With more than half a century spent providing musical inspiration to K-12 students in and around Orange County, Chuck Wackerman needs no introduction to residents of the Los Al District. Unified.
His legendary musical upbringing has, to date, touched thousands of lives by instilling in them a love and strong work ethic around music.
That said, little is known about the experiences that inspired and shaped this educational pillar of the community who is himself a talented musician.
Although anyone who knows the Wackerman family knows that several of Wackerman’s men, including Chuck, are highly skilled drummers, few know that Chuck’s first instrument was the trumpet.
‘M. Wackerman’ as he is still known to his students, regardless of age, was one of two sons born to a pianist mother and a non-musician but music-enthusiast father in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1930.
At age nine, Chuck and his family moved to Alhambra, California, and a year later he began learning to play the trumpet.
When he was about to graduate from Alhambra High, the young Wackerman had had the privilege of taking private lessons with a cornetist who had played with the king of brass band arrangement John Philip Sousa, l recording artist Charles “Del” Staigers.
Chuck met Del Staigers near the end of Staigers’ life, so their time together was brief, but invaluable.
“In about six months [with Staigers] I learned a lot more than I learned from the other [my first] teacher in three years,” Wackerman said.
He began learning drums as a freshman in high school, but continued to play trumpet in a concert band primarily, also joining the marching band for a year in high school.
An outstanding horn player, one of his teachers suggested he try joining a union, which Chuck did, successfully, when he was eighteen.
After high school, he took classes at Pasadena City College and Westlake College and worked at Fitzsimmons Market where his father was a buyer/supplier, before the anticipation of being drafted into the Korean War found him, at the suggestion of his future brother. -law, Brooks Coleman, enlisted in the Air National Guard.
Ironically, before the war, Chuck’s high school trumpet teacher had offered to put him in an Air Force band, which he refused. After all, the National Guard required less of a time commitment, but he was destined to become a trumpeter in the 562nd Band of the Air Force when the Air National Guard base where he was stationed was called up for duty.
“As soon as I joined, they activated the whole base,” Chuck said.
He spent about seventeen months in the military, serving mostly at George Air Force Base in Victorville, California, and after the Korean War he first resumed his studies in Pasadena City, then joined a few wartime friends at UC Santa Barbara and finally finished. at USC where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music and education.
After being removed from his position, he decided that as the big band era drew to a close, he would find a more stable career path as a music teacher than just as a jazz musician.
It wasn’t until after his time in the service that Mr. Wackerman began taking drum lessons.
He studied with bebop drummer Roy Hart, West Coast jazz drummer Charles Flores, and Academy Award-winning sound effects artist and drumming legend Murray Spivack.
Of Spivack, Wackerman said, “He analyzed everything: the angle of your stick, and the height of the stick, the weight of the stick; he had understood everything scientifically. The whole basis of his teaching was relaxing, so if you tense up, you’re doing it wrong.
Also, around this time Wackerman joined a quartet (on drums) led by the great guitarist Vic Garcia and joined by Garcia’s wife on vocals and tambourine and Larry Smethers on bass.
They recorded an album together in a studio on Sunset Blvd. under the name of Vic Garcia & Germaine called “Up Up & Then Some”.
Almost immediately after graduating from USC, in 1957, Chuck was hired at McGaugh Elementary and has since remained a resident and music teacher in the district.
Eventually he taught students at Oak and McAuliffe Middle, then at Los Alamitos High and Orange County (High) School of the Arts, until around 2019-20 when teaching moved to a online format that Chuck found impractical.
When asked when he officially retired, he said wryly, “Oh, I never retired.”
For about five years at the start of his teaching career, Chuck was a lounge musician until the grueling schedule and four hours of sleep a week began to take their toll, at which point he quit playing. , except for summer stays, including Las Vegas.
He has fond memories of playing with his quartet at Reuben E. Lee’s restaurant in Newport and Tustin, Calif., and several venues in Vegas, including the lounges at Caesar’s Palace and the now-closed Thunderbird Hotel, though he regrets never having found the time to catch Frank. Sinatra, who had a residence at the time.
Yet the Wackermans have witnessed and participated in performances by a long list of legends.
For example, while watching Frank Zappa rehearse with one of Chuck’s sons, Chuck said, “It took me about two seconds to realize this guy is a genius. He was rehearsing the band, singing all the parts and stopping them every second. It was a very intense rehearsal.
As for Barbra Streisand, Wackerman recalled her son, “Chad played with her…You know, I’ve often heard that she can be very difficult, and Chad said, he told her, ‘You know that I never do that but,’ he said, ‘I have to tell you, you’re amazing’…and she said, ‘you are too.’ She was super nice, so you can’t trust what people say about people.
When it comes to enjoying official performances, one musician who sticks in Chuck’s memory is Maynard Ferguson.
“He was a showman, the audience was going crazy, he was like a rock star,” Wackerman said.
It was around the time he stopped playing during the school year, around 1961-62, that he brought jazz to McGaugh Elementary.
By some accounts, this was the first grade school jazz program in California.
The very first festival competition McGaugh entered at Orange Coast College didn’t have a division for the primary students, so they were grouped with the junior high groups and still managed to win the first square.
Chuck’s skills as an educator ultimately led to a victory for the Los Al Big Band and the OCHSA Jazz Combo at the most prestigious Reno Jazz competition and an individual Best Musician award for the band’s drummer, the younger (Brooks) Wackerman, in 1993.
Of their performance at Victory Stadium in Reno, Chuck said it was “probably the most exciting performance I’ve ever had.”
Not only has the homegrown talent of his sons (whom Chuck personally taught starting them as young as five) helped keep his bands in lockdown to place festival after festival, Mr. Wackerman has also decided already by McGaugh’s second appearance at the festival to commission some original music.
The first was by John Prince, who composed a piece called “Big Bad Chad” named after one of Wackerman’s sons.
This gave a stellar group with an outstanding teacher an even greater advantage in competitions.
“Nobody had the music,” Chuck says of those early days.
“I was the only one who had it. So many festivals we went to, and they were playing stock arrangements; you’d have five or six bands all playing the same music, so I didn’t want to do that. I wanted things more original.
In 1971, Wackerman again broke new ground by launching the famous Class Notes concert series, an annual fundraising event featuring LAUSD’s jazz bands and featuring guest artists (playing with their own bands and with the Chuck’s students) among the roster of pros, including Louis Belson, Bill Watrous, and Tom Kubis, whom Chuck had come to know, some through the musicians’ union he had joined as a high school student.
Justin Padilla, current director of the LAHS Jazz Program, which has continued this tradition as the Spotlight Concert Series, said, “Chuck had the experience of twenty teachers [combined] …and the heart of a saint. One of his superpowers was the ability to make a group of college musicians perform as cleanly as a professional band. With a master like that… there are only two things you can do; try to copy his approach and avoid attending the same festivals he took his band to,” he said.
“He had the support of the community and the respect of the world,” Padilla said.
Chuck has won several awards and honors for his achievements in music education, including from the Orange County Board of Education in 2012.
“I miss it…Interacting with the students and seeing the kids improve and become really good musicians and…even the ones who don’t stick to it…they get something out of it, enjoyment, and they learn to appreciate music better.”
Former student and professional musician KJ Ticehurst recalls, “He was so passionate about the school’s jazz programs and it resonated in the way he led us. I had the good fortune to work with Mr. Wackerman throughout my middle and high school years.
Wackerman’s legacy is alive and well, carried by all those he taught and played music with and through his children and grandchildren.
His late wife, Barbara, was also a pillar of the community and, according to Chuck, supported him “in a million ways over the years.”
From his relationship with countless incredible musicians and generations of motivating students, to seeing a son open up for rock legends Metallica, whose current bassist is a family friend, and a granddaughter make it to the finals of the eighteenth season of “American Idol”, Chuck Wackerman’s place in music history and his legacy of service to the arts and his community is undeniable.