Editor’s Note: Natalie Wilson is a 1978 Aberdeen High School graduate. She went by Joan Fenton then. Her mom Vicki Fenton now lives at Channel Point Village in Hoquiam. Wilson was involved in AHS music programs and traveled with one of the national Up With People casts just after graduation.
It’s a few days before winter break at Grass Valley Elementary School in Camas, and students from music teacher Natalie Wilson’s Grass Valley VOCAL JAZZ ensemble are on the school’s stage with Portland saxophonist Patrick Lamb.
The children — all students in third, fourth or fifth grade — may not recognize Lamb as an Oregon Music Hall of Fame artist who has had several “top five” hit singles on the U.S. Billboard record chart or even as someone who has performed with music luminaries such as Smokey Robinson and Grammy-winner Esperanza Spalding.
Instead, the Grass Valley youngsters just know they’re a part of something fun, said Wilson.
“They have no idea what a big deal it is to have some of these guest artists visit our school,” Wilson, 59, said. “I wish I’d had something like that at their age.”
A music educator with 35 years’ worth of teaching under her belt and a lifelong love of jazz, Wilson often asks local jazz artists like Lamb to come play for and with her young students.
“The jazz community is very giving and loving,” Wilson said. “Usually, if they can do it, they will … and I’m always willing to ask.”
The artists may recognize the unique opportunity Wilson’s VOCAL JAZZ ensemble offers. Since starting the elementary school jazz vocal group in 2001, Wilson has only heard of one other similar group in the United States.
“It’s very rare,” she said of having a jazz vocal ensemble at the elementary school level. “We are one of the only ones in the country.”
The current Grass Valley VOCAL JAZZ group includes 62 students who meet for one hour, once a week to learn the intricacies of singing jazz tunes.
“I look at what these kids are able to accomplish in one hour a week and it’s incredible,” Wilson said. “I push them hard, but they love it.”
Wilson hasn’t always taught at the elementary level. Before coming to Grass Valley in 2001, the Pacific Northwest native who earned her bachelor’s degree in music education from Western Washington University in 1984 and her master’s degree in education from Portland State University in 1989, spent nearly 18 years teaching music and vocal jazz to Camas middle and high school students.
Today, she is the chairwoman of the national Jazz Education Network’s K-8 Education Committee and is beginning to focus her energy on showing future music teachers the benefits of teaching jazz to students long before they enter middle or high school.
“I know how hectic and performance-driven the high school level can be,” Wilson said.
Working at the elementary school level has allowed the jazz-loving music educator to focus more on teaching students to have an appreciation and understanding of a form of music that originated in the United States.
“I’m really planting the seeds at this level,” Wilson said.
At Grass Valley, Wilson’s young students are used to their music teacher playing jazz and blues music during class. They learn to transpose jazz songs and to sing the blues. “What I’m giving them here — an appreciation for jazz — I hope they will have the rest of their lives,” Wilson said.
The Camas educator’s unique approach to teaching music at the elementary school level has caught the attention of performing artists like Lamb — who invited several of Wilson’s VOCAL JAZZ students to perform with him at his early December “A Charlie Brown Christmas at the Old Church” concert in Portland — as well as her peers.
In 2018, Wilson received the “Tenuto Award” from the Friends of Frank DeMiero Jazz Festival, and she was named the Regional Outstanding Music Educator in 2012 and 2014. In 2013, the Camas School District named her “Employee of the Year.”
And, most recently, Wilson learned she will soon be inducted into the Washington Music Educators Association (WMEA) “Hall of Fame.”
“She is truly exceptional at her craft,” said Grass Valley Principal Sean McMillan of Wilson at a Nov. 25 Camas School Board meeting where district leaders honored Wilson’s impending “Hall of Fame” induction. “She teaches me so much about music, it’s great … to watch our kids at the elementary (level) reap everything she brings on a daily basis … our kids are lucky to have her every single day.” Wilson said the Hall of Fame induction was “really humbling.”
“It’s such an honor to represent Camas,” Wilson said at the Nov. 25 meeting, before thanking district leaders and school board members for supporting music in Camas’ schools. “I’m honored.”
The Camas teacher also was pleased to find out that the person who nominated her for the honor was Monika Tabor — Wilson’s first student teacher after she moved to the elementary level and started teaching at Grass Valley in 2001. Today, Tabor teaches music, including vocal jazz, at Lake Stevens High School in Snohomish County, Washington.
“I was just so honored, truly, to learn that she had nominated me,” Wilson said.
The WMEA Hall of Fame began in 1998 with 125 charter members and added another 70 members in 2000. Since then, the WMEA adds up to 10 new members to its Hall of Fame every two years.
According to the WMEA, the Hall of Fame — which has been housed on a “Wall of Recognition” at the Jerilyn S. Mcintyre Music Building at Central Washington University since June 2011 — is meant to honor music educators and others who have provided “exceptional support, inspiration and outstanding contribution to the growth and development of music education, both public and private, in the state of Washington.”
Wilson will be inducted into the WMEA Hall of Fame at the association’s annual conference in Yakima, Washington, in February 2020.