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A passion for inspiration

Soulful saxophonist Matt Rognlie, a Presidential Scholar who just graduated from West Linn High School, chooses his music teacher as 'most inspirational'
by: Vern Uyetake, Jeff Cumpston sits at the piano inside a practice room in the WLHS music building, after listening to the improvised jazz that emanates from the mind and heart of Presidential Scholar Matt Rognlie, who named Cumpston his most inspirational teacher.

It's not often that music teacher and band director Jeff Cumpston shows a profound look of surprise.

But that was his expression after the recent announcement that West Linn High School graduate Matt Rognlie had named him the most inspirational teacher.

Showing a strong interest in science and mathematics throughout high school, Rognlie has chosen to begin studies in August at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

That's why Cumpston responded with so much surprise to the announcement by saying there are so many credible teachers at West Linn High School.

'I was overwhelmed (to be selected),' Cumpston said. 'And Matt's not even going to be a music major; he's a science guy.

'It feels pretty wonderful to be chosen. I'm pretty passionate about the subject, and I love sharing it with kids. I love playing the coolest music or finding just the right music that makes them so excited.'

Rognlie knows a little about what it would be like to be in another band program at another school. He has seen and heard the results of those programs at many competitions each year.

'(Cumpston) makes it really fun,' Rognlie said. 'He's a lot more inventive than lots of music programs. We've been able to do a lot of music that is so much cooler and so different than the jazz we see from other schools.'

For the next few days, Rognlie and Cumpston are in Washington, D.C., to attend ceremonies and events designed to educate, honor and spotlight graduates who have achieved top honors during their high school careers as well as their most inspirational teachers.

Rognlie says his musical experience at West Linn High School has been the best because Cumpston is so inventive and dedicated to his work.

'He's really so passionate,' Rognlie said of Cumpston, 'and he's such a good guide to all this music. This has been the best experience for me out of all my classes.'

It's the environment in Cumpston's classes, Rognlie says, that makes that experience so memorable.

'In his classes, it's a friendly, family-like atmosphere,' Rognlie said. 'It's like everyone's in this together. It's really cool that (Cumpston) has been able to do that; that he can go from being teacher to mentor to friend of all the students and back. It's the ambience, a different dynamic, a team endeavor with a lot of camaraderie.'

Cumpston says his job is not just teaching the technical aspects of music and giving the kids opportunities to play an instrument.

His goal in life - in teaching - is found in a different dimension.

'I love firing up their passion,' he said. 'I love it when they get excited about music. If I've done that, I've done my job. If they get fired up and show a love for playing, that's my job; that's my calling.'

Musical passion

There's no doubt that Rognlie is passionate about music, playing tenor saxophone in the award-winning WLHS Jazz Band and bassoon in the high school symphonic band.

The young man is so passionate about his music that he plays almost every day, often alone - just exploring his feelings and musical phrases.

That's passion, Cumpston says.

'He calls me inspirational, Cumpston said, 'but truly he inspires me. When he first came here, he was a smart little guy playing an OK saxophone, but to see his growth is very inspiring.'

There's enough inspiration to go around, since Rognlie says he also is inspired when he participates in contests and hears some really great high school soloists in Seattle - although he describes some other schools' styles as 'tired' and 'old.'

Rognlie does play the traditional jazz made famous by legends such as John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins, but he prefers a more contemporary sound such as Michael Brecker or Bob Mintzer, and he continues to search for ways to express the sounds that run through his head.

That's how he inspires others.

'Every time he plays his horn, everybody just can't wait to hear what's going to come out,' his teacher said. 'You can see all of the kids' eyes and faces turn toward him, myself included. And we're smiling, wondering what he's going to play next; it's just so great to hear. He has really found his sound, and he understands this music.'

Asked to describe his sound, he uses the words 'big' and 'rich.'

'It's loud and expressive and soulful,' the young musician said. 'And it has a passionate edge to it.'

His style is definitely modern, but many interwoven undertones explore the roots of jazz.

'I often play in unconventional jazz style without the well-known chord changes,' he said, 'and I take lots of really cool liberties - not too far out, but things that are really interesting and innovative.'

Cumpston describes a scenario that continues to repeat itself, and it's one of the ways he knows that Rognlie is fired with a deep passion for jazz music.

'When Matt's almost ready to play a solo,' he said, 'he stands up, gets a focused look on his face, and I can see his hands start shaking; he's so full of fire and ready to go. It's just inspiring to see and hear.'

Won't let the fire burn out

Although Rognlie isn't going to attend music school, opting instead for a double major in mathematics and economics at Duke, he will be looking for a musical group to join.

There's no way he's going to let that fire burn out.

'What's cool about music is that you don't have to go to music school to get better,' Cumpston said. 'He could continue this as a hobby and continue to improve. He could play his horn at a professional level, even if he decides not to do it professionally. There are a lot of well-known musicians who have a (separate) career, and they still play.'

Cumpston says he fully expects Rognlie to continue to play and improve.

'I'd be mad; I'd be hunting him down if he didn't,' he said with a laugh. 'I'd find out where he lives. He'd be wasting his talent, his gift.'

There's no doubt that Cumpston has inspired many more students than just Rognlie, who was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to honor his music mentor.

In fact, many of the parents of band students who appreciate Cumpston's effort organized a drive to raise funds to pay the trip expenses to Washington, D.C., for Cumpston and his wife, Terry. So much money was raised that there were funds left over after all anticipated expenses were deducted. That extra amount will be donated to the school's band program.

That donation and Cumpston's award comprise a fitting legacy to a program that has helped shape the early growth of a potential jazz master.