Q: What do you say to a drummer in a three-piece suit?
A: Will the defendant please rise?
Q: What is the difference between a drummer and a savings bond?
A: One will mature and make money.
Willis Jepson Middle School music teacher Brian Simpson didn’t coin those old jokes about drummers, but, given his cheerful personality, he no doubt would appreciate them by not taking himself too seriously but taking his work — which ranges from daily classroom instruction at the Elder Street campus in Vacaville to being the principal timpanist with the North State Symphony in Chico — very seriously.
During a recent interview at the school, at a table under a shade tree and a stone’s throw from the band room, Simpson, 58, a shock of gray hair falling nearly to his neck, looked more casual and approachable than serious clad in a black T-shirt featuring images of The Police rock ‘n’ roll band over beige shorts and tennis shoes.
Marking his 31 years as an educator, 26 of them in Vacaville Unified, the tall, congenial teacher and father of two adult children, said, “I’m a musician first. I just kind of stumbled into teaching.”
“I never thought when I was 24 that I’d be doing what I’m doing,” teaching and playing in professional bands or orchestras on weekends, said Simpson, adding, “I’ve met some terrific teachers. I’ve been able to do some terrific things.” That includes leading the school’s newly created mariachi band, believed to be the first such ensemble at a Solano County middle school.
But some of those terrific things will end in the coming weeks, when the academic year comes to a close and he gives up the school’s band director job and hands it over to music teacher Justin Au.
Yet Simpson, who has earned three credentials, among them single subject, multiple subject and a community college credential, will not be retiring from the education field.
Well, not this year, the Sacramento native said, noting he will remain a district employee in the coming year and retire at the end of the 2023 school year.
The conversation touched on Simpson’s considerable biography as a teacher and professional musician and the meaning he found in those two pursuits.
During the pandemic, when he taught remotely for many months, he said he turned his living room into a classroom, with a bank of percussion instruments filling an entire room, but teaching via Zoom, he lamented, “Doesn’t work.”
why? After a time and plenty of frustration, he noticed the images were backward, so Simpson placed a camera atop the cap on his head, “so they could see the proper fingering” on, say, wind or brass instruments.
The number of students taking the music elective dropped during the pandemic, but this year, he said, “They’re going way back up.”
“Music is an elective,” Simpson said. “If they don’t like you, they don’t take the subject. They can go elsewhere. They have to like the teacher.”
On drums as a professional performer, he was a regular member of acoustic bands fronted by Dan Hicks, in Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks and Bayside Jazz, backing a musician considered a major player in the 1960s San Francisco folk and rock scenes and known for his wide-ranging musical and personal styles. Simpson can be heard on a pair of Hicks’ recordings, one of which, “Tangled Tales,” was nominated for a Grammy Award. Hicks, who suffered from throat and liver cancer toward the end of his life, died in February 2016 in Mill Valley.
As he recounted his days with Hicks, Simpson also noted that, later in the day, a Friday, he had to travel to Chico to prepare to perform with the North State Symphony, a part-time job he has held for 18 years, 15 of them as chief timpanist.
“I love the timpani,” he said, smiling. “In an orchestra it’s kind of like being a rock ‘n’ roll drummer.”
The son of a Caltrans employee, Simpson began playing the drums at age 6, and, he wrote in an email to The Reporter, was “later introduced to the musical possibilities of many percussion instruments.”
Recalling the feeling of seeing and hearing drums for the first time, his reaction, he said, was, “I said, ‘I want that.’ ”
“Growing up I had my drum set, my brother had a guitar, and my mother had a piano,” he said. “We never had to have my instruments in the garage.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in percussion performance in 1986 at Sacramento State University, then moved to England, where he played in numerous groups and orchestras in the London area.
Before returning to California in late 1989, Simpson completed a master’s degree in music performance studies at The City University in London, during which he attended the prestigious Guildhall School of Music. He said he continues his ties to the United Kingdom, performing with various orchestras and jazz groups when time permits. Also, he is listed as a visiting academic research at The Bate Collection of Instruments at Oxford University.
In late 1992 he co-founded and played drums, he noted in the email, with “the moderately internationally famous” Wooden Nickel Jass Band. He then began freelancing in orchestras and began a teaching career that, in addition to working in VUSD, also includes Napa Valley College, and Pacific Union College in Angwin.
Asked how he responds when a student comes up to him and says “You changed my life,” Simpson said, “First of all, I well up. I’m humbled. I am grateful that they picked up on what I was throwing out. I never expect students to take music as seriously as I do. I do expect them to have a love and enjoyment with music.”
Upon retirement next year, his plans are to “go back to full-time playing,” and, he said, he hopes to continue playing well into his 70s and 80s.
As a timpanist, Simpson said he still gets calls to perform with orchestras in Napa, Santa Rosa and the University of California, Davis.
“I just want to play,” he said matter-of-factly. “It’s what I do. Frank Zappa said, ‘Music is food.’ ” He added, “I had my first professional gig when I was 14, in 1977. I was paid $75. I bought my first stick bag.”
And he still has it.
When not playing music, Simpson said he just to be with his wife, Evie, and a cat named Dexter.