It started with a moment. A singular instant that changed the course of young Harold Jackson’s life forever. In a crowd of bystanders, Jackson witnessed his first marching band performance. Struck by the rhythmic pounding of feet and heavenly chorus of instruments, Jackson followed the parade of music to the very end.
“I wanted to play one of those horns so bad,” Jackson said. “After that, I grew up knowing that I was supposed to be a musician, and it’s been my total life since.”
Part of that life occurred in his younger days at Rider High School. Jackson became the school’s first band director when the campus opened in 1961.
Six decades later, Jackson — who could be the only living staff member from the inaugural year — returned to his former stomping grounds and spoke to the school’s varsity band.
“It’s just such a large building,” Jackson said. “I thought it was a large building when I was here, but not so. It’s expanded and changed so much for the better, and I’m so glad for that.”
From the top
Jackson seized every opportunity to play music. He grew up on a farm in Southwest Oklahoma, knowing even then that he wanted to be a band director. His natural talent fueled Jackson’s desire for music, despite his lack of basic skills.
“I could always play anything I could get my hands on,” Jackson said.
When he was young, he would often sneak into his local church after hours to try his hand at playing piano. Jackson would take his horse and ride along the small dirt road to the side of the church house, where he would climb in the window and try to make music on the community piano.
“I’d sit down and peck around on the little ivories for a while,” Jackson said. “Anything I’d ever heard, I could play. I don’t know how, it just happened that way.”
Two weeks before he joined his local junior college, Jackson purchased his first trumpet. Full of hope, he approached the head band director asking for a place in his program. At first, the director was unsure of Jackson’s confidence. As a test, he improvised a piano tune in the band hall and simply asked that Jackson play it back to him.
“He got up and I sat down on the bench. But instead of playing it with one finger like he had, I played that melody but with a little bit of jazz and boogie woogie,” Jackson said. “He shook his head and he said, ‘You might as well sign up to get in this stupid business with the rest of us.’”
After his swift admittance into the band, Jackson began working tirelessly to improve his skills. He would spend many evenings in the band hall, so much so that his band director would give him a spare key to lock up after practices.
“I would practice in the cafeteria on my time off, then after the cafeteria, I went to the music building and practiced until midnight,” Jackson said.
Jackson continued his music practice and education throughout his second year, where he was asked by the band’s president to become the organization’s assistant music director.
“I hitchhiked from Hollis to Lawton to tell him in person, ‘Yes, I would like to do this,’” Jackson said.
Landing at Rider
Jackson started his career young, teaching and conducting several instrumental ensembles across the United States.
“I started in the little town of Munday, Texas and I stayed there four years before I moved to Childress, Texas,” Jackson said. “During that time, they were planning to open a new high school (in Wichita Falls), and the feeling was that whoever was at the junior high would be moved into the new high school position.”
However, the road to becoming part of the new high school would be a difficult one. Jackson had to start by taking a position at Barwise Junior High.
“The position became available specifically to the head conductor of the Barwise band,” Jackson said. “So I made a very sudden decision to move and join Barwise, dreaming and hoping of becoming head director of the new Rider High School. My dream was always to have the greatest band in Texas.”
As the Barwise director’s second in command, Jackson wasn’t Rider’s first choice to be the band director. But before the school on Cypress Avenue opened, he landed the job when the previous band director didn’t finish at Barwise.
“Well, all of a sudden I’m next in line to open as the director of Rider High School’s marching band,” Jackson said. “Things just worked out.”
Finally, Jackson had reached his dream of conducting a high school marching group.
Pride and discipline became the core of the program, dictating everything that the students did. There was no shortage of honor in the students’ minds and their loyalty to Jackson’s leadership was unrivaled.
“That’s just the kind of students that were in the first band,” Jackson said. “That’s the kind of students that you still have in band, because I think that just goes along year after year.”
After three years of trials, excellence and dedication,Jackson took his band all the way to a state competition.But his reign was short-lived. By the end of his third year, Jackson had already secured a university conducting position.
Traveling from college to college, Jackson finally took on the challenge of achieving his doctorate at the University of Oklahoma. He reached his goal in a matter of two years, claiming that was the fastest anyone had ever achieved this degree at OU.
Though he had accomplished his dream of conducting a high school marching band, Jackson was still very far from retiring. He took many more university jobs, but also had a recurring occupation as a choir director, whether it be at church or school.
“Everywhere that I’ve gone as a music director or a band person, I’ve ended up as a choir director,” Jackson said. “Not that I planned it that way.”
Ninety-one years into life, Jackson has seen and done many great things. From taking the first Rider Honors Band all the way to state, to becoming the chairman of several American university music programs.
Now, Jackson lives on the road, traveling across the country with his wife in their truck and trailer. Recently, their plans consisted of watching the bluebonnets bloom in the heart of Southwest Texas.
After attending Rider’s 45th anniversary concert, Jackson was going to come back for the 60th as well. However, the pandemic stopped Jackson in his tracks and his reunion was postponed until April 9, when he visited the Rider wind ensemble.
Fifty-seven years after he resigned from Rider, Jackson was undoubtedly overwhelmed by the memories of the legacy and traditions he inspired.
“They were tough years, but they were just the greatest years,” Jackson said. “One of the things that comes to mind that we made the headlines for was the time we calculated how many steps we took on the marching field over the entire football season. It came into the thousands and thousands.”
Jackson has impacted thousands of lives with his music, which has taken him to hundreds of places across the country. In his latest time back at Rider, he left the varsity band with one piece of advice.
“You’ve just got to dream and then fulfill those dreams,” Jackson said.