The new era of the West High Jazz Ensemble

The West High Jazz Ensemble welcomes new director Ryan Middleton.

Audrey Parrish, Copy Editor

As far back as 1998, the Iowa City West High Jazz Ensemble has been an active member of the Iowa High School jazz community. The trophies lining the shelves in West High’s south band room attest to this fact. The legacy of the Jazz Ensemble was upheld by its former director, Rich Medd, who retired last year. This year, there is a new member of the West High Music Department: Ryan Middleton. 

Born in Sioux City, IA, Middleton fell in love with music at an early age. He picked up the saxophone in the fifth grade, taught himself how to play the flute and the clarinet in high school and eventually made his way to the University of Northern Iowa for his undergraduate degree. He knew he wanted to be a music teacher as early as high school, but in the interim between his undergraduate and graduate programs, he performed on cruise ships, playing those three instruments of choice. He then got a job teaching music at Okoboji High School for two years, another school with a strong jazz program. 

While directing at Okoboji High, Middleton encountered a lot of success. The Okoboji High School Jazz Band won first in their class in both 2018 and 2019, both years Middleton taught there. After a brief period of time spent teaching at Okoboji, he completed a two-year graduate program at Colorado State and immediately secured the position of Band Director here, at Iowa City West High School. 

At jazz competitions, there are four classes of bands. 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A. 1A bands come from the smallest schools in the state while 4A bands come from the largest. Okoboji High is classifies as a 2A school while West High is a 4A school. This meant a big shift for Middleton as he entered the West High Band Program. “It’s been a big transition because of the number of students. It’s a large band program. When I was in Okoboji, we only had 50 or so kids in the whole 9-12 band program […] which was great. I knew all of them really well. They’re just totally different jobs.” 

Because of the larger band program, West also has more jazz bands. Of the three, the Jazz Ensemble is the highest. Middleton has taken over as director for this band, and it hasn’t just been a transition for him. 

Kyle Chi ’23 has been in the Jazz Ensemble since his freshman year, meaning he spent at least one year longer with Medd as the jazz band director than the majority of the Jazz Ensemble. He has seen the different Jazz Ensembles come and go as seniors graduated and new musicians filled their positions. “Middleton’s good for this group, and Rich was good for that group. […] This group we kind of need instruction because we lost a lot of leadership.” Chi said. 

Middleton’s good for this group, and Rich was good for that group.

— Kyle Chi

While many of the people in the current group were a part of it last year, some new faces have been added to the Jazz Ensemble this year. Emre Ohrn ’25 auditioned and got into the ensemble this year. Reflecting on what he heard about the jazz band last year, Ohrn said, “The tiny details that were found last year are being added this year. I feel like Middleton is gonna expand on that and make it a larger sound variety.” 

Looking to the future, Middleton has some goals for the Jazz Ensemble. He wants to foster communication within the band and improve the creative aspect of it by encouraging people to improvise and playing a wide variety of music. While he is not hung up on winning first place at competitions, he wants to present the best possible sound from the band. Overall, he is purely happy to be here. “There are three or four programs in the state of Iowa that have the same sort of history and tradition surrounding them as the Iowa City West Jazz Ensemble,” Middleton said. “…we’re able to do this because of 23 years of people who came before, you know, we’re continuing on that tradition, so I’m really excited to be here and hoping we can keep that rolling.”