A while back, Jim Ketch was visiting his 96-year-old mother at a retirement center when one of her nonagenarian neighbors told him, “I think I know you.” After Ketch told him who he was, the man figured it out: “You played at my daughter’s wedding!”
Ketch gets that a lot. He’s leaving — retiring only in the technical sense — after more than four decades as one of the music department’s most visible faculty players at weddings, funerals, basketball games and gigs with ensembles, including the N.C. Jazz Repertory Orchestra he helped create. Ketch and his trumpet have taught multiple generations of jazz and classical players while establishing jazz as an important subject of study at UNC.
“That’s the foundation of his legacy, all the jazz activities in the music department,” said Allen Anderson, chair of the department. “He has indefatigable energy and spirit in everything he does, both inside and outside the University. He lives and breathes his work, as musicians should, and he’s an exemplar of what it means to be active, engaged and inspirational.”
Other colleagues single Ketch out for his versatility. He’s also a formidable classical player and teacher.
“He’s been a friend, colleague and mentor for a very long time, and I’m going to miss him terribly,” colleague Brent Wissick said. “I’m a classical cellist, and he is a fabulous classical trumpet player. His other side as a virtuoso jazz player, I can only admire. And whether teaching or playing, Jim has a way of knowing when to be serious and when to allow his wit to come out. He brings a sense of warmth to everything, whether it’s his family or students or all of us. Jim is part of our musical family, and he’ll be missed in ways we’re only just beginning to put together.”
Ketch was introduced to his art in fourth grade with a visit to the band room. He spotted a cornet, picked it up, took a breath and a blow, and a note came out. It was, he says now, “love at first sound.”
By the next year he was playing in his school’s band and taking lessons. Fortuitously, all his teachers happened to be trumpet players, and he progressed quickly — especially under the seventh grade instruction of “a very strict, stern German trumpet teacher who scared the heck out of my mom.”
High school brought Ketch his first paying gigs as second trumpet to his teacher in an orchestra. “Going out with my teacher’s band, playing the Elks Lodge and making 15 bucks for the night, I thought it was the greatest thing in the world.”
At Indiana State, Ketch planned to go to Las Vegas after graduation and play trumpet in a hotel band, backing up star guests during their residencies. He had even begun subscribing to the Las Vegas newspaper to look for apartments — but then he met a girl. That steered him to graduate school at the University of Illinois, marriage, a year at a small college in Utah and finally UNC. He came to Carolina in 1977 for what was supposed to be a one-year residency.
“Sometimes those one-year things are one and done, sometimes more,” Ketch said. “In this case, it certainly worked out. Teaching came naturally to me. A good teacher takes as much pleasure in students doing well as when he himself does well. That’s at the heart of it for most teachers, a real desire to see students achieve.”
While Las Vegas didn’t turn out to be his destination, show business came to him with freelance sideman gigs. Ketch has backed up a wide range of artists, including Natalie Cole, Branford Marsalis, Ben E. King and even the comedian Jerry Lewis on a run of the touring Broadway show Damn Yankees. He also backed up Aretha Franklin’s 2016 show at Durham Performing Arts Center.
“I remember her coming on in a white mink coat, looking us all in the face and saying, ‘Guys, I’m happy you’re here, thanks so much for helping me out,’ ” Ketch said. “So humble and gracious for a person at the absolute highest level.”
Ketch has played on a lot of albums over the years as both sideman and bandleader with the N.C. Jazz Repertory Orchestra, an ensemble that formed as an extension of his membership in the Gregg Gelb Swing Band. He also has spent the past decade co-leading each year’s Savannah Music Festival jazz program, which also will continue. He wants to do a book about jazz improvisation; retiring from day-to-day teaching might free up time to do that.
The one certainty is he’s not going to stop playing.
“The old adage is that musicians don’t retire, they just play fewer gigs,” he said. “Maybe. I still practice every day I can. There’s a quote attributed to Louis Armstrong: ‘If I miss one day, I know it. If I miss two, the band knows it. And if I miss three, the audience knows it.’ It’s like lips develop amnesia overnight.
“But yeah, I’ll keep at it. Some people retire feeling angry or bitter, but I’ve enjoyed my time at UNC. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done with colleagues, students, the University. We’ve grown the jazz program considerably during that time. I look forward to seeing what happens in the future, with the program and with me.”
— David Menconi