NEWPORT, Maine — Fifty years ago Stanley Buchanan was saved by the Maine Army National Guard and a trumpet.
Buchanan graduated with the Brewer High School Class of 1961, but just barely. Too much partying and a general disregard for studying led to an overall “D” average for his high school career.
“I was a trouble child,” said Buchanan. “Music and the ladies were the only things that interested me.”
These are the unflinching confessions of a man whose accomplishments far overshadow his youthful transgressions. Buchanan, 68, who has spent 46 years teaching music to Newport-area youths, bears no resemblance to the defiant young man whose father saw salvation for him in the military.
“My father told me to grab my trumpet and he took me to a National Guard armory,” Buchanan said Friday, sitting amid a clutter of music stands, two bass guitars on stands and numerous wind instruments in bulky black containers. “I played with the band, but I didn’t have a clue they were soldiers.”
Buchanan, with encouragement from his father, signed up for the Maine Army National Guard on the spot, beginning a 40-year career of part-time service to the military, most of it in the 195th Army Band. He said his life changed abruptly during basic training.
“When I came back, everything was different; I matured so fast,” said Buchanan. “I owe everything I am to the Army National Guard.”
Buchanan graduated from the Bangor Conservatory of Music with a B+ average and his career as an educator began. After a partial year teaching in Orrington, he took a job with three high schools that no longer exist: Newport High School, Corinna Union Academy and Hartland Academy. Today those schools have been replaced by Nokomis Regional High School, whose jazz programs — where the motto is “Only the Best Will Do” — have earned state, national and international acclaim.
“We’re more well-known to the outside world than we are locally,” said Buchanan.
Nokomis has won 12 of the 30 Maine Music Educators Jazz Festivals — which Buchanan helped found — and has tallied six first-place finishes at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival in Boston. Buchanan and 40 Nokomis students are hoping for a seventh title at Berklee on Saturday. In their repertoire is a blistering version of the Pat Metheny Group’s “It’s Just Talk.”
Nokomis jazz bands have been selected twice to perform at the prestigious Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, and in 1995 the school’s ensemble became the only musical group from Maine that has ever performed at the exclusive Mid-West Band Clinic in Chicago. The program in recent years has also brought students to California, Florida and many points in between.
Katie Webber of Etna, a Nokomis senior who plays alto sax, said rehearsals with Buchanan can be brutal, but the payoff is huge the first time the band nails a new number.
“It’s just goose bumps all over when it goes well,” she said.
Bassist Tyler Jones of Newport said Buchanan’s most immovable demand is that the band goes “all-out” for every performance, not unlike a championship sports team.
“You leave everything on the line,” said Jones. “Whatever the results, there’s no saying, ‘Well, if I’d done this instead.’ Everyone plays their hearts out.”
One of the easiest parts of teaching jazz, said Buchanan, is making the students love the music.
“The thing about jazz is that it’s highly emotional,” he said. “Playing it is kind of like storytelling. It says something.”
Buchanan serves in a semi-retired role as the district’s music administrator and conductor of the high school’s jazz groups. He spends a lot of time with his life’s other two loves: breeding and showing Abyssinian cats and spending time with his wife of 30 years, Patricia Buchanan, who heads the science department at Hermon High School. Buchanan has no plans to retire from teaching anytime soon.
“Whatever happens today happens today,” he said. “When I think I can’t do this any more, I’ll know it’s time to stop. It’s not a profession to me. It’s living.”