OTISFIELD – They’d stay in hotels when they could afford it, but usually just slept in the vans.
Maybe it wasn’t all the glitz and glam VH1 and MTV makes life on the road out to be, but Jason Ward and his band had a pretty good run from 1995 to 2001. The saxophonist of the former Rustic Overtones played up to 250 gigs a year at the band’s peak, from San Diego to Caribou, Maine.
Now Ward, who lives in South Portland, puts his energy into teaching elementary school students a range of instruments, from guitar to African drums.
After getting his degree in music education in 2005, the now-35-year-old got a job in the SAD 17 school system, teaching music at Otisfield and West Paris elementary schools. Here, he uses his energy once used for a life on the road to teaching young kids a variety of instruments.
Hand him anything, whether it has strings, keys or a mouthpiece, and he can play it.
Late Friday afternoon Ward scurried about in the Otisfield Community School gym. He had just finished up an after-school program teaching kids African drums. Parents helped restack the chairs, and fifth-graders put conga drums back in boxes.
Ward untucked his shirt, took off his tie, grabbed a Diet Pepsi and collapsed in a chair in the teacher’s room. Later that night, he had a gig with his current band, El Grande, a reggae/rock fusion ensemble.
He was exhausted, but happy with his new career.
Ward said he has played the saxophone since he was 13.
“I thought it was a really cool instrument,” he said.
Ward joined the band on a whim – after coming back from going to a college in Florida, he advertised himself in a Portland magazine as a saxophone player looking to join a band. The lead singer and guitarist, Dave Gutter, contacted him the next day.
He played his first gig for about 1,000 people that night, Cinco de Mayo of 1995.
“Nothing in my life was the same after that,” Ward said. “I was sucked in right away.”
The seven-member band opened up for a bunch of big names, such as Incubus and the Black Eyed Peas. They recorded three albums and two E.P.’s, along with several compilation cuts.
Their music was very upbeat, with strong vocals and a strong horn section.
To Ward’s surprise, David Bowie did a guest track with them on one album when they were in New York.
They put 500,000 miles on one of their two vans in 18 months, hauling a trailer with their equipment.
“We were very busy, very motivated, and very ambitious,” Ward said.
They kept going until 2002. Then there were differences between the members, wondering what the band’s future was. Record deals were falling through. Band members were burned out.
It was time to move on.
While at USM, Ward worked with Professor Bill Street.
“He brought me to task on some practicing, I didn’t know how to practice,” Ward said. “He never gave up on me.”
Fifth-grader Charlee Noble has taken several instruments with Ward, said her mom, Beth, who smiled as she watched Ward conclude his lesson.
“She thinks he’s great,” Beth said. “He always does extra with the kids.”
In the two schools, Ward teaches both band and orchestral instruments. He also conducts general music classes, which teach concepts.
Fourth-graders use the recorder to learn rhythm and how to read music.
The “Project Drum” after-school program targets students who need enrichment, Ward said. It teaches rhythm and enhances mathematical skills, but also is a way for the kids to release frustrations.
At home, Ward’s music collection exceeds 500 albums, including tapes and vinyl. He’ll listen to anything, he said, but his biggest influences are horn-based music, such as Lou Donaldson, Earth, Wind and Fire, Tower of Power and old-school Stevie Wonder and James Brown.
Ward, who lives with his serious girlfriend Kristi, said working with the kids has made him think about having a family, but one step at a time.
He said he would like to teach middle and high school kids at some point
“The whole rock star thing, it had its ups and downs,” Ward said. “I did it once, (now) I see myself teaching long-term.”