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The Jazz Men Testify

New group debuts in Rehoboth Beach
January 9, 2019

School has been a thread in the lives of Walt Hetfield, James Sudimak and Cody Leavel.

Hetfield is a longtime teacher at Rehoboth Elementary School, and taught Leavel as a kid. Sudimak and Leavel’s fathers were teachers. When they came together, they decided to name their group as a combination of their own history, as well as a song by jazz guitarist James Blood Ulmer called “Jazz Is The Teacher (Funk Is The Preacher).”

Thus, the name of the group became Jazz Is The Teacher.

“I’ve known both of these guys for a long time,” Hetfield said. “It’s purely a jazz group.”

The group has Hetfield on guitar with Leavel on saxophone and reed instruments, and Sudimak on drums. There is no bass player.

They played their first show at Arena’s in Rehoboth Beach Dec. 29, playing a mix of jazz songs, Ennio Morricone film scores and rock covers from groups like Jefferson Airplane. Hetfield said the group, which practiced four or five times before their first gig, is hoping to branch off into original music.

“We had to build our sound a bit to make up for lack of a bass player. Trying to fill the sonic void. But I think we’re doing a pretty good job with it, trying to find our niche,” Sudimak said.

Hetfield said not having a bass player gives the group a less conventional sound.

“It challenges you musically in the absence of something that is meant to be there,” Sudimak added. “To be a part of this project is exciting because it’s taking me out of my comfort zone.”

Hetfield, 59, had a connection with both his bandmates prior to forming the band. He had taught Leavel in elementary school, and had played in a group with Sudimak’s father.

A fan of John Coltrane, Hetfield met Rashied Ali, who exposed Hetfield to Ulmer, who had a style of jazz guitar playing based around melody instead of harmony.

Hetfield said he took a clinic with Ulmer to learn the style and then filed it away and concentrated on Oh Boy, which had become a commercially viable act within the region. But he said the itch was there to try something a bit different on the side, and looked to Ulmer’s main group, Odyssey, as an inspiration.

“They have a guitar player, a violin player and a drummer. No bass player. I thought, ‘This is cool, no bass player.’ I started thinking about guys I could play with around here and Cody Leavel, he had come off the road with Glenn Miller and was working at B&B Music. We got to talking and I started thinking of him as the other instrument,” Hetfield said.

Leavel then brought his old high school bandmate Sudimak into the fold and they began playing together.

“We wanted to come back together and see what we could do, experiment and stretch out. It’s exciting because the scene around here needs a bit more ecclecticism,” Sudimak said.

The three members of Jazz Is The Teacher all play in other groups: Hetfield is well known throughout the Cape Region for his Buddy Holly tribute act Oh Boy and his rockabilly tribute act, while Sudimak plays drums in the blues group Judy Sings The Blues. Saxophonist Leavel has toured the country as a member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Hetfield said he was looking for a different musical outlet, outside the more rigid structure of Oh Boy.

“The nature of Buddy Holly’s music, it’s like the Amish approach to rock music,” Hetfield said. “It’s really limited. You play through the amp, maybe a little slap-back delay, and that’s it. Everything is standard tuning. You have to play what they played.”