Jack Oatts, Father of Iowa High School Jazz, Earlham High School

School reorganization in rural Iowa was a difficult thing back in the 1950s. Earlham was a rival school of Dexter and, all of a sudden, we were told we’d be bussed to Earlham for the rest of our school days. For me, that was all of high school.

I went from a class of 13 eighth graders at Dexter, to a class of 30-some freshman at Earlham.

One of the best things about it, though, was we had Jack Oatts for our band director. Earlham was his first job as a band director, beginning in 1955.

I’d played trumpet and clarinet a little at Dexter but didn’t own either instrument. Mr. Oatts worked at sorting out what kind of players he had from Dexter. My freshman year I ended up in the percussion section.


He soon realized how many unused French horns he had in storage and talked seven or eight of us into taking lessons on them. It was my instrument during the rest of high school.

Mr. Oatts, a saxophonist, wrote and arranged music. According to the 1962 Earlham Yearbook, the chamber band gave “the premier public performance of a new composition especially for the concert band entitled ‘Symphonic Sketch for Band’ by Jack Oatts. This number was a blend of old Roman, Oriental, and Asiatic harmonies are using along with African and Jazz rhythms.”


One piece I can still hear the whole group playing was the “Main Title from The Man With the Golden Arm.” I’ll bet there are several of you who also remember working on this one.

At one time there were eleven French horns in a high school band of about sixty-five instruments. Mr. Oatts arranged “Dancing in the Dark” for the French horns and had us wear our homecoming dresses for the concert.

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Jack Oatts was born in 1922, graduated from Radcliffe High School, and had degrees from Coe College and Drake University. During WWII, he served in the US Navy as part of the Armed Forces Broadcast Band in England. He was hospitalized for TB for four years at the end of military duty. During that time he arranged music for Lawrence Welk and met Marcella, who became his wife in 1949. They had four children: Jim, Dick, Sue, and Nancy.

He became band director at Earlham in 1955, and started the state’s first high school jazz band. Mr Oatts also drove a school bus! He taught at Earlham 11 years, then at Jefferson High School from 1966 until 1985.


An active member of the Iowa Bandmasters Association, Jack Oatts was recognized as the “Father of Iowa High School Jazz” and was named to the Iowa Jazz Educators Hall of Fame and the Des Moines Community Jazz Center Hall of Fame.

Mr. Oatts also played professionally, with his own groups and in backup bands for well-known performers, such as Les Elgart, Bob Crosby, Engelbert Humperdinck, Sonny and Cher, Marilyn Maye, Liberace, Bob Hope, and Red Foxx.

Three of his children have also performed music professionally–Jim Oatts, Dick Oatts, and Sue Oatts Tucker.


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Earlham still holds a Jack Oatts Jazz Festival every year. 


Thanks to Bev Schardein Welshons for clippings, and also to the Earlham Library which houses a scrapbook about Jack Oatts.


    • I was never good at the jazz part. Do you still have a French horn? My sis and I just used ones the school owned. I still like they way they look and sound.

      • No. I switched to trumpet my senior year. I played it in concert band at the local college until I was done there in 2007, then donated it to the high school band department.

  1. I enjoyed this story of a talented musician and a dedicated teacher. How fortunate your school was to have him! It also brought back fond memories of my high school years in the band playing clarinet.

    • It’s also part of the Growing up on a Farm category on my website. I also posted it on an Earlham FB page and am enjoying comments on that, including from the gal who helped put together the scrapbook for the Earlham library about him. My graduating class had 33 in it, so you can see how blessed we were to get to have Mr. Oatts during his first years of teaching!

    • Bless you for your note. My sister, Gloria Neal, and I were so glad to find the scrapbook about him in the Earlham library. He’s certainly remembered by many!

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