For 35 years, West Charlotte High School band director John Holloway introduced students to the joy and discipline of music. And to something more: the vibe of a working jazz musician.
Certain students were allowed to call him “Chief,” said West Charlotte graduate Michael Porter, “basically because he was in charge. If you looked up the word ‘cool,’ you’d see a picture of John Holloway.”
Holloway died Monday, July 30, leaving vivid memories to generations of West Charlotte students and Charlotteans who heard Johnny Holloway and the Hi-Tones play at clubs across the city.
“I still quote him with ‘Let’s play it simultaneously, harmoniously, melodiously, TOGETHER!’ “ a Facebook commenter wrote on the West Charlotte High School National Alumni Association page. “Rest in peace, Sneaky John. Enjoy more concerts with Lady Day and all the other greats you knew and backed up over the years.”
In his day, Holloway’s tenor saxophone opened for jazz greats including vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. He was immortalized, with Porter, in a scene of the 1985 movie “The Color Purple,” which was filmed in Anson and Union counties.
“He was our version of Duke Ellington,” said Porter, who graduated in West Charlotte’s last all-black class in 1969. Porter recalls standing mesmerized, forgetting his date, at a ninth-grade social where Holloway played. A flutist, he went on to become a professional jazz musician himself.
The “epitome of coolness,” Holloway commanded the attention of his students, Portert said, in part because he led his own well-known jazz band.
“I never heard him shout, I never heard him talk loud,” Porter said. “But his thing was, ‘In my seat ready to play.’ That meant you were out of order if you were not in your seat and ready to play.”
In a 2007 oral interview archived by UNC Charlotte, Holloway told of coming to West Charlotte in 1950 after finishing college.
“The band had really gone down. I had to start from scratch more or less,” he said. But students wanted badly enough to take part that many bought their own instruments, he added. By the mid-1950s, Holloway had started an orchestra in addition to the school’s marching band.
“I went to school in the Midwest, where bands were more advanced. I just brought it here, that’s all,” he said in the interview. “The kids loved that marching band. After you get them in, you can show them the symphonics and all of that, but first you’ve got to get them in. The marching band was a tool.”
Holloway and other musicians, meanwhile, took their jazz music to other schools. Holloway retired from West Charlotte in 1985, but the Hi-Tones played at local dances, clubs and weddings until 1998. He sometimes jammed with other musicians at the famed black nightspot the Excelsior Club.
For years after his retirement, former students still greeted Holloway around town and invited him to class reunions.
“Nine times out of 10 I remember their names,” he chuckled. “If I don’t remember their name, I remember what they played — or what they should have played.”
Holloway is survived by his wife, Bettye, and a granddaughter. Alexander Funeral Home is in charge of funeral arrangements, for which a time and date have not been set.
Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender