The Leader of the Band

Jerry M. Lavender

The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old
But his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man
I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band

– Dan Fogelberg

In the spring of 1994, I first met Jerry Lavender.  At that difficult time, I was still battered and bruised from a painful divorce that had occurred in the latter part of ’92, and I was in the process of rediscovering myself.  Who am I?  What am I?  Why do I hurt so much?  Intensely introspective, I sought out anything that might make me feel semi-human again, and in the midst of my search, I recalled how much joy I had previously experienced with singing.  I was raised in the Methodist church, and I had sung in the choir from grade school through the summers of my college days.

Several moments stood out to me.  I was but a young boy when my church choir director asked me to sing a solo.  Not one that enjoyed standing up in front of others, at first I resisted, but eventually I came around to her way of thinking.  For some reason, God knows why, I chose not to say a word to my parents and a few weeks later, I stood up in my light blue choir robe and sang “In the Garden” at the Sunday morning church service.  I still remember the shocked looks on my parents’ faces, and how my mother wept throughout the performance.  Another fond memory occurred some years later, when I sang in the adult church choir.  One of my buds in the group was Richard Moody, a white-haired senior who enjoyed singing and laughing at least as much as I did.  A song we particularly liked was the Christian classic, “‘Tis Marvelous and Wonderful,” and one day Richard was over at my home doing handyman work in the garage, and we decided to seize the opportunity.  As I sang tenor, Richard sang bass, and we cut loose with a rousing two-part version of that joyous melody.  After a few stanzas, though, we heard howling, much like that of a wounded, rabid dog, and we discovered my brother Jim had been listening outside and had concluded that he couldn’t take our less-than-melodious rendition anymore.

With this history in mind, I decided to check around and see if I could find a community chorus, and, to my delight, I discovered the Edmond Community Chorale (ECC), a group that met weekly at the campus of the University of Central Oklahoma.  Fighting back my apprehension, I decided to give it a try.


I’ll never forget the first time I walked into choir practice.  Around fifty to sixty people were in the room, some standing, some sitting as they chatted before the rehearsal began. At the front stood the director, Dr. Lon Dehnert, who warmly greeted me and introduced me to the pianist, Dr. Ron Wallace.  Then Dr. Dehnert led me to the tenor section, where I first met Jerry, a pleasant, balding man in his early sixties with a bright smile and  good-natured way about him.  I liked him immediately, and after a few moments of conversation, the choir began our warm ups and shortly afterward, we were given our music for the semester, the glorious Handel’s Messiah.

And so began our twenty-four year friendship.  Every Tuesday night, during the spring and fall school semesters, we would  meet, converse, and sing our hearts out, with Jerry always seated to my left.  The more I sang with him, the more I realized what a fine tenor he was.  Without fail, he would hit the pitches and rhythms perfectly, and he rarely missed an entrance.  When I was uncertain about how our tenor part went, all I had to do was listen to Jerry, and I was always on solid ground.


Oh, what glorious music we sang over the years!  Besides Messiah, my personal favorites included Haydn’s Creation, Mozart’s Requiem, Vivaldi’s Gloria and Brahms’ A German Requiem.  With time, my musical skills gradually improved, and my friendship with Jerry deepened. On occasion, he would ask me to join him for a duet at his church, Olivet Baptist, in northwest Oklahoma City.  After a practice or two, we would do a song for his Sunday school class, and while our performances were always well received,  the clear favorite over the years was the bouncy, toe-tapping spiritual by Aaron Copland, “Ching a Ring Chaw.”

Around four years ago, Jerry left ECC, saying that he needed to care for his wife, who had been chronically ill for years.  While I understood his situation, I felt as if my heart had been ripped from my chest, after all, I had heard his voice in my left ear for over two decades.  Last year, when one of our fellow ECC members passed away, Jerry rejoined the choir for a musical tribute at her funeral.  How wonderful it was to be with him again, but little did I know that precious occasion would be the last time I would see him.  My dear friend, Jerry Melvin Lavender, died on February 20, 2018, at eighty-five years of age.


Now, as I think about Jerry, many warm thoughts come to mind.  While he was a great tenor, he was a better friend.  The Dalai Lama once said, “My religion is kindness,” and Jerry was one of the kindest men I have ever known. Over all those years, I never heard him say a bad word about anyone.  Not only that, in spite of his conservative religious outlook, Jerry often told me how much he enjoyed the spiritually liberal books I had authored. Because he was my friend, not only did he tolerate my perspective, he embraced it, which was a great gift to me.

The world will not be the same without Jerry Lavender.  Once I heard of his death, my eyes welled with tears, yet after a short period of intense grieving, I came to realize how grateful I was that I knew him.  I have no doubt whatsoever that my years spent singing with him helped me to eventually heal from my wounds, and for that, I will forever be indebted to him. Besides, Jerry was a man who loved singing nearly as much as he loved life, so when he left the Chorale to provide for his wife, he made a great personal sacrifice. But that’s the way Jerry was; he always put others before himself.

I oftentimes said that Jerry was the spiritual leader of the tenor section, and no doubt he was also a leader in our ECC “band.” Today, much of what I am musically can be attributed to him, and I am honored to be part of Jerry’s living legacy.

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”  Jerry was one such giant, a man whose greatness was measured by living in a humble, giving, accepting and loving manner.

I will miss him greatly.

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