over a decade of teaching, the chairman at the time asked Ketch to develop a 200-level course in jazz history. Ketch created a course called “Jazz Innovators,” where he could teach students about jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. Later on, Ketch said he became a better jazz player, so he asked if he could develop a jazz improvisation class.
“Gradually, I began to see if I could introduce more classes,” Ketch said. “So now, 43 years later, we have seven classes in jazz, and we have one jazz band, four combos, one of my colleagues does a Latin Charanga group, so it’s been a logical expansion of things, which you hope would happen when faculty members develop their expertise in an area.”
Ketch said that for those looking to pursue jazz studies, one must be able to dedicate themselves to the craft.
“I never miss a day of practice, even on vacations,” Ketch said. “I feel guilty going to bed at night — after 43 years of teaching — if I haven’t done much practicing that day. I feel like I’ve let myself down, I’ve let the art form down.”
With Ketch planning on retiring after this year’s UNC Summer Jazz Workshop, what remains now is figuring out who will fill Ketch’s shoes. For two musicians who worked with Ketch, it will be a tall order.
Fred Larsen, a senior at Carrboro High School, has taken jazz lessons from Ketch since last year. Next year, Larsen will be in the dual degree program between Harvard University and the Berklee College of Music, where he will be pursuing trombone performance.
“You can always see him scheduled somewhere to perform, and he always has all these funny stories to tell when he’s on stage,” Larsen said. “Also, when he plays concerts, he looks out into the audience and sees if he can spot any of his students, and he invites them to come up on stage. It’s really fun to get to play with a professional group, and the audience always loves it when that happens. It creates a really fun environment.”
Larsen said that Ketch frequently takes the time to explain the historical significance of all the music he plays, which has led Larsen to see the music in a completely different way.
“When he started teaching jazz academically, people weren’t really teaching jazz,” Larsen said. “He was one of the first to really embrace it as an academic form, and he not only teaches me about the history of music, but I think that he actually had a part in making history.”
Kyle Procopio, a junior and trumpet performance major at the University of Delaware, met Ketch at Carolina Jazz Festival in 2016. Procopio also worked with Ketch that summer at the UNC Summer Jazz Workshop, where Ketch teaches an improvisation class, masterclasses with the trumpets and one of the combo ensembles.
Procopio said that Ketch was always supportive of his students, and that he was incredibly open and approachable.
“He’s just the nicest guy, and always there for the students,” Procopio said. “You really can’t say enough good things about Jim Ketch, I don’t remember one negative thing about him. If I had a question I would always feel comfortable approaching him. He’s just a great trumpet teacher.”
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