After his death on Jan. 8, 2023, retired professor Jerald Bolen is remembered as a grateful person, passionate about everything in his life from his music to his family.
Bolen was a percussion instructor at SIUE until his retirement in 2010, but he also taught at SWIC and at the high school level. John Korak, a trumpet instructor, said he first met Bolen in 1995 after starting at SIUE.
“Over the years together, performing concerts or talking about music in general … that’s kind of how our relationship started and how it deepened over the years,” Korak said. “I consider him a very good friend.”
Rick Haydon, professor emeritus with SIUE, said he first met Bolen through a mutual friend while Bolen was working on his master’s thesis. Haydon said that, as his friendship with Bolen grew, the two would collaborate on several musical projects.
“Jerry actually did a book and had these instructional tapes that went with it for teaching drummers and percussionists,” Haydon said. “I had a mini-studio with drum machines and synthesizers, and we sequenced a bunch of the lesson plan out of the book, and then I recorded him playing percussion and drums as examples for the book.”
Haydon said Bolen was always one to try new things with new technology, especially in the musical realm. Haydon said the instructional tapes he and Bolen recorded went on to be used by many of the late professor’s students.
“This was the ‘80s, and … Jerry was always really good about being on the cutting-edge and wanting to try out new stuff,” Haydon said. “I don’t know that anybody had done it then … when we did it, but now it’s everywhere. It’s all over the internet.”
Haydon also said Bolen had a special fascination with South American music, even traveling there and participating in samba festivals.
“He actually traveled to South America several times, just to study samba and bossa nova,” Haydon said. “He also had an extensive collection of South American instruments, like drums, shakers, [and] all the other percussion instruments of South America. I would consider him an authority on that stuff.” He’d went down and actually became part of the samba festivals.”
Stephen Bolen, Jerald Bolen’s son, said his fascination with South American music was sparked by his time with the 5th Army band during the Vietnam War. Jerald Bolen grew up in Staunton, Illinois, and enlisted to join the Army band.
“He ended up spending Vietnam in Central America, particularly around Panama, playing a lot of state-sponsored tours of U.S. embassies in South America,” Stephen Bolen said. “So he’s always had a draw for Latin American percussion and Afro-Cuban percussion especially. He was fortunate enough to go to Cuba and Brazil to take part in that rich percussive history.”
Stephen Bolen said that, though his father never presented himself as a veteran, his time in the Army band left a lasting impression on him for the rest of his life. Later on, Jerald Bolen would take opportunities to go to Latin America to revisit the music he loved.
“He got to go to Cuba on an SIUE tour, I believe, and got to explore Afro-Cuban percussion,” Stephen Bolen said. “He did a sabbatical one year, when he was teaching at SWIC in Belleville, down to Brazil where he got to participate in Carnaval, so that was a tremendous opportunity for him to go back to his roots.”
Korak said his friendship with Jerald Bolen eventually grew to incorporate much of the Bolen family, including Stephen and Jerald’s wife, Sue. Korak said his musical relationship with Jerald Bolen complemented their personal friendship.
“Those relationships you have in music are apart from the relationship you have with the person, and those two can strengthen one another,” Korak said. “The more you get to know somebody musically, in many ways, the more you get to know them as a person too.”
Even outside of music, Jerald Bolen was remembered as a very encouraging and supportive person. No matter a person’s talent, whether or not it was music-related, Stephen Bolen said his father would always encourage them.
“As somebody who made music his life, he would talk a lot about how talented everyone was that he got to work with, and talents wouldn’t always necessarily be displayed musically,” Stephen Bolen said. “If it was music, that’s great, if it’s not he’d be there to listen and offer advice.”
Korak agreed with this sentiment and said Jerald Bolen’s passion for music extended into an overall love of life.
“For Jerry, it’s just the grace he showed as a human being,” Korak said. “He was grateful to be in music, he appreciated everything that music offered him in his life, he never took anything for granted, he was very passionate about it, he was always smiling, because he loved what he did, and he was able to share that passion and love with other people in a way that really benefited them.”
Korak summarized his thoughts on his late friend and colleague, saying he never had a bad thing to say about anybody.
“He always looked for the best in people,” Korak said. “He was a tremendous man, and a fine example for any of us to model our lives after.”
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