New direction for a music tradition

Jenna Morris took a job teaching high school band in Le Roy after graduating from Pittsburg State University. She moved to Iola and was asked to lead the Iola Municipal Band, with its 151-year-old tradition.

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July 6, 2022 - 2:18 PM

Jenna Morris is the new director of the Iola Municipal Band. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

Jenna Morris arrived in Iola in January, unaware she soon would become a part of local history.

Morris is midway through the 2022 Iola Municipal Band season as the band’s director, just months after earning her teaching degree in music at Pittsburg State University.

The 22-year-old is tasked with leading the diverse group of musicians from Iola and vicinity during their weekly Thursday evening concerts.

“I don’t know that I’ve been a part of anything else going on for 151 years,” Morris said. “It’s really cool to be a part of the tradition. I’m really thankful for the opportunity, especially being so young and new to the music scene.”

Morris didn’t have to wait long after earning her degree in December to find a job. Within days, she was hired as band director at Southern Coffey County High School in Le Roy.

Eager to find a home, Morris found a place in Iola, and moved on New Year’s Day.

Just as she was getting settled into her new position, Morris took note of an upcoming Iola Area Symphony Orchestra performance, conducted by Raul Munguia — one of Morris’s professors at Pitt State.

“It was nice to have a familiar face, and I wanted to get involved with that,” she said.

At the conclusion of the season, Morris was recruited by fellow musician — and longtime Iola Municipal Band member — John Sheehan, who noted another opportunity was there for the taking.

“It was a quick inauguration into the community,” Morris laughed. “It’s gone really well. I’ve gotten a lot of support from the band members. I’ve never been in anything so rooted in tradition.”

The Iola Municipal Band was formed in 1871, and carries the distinction of the longest-running municipal band west of the Mississippi River, and among the oldest in the country.

“It’s certainly the oldest in Kansas,” Morris said.

MORRIS grew up in the Pittsburg area, and brought with her a love of music that carried on to college.

The Iola Municipal Band performs at a concert in June, under the direction of Jenna Morris of Iola. She graduated with a degree in music from Pittsburg State University and was hired as the band director at Southern Coffey County High School in Le Roy.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

Her instrument of choice? The bassoon.

“I was in the eighth grade, and I’d always played the saxophone,” she recalled. “I saw a picture of a band from the 70s or 80s, with a weird-looking instrument that goes above your head.”

“What is that?” Morris asked her director.

“It’s a bassoon,” the instructor replied. “Do you want to try it?”

“Of course I do,” she laughed. “And here I am.”

Bassoons are among the most complicated instruments in the orchestra to play.

Heck, it sports nine keys — just for her left thumb. “And four more for your right,” Morris noted.

But overcoming that intimidating instrument is a key to unlocking a bassoon’s distinct sound, she continued.

“It’s a tenor-range instrument, which is a bit lower than some woodwinds, but it has a really wide range,” she noted.

Jenna Morris directs the Iola Municipal Band.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

MORRIS has developed an eclectic playlist for each weekly Iola Municipal Band performance, in between the obligatory national anthem which starts each show, and a John Philip Sousa march at the end.

Her songs range from the traditional big-band era to more modern pieces, from Neil Diamond’s classic “Sweet Caroline” to Leo Armaud’s “Bugler’s Dream,” otherwise known as the distinctive anthem closely associated with the Olympic Games.

“I’m trying to pull out stuff they may not have played in our library before,” she said. 

Her choices are based on quality of the music, plus their difficulty, because some members are unable to make it to their weekly rehearsals.

“For many, the first time they see the music is the night of the performance,” she said. “I try to make sure it’s something we can play together and keep on with.”

The band itself features a number of long-time performers, to several newcomers still in high school, and even middle school.

THE WEEKLY band concerts begin at 8 p.m. each Thursday at the bandstand gazebo at the northwest corner of the Allen County Courthouse square.

They’ll run through July.

Meanwhile, Morris is preparing for her first full year at the helm at SCC. She has four students getting ready to perform with an all-star marching band for the 2022 Kansas Shrine Bowl in Pittsburg on July 23.

And with the school year starting a few weeks after that, Morris once again will have a jam-packed schedule.

Any difficulties as a new teacher jumping in midway through a school year were quickly alleviated, Morris noted, as her students and fellow teachers accepted her with open arms.

“Both the Le Roy and Gridley communities have been very welcoming,” she said. “It’s gone well.”

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