A backstage pass with JMU's king of Jazz

George West, professor of music
By Lisa Luther Shaw ('87)

Originally published in Fall 2001, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.

George West created and directed the Jazz Ensemble when he taught at JMU

Known as the "King of Jazz," George West created and directed the Jazz Ensemble when he taught at JMU (1970-1996).

It was the fall of 1982. I was a freshman music major enrolled in the scariest class of my life—freshman theory with music professor George West. I had heard the stories. He was tough and famous for sarcastic comments. He was also an amazing musician and director of the highly acclaimed JMU Jazz Ensemble. I was scared to death, and to make matters worse, I was a voice major. Rumor was he didn't care for those.

I sat in his class, ready to take notes. It was a large lecture room filled with freshman music students. I remember his first comment was that we should put our pens away. "Bankers use pens; musicians use pencils," he said matter-of-factly. (I made a note to buy pencils.) He was hard, but somehow I made it through his class with a 'B' —not bad for a singer.

The next year, I sang with the JMU Jazz Band, directed by music professor John Cryder, at the spring jazz concert. Each year, the three jazz bands performed—top billing, of course, being Doc West's jazz ensemble. I had soloed many times before, but this was different. I was scared to death. Not because of the nearly full house at Wilson Hall, but because of one man. He was the undisputed "King of Jazz" at JMU. If you couldn't cut it, he'd be the first one to know, and he would most likely tell you.

During intermission, I was standing below the stage when I saw him. He had no expression on his face. I was scared; would he even acknowledge me? I couldn't breathe, and then he spoke, "How would you like to be the singer for the jazz ensemble next semester? Come see me tomorrow." And then he walked away. To this day, that remains the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me.

In the three years that followed, I found out what many others already knew—George West is one of the greatest music professors JMU has ever had. Under the crusty exterior is a warm and hilarious man who is responsible for the success of JMU's jazz program. In fact, he's touched the lives of all JMU students. The next time you're at a football game and The Marching Royal Dukes play the JMU Fight Song, say a little thank you to Doc West because he wrote it.

At West's retirement party in 1996, dozens of former students stood up and shared memories of the man who taught them all so much.

It was bittersweet. Many expressed gratitude and admiration while at the same time saying "good-bye" to someone who had touched their lives so deeply.

We are all richer for having known Doc West. The last I heard he was enjoying retirement in Florida. Drop him a line sometime. I'm sure he'd love to hear from you. But for heaven's sake, use a pencil!

About the professor
George West retired from JMU's music faculty in 1996 as professor emeritus of music, but he is quite an active retiree. Last summer, West celebrated his 30th year as chairman of the jazz performance major at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in Michigan. He also serves as an adjunct instructor at Stetson University, where he directs the jazz ensemble and teaches jazz studies. West lives in Deland, Fla., with his wife, Jean Ohlsson West ('70), who is a professor of flute and music history at Stetson University. Music has been a part of the Wests' lives since the couple met. West met his future wife while she was a music major at JMU and her father, Giordou Ohlsson, was head of the university's music department.

Lisa L. Shaw

Lisa L. Shaw

About the author
Lisa Luther Shaw ('87) is a stay-at-home mom and lives in Ashburn, Va., with husband, Thom ('86), and 4-year-old daughter, Erin. Lisa sang with the Jazz Ensemble and the Madisonians, through which she met Thom, who also played trumpet for the Marching Royal Dukes.

The couple didn't date while they were students (although Lisa admits to a crush). But, she says "We both attended a 1994 Madisonian reunion and hit it off. We began dating right away, and six months later (on a trip back to campus for Homecoming) Thom proposed to me sitting on the rocks on the Quad."