Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Music class rocks

Calling all University of Denver student music lovers. You know who you are.

Ray Kireilis, a professor in DU’s Lamont School of Music and a concert clarinetist, has a course for you — and he needs students for his summer class, Evolution of Rock.

The five-credit course begins July 20 with three-hour classes Mondays through Thursdays at Sturm Hall and lasts until Aug. 13.

The course is the follow-up to his popular Birth of Rock and Roll course, which he teaches in the fall and winter quarters. He fills up his Sturm Hall classroom for that course, but in three years of offering Evolution of Rock, Kireilis has had “no takers.”

All the course material, “all the songs we’re going to listen to, all the artists, everything they need is at their disposal,” via computer, Kireilis says.

“[It’s] one of the real curiosities of the course and one of the attractions that I think makes it unique,” Kireilis adds.

So how does a guy who had been the principal clarinetist for the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra for more than 30 years and has performed in countless recitals and concerts as a woodwind player end up teaching a course on rock and roll?

It was just “a whim” for Kireilis, but he has a unique background in the genre.
In Lubbock, Texas, in the 1950s, Kireilis often ran into a bespectacled would-be rock star named Buddy Holly.

“Buddy Holly was in my junior high school. Peggy Sue was a fellow clarinetist in the band,” Kireilis  says. “All the Crickets went to my junior high school, which is where Buddy Holly met them. He went to Lubbock High School and I went to Monterey. I was playing in a group called the Ad Libs. We were the main competition for Buddy Holly when we were in high school.”

So, when Kireilis talks about Holly, Elvis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry or the Beatles he knows his stuff. In college at the University of North Texas, he played with the likes of Leslie Gore and Gene Pitney. “All these people I’m teaching about now were just sort of background players then,” he says.

Evolution of Rock starts as the Beatles are becoming famous in the mid-1960s and threads through the mid-1990s. The class, of course, will touch on the 1950s, too, but it chronicles the changes in rock and roll from the Beatles era through the popularity of R&B, Motown, soul, heavy metal and even rap and hip-hop.

It was the Beatles who revived rock and roll after Elvis Presley’s career was slowed by his stint in the Army and then Holly’s death in a plane crash.

“Rock and roll appeared to be on its death bed,” Kireilis says. “It took the Beatles and the British invasion to really re-establish it. Their diversity and the wide breadth and the huge approach and the experimentation, with things like [the 1967 album] ‘Sgt.  Pepper’s, [Lonely Hearts Club Band]’ opened the door to so many ways rock could go. Before that, it was just a heavy back beat just like Chuck Berry used to sing, ‘You got a beat, you can’t lose it.’ ”

Kireilis hopes to incorporate some of the fun teaching tools he uses in the Birth of Rock and Roll course.

“I have each student in the class to give an individual presentation,” he says. “It’s a big deal; I call it their 15 minutes of fame. They really get into it with PowerPoints and slides and music. Some dress up and act the part. I always learn something from every student’s presentation. No matter how many times I’ve seen a Little Richard presentation, there’s always something unique.”

And, yes, Michael Jackson, who died tragically at age 50 last week, will play a major role in the Evolution course.

“It’s a big part. He’s the largest-selling artist since the Beatles and probably more,” Kireilis says. “‘Thriller’ sold over 50 million albums. It’s the largest-selling album of any genre of all time.”

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