With eyes closed, the music instructor focused completely on the mix of soul and jazz flowing from the computer. The song’s artist, with two No. 1 hits on the UK soul chart and another tune on the rise, watched her mentor intently.
“Right there you need to lay the chords on top of each other like this,” Jimmy Cantrell said as his fingers danced across the keyboard in the Alabama Center for the Art’s recording studio.
“Just wait Jimmy,” Kim Tibbs said. “It’s coming. That’s exactly what is going to happen at the end. You taught me well.”
After 45 years — 17 at Decatur High and 28 at Calhoun Community College — teaching, mentoring and molding thousands of students, Cantrell will retire in May. The music industry instructor will lead Calhoun’s jazz band in a free Jazz Under the Stars outdoor concert Thursday evening in front of the Alabama Center for the Arts. The concert, the last under the direction of Cantrell, will mark the end of an era.
“Jimmy is one of Calhoun’s best. He works very hard to make sure his students are successful. He teaches character, responsibility and the value of hard work. I’ve seen him reach into his pocket to help students who may be running a little short on money to get in school. He’s very modest and doesn’t like a lot of accolades,” said Wes Torain, supervisor of Calhoun’s Educational Television and Multimedia.
Not one to brag, the humble Cantrell shied away from his accomplishments and focused on the talents of his former and current students.
There is Tibbs, who topped the UK charts with “I Need You for Your Love” and “Soul!,” Bart Busch, who mixed Benn Gunn’s “Girls Like Guys with Trucks,” Paul Compton, who signed country music superstar Luke Bryan to his first Nashville contract, and Academy of Country Music award winner Phillip White, who wrote Reba McEntire’s “I’m a Survivor” and Rascal Flatts’ “I’m Movin’ On.”
Every musician’s story of success returned to one central character — Jimmy Cantrell.
“Jimmy was a big influence. He was probably the first person outside of my family that came up beside me, put his arm around me and said, ‘You can do this if you really want it. You’ve got what it takes,’ ” said Compton, who started at Calhoun as engineering major.
Like Compton, White decided to pursue music professionally while studying under Cantrell.
“I was a student at Calhoun Community College where I met Paul Compton and Bart Busch. We pushed each other a lot and Jimmy was a real encouragement and helped drive our hunger,” White said.
For Tibbs, the journey to signing with Expansion Records UK began 13 years ago, when the then-nursing student met Cantrell.
“Jimmy is my mentor daddy. He is the reason I said I was going to be different, and I have stuck to being different. He pushed me to grow and challenge myself,” Tibbs said.
When faced with recording her latest album “… Kim,” Tibbs reached out to Cantrell. She used student musicians Cantrell recommended and recorded in the Alabama Center for the Arts' state-of-the-art studio, which Cantrell designed.
“You’re not really going to retire, are you, Jimmy?” Tibbs said uncertainly, struggling to imagine the Calhoun music program without Cantrell.
Instead of talking about his tenure and the program’s past, Cantrell focused on the school’s future and the young musicians. There is guitarist Ben Parker, who won Muscle Shoals to Music Row Battle of the Bands in 2011 at the age of 13, and Shaturia Lightbourne, who earned a spot in Berkley’s prestigious music program.
“Jimmy does the quintessential thing every great teacher does: He holds his students to a really high standard. He imagines things for them that they cannot conceive for themselves. When they walk out these doors, they have his name attached to them,” said Donna Estill, dean of humanities and social sciences.
Along with the musicians, Cantrell’s legacy at Calhoun will live on in the recording studio and rehearsal space at the Alabama Center for the Arts, which opened in downtown Decatur in 2016.
“Jimmy is almost exclusively responsible for the design. He works closely with musicians in Muscle Shoals and Nashville and knows the latest technology,” Estill said. “Another university toured the facility and their professor said, ‘See, this is what we need.’ I know that made Jimmy proud, not because he designed it, but because that proved his students have access to the best education and equipment.”
During Jazz Under the Stars, Cantrell's students will showcase their skills in a 40-song concert featuring “Basic Basie,” “Blue Moon,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Crazy,” “Bad Bad Leroy Brown,” “Unchained Melody,” “I’ll Take Romance,” “Green Onions,” “Take the A-Train,” “Sunday Kind of Love,” “Jump Jive and Wail,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “Bugle Boy of Company B,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Amazing Grace,” “In the Mood” and more.
Sitting in with the jazz band will be Cantrell’s former music professor at the University of North Alabama, James Simpson, Jena Morris-Simpson and Alabama Music Hall of Fame member Harvey Thompson.
Calhoun will host a dinner prior to the concert. The ticketed dinner costs $500 for an eight-person table and $250 for a four-person table. Proceeds will go to a Calhoun Foundation Endowed scholarship for fine arts students in honor of Cantrell.
“I wish I had 110 of him. The students talk about him as the kindest person and mentor. He listens to them undividedly and knows what they want and how to get them there,” Estill said.
Cantrell’s influence extended beyond the school’s walls. He volunteered with Spirit of America, served as the musical director for Decatur’s First United Methodist Church for 41 years, led “The Alabama Music Explosion” in Germany, Switzerland and Australia, and received the Rotary Club of Decatur’s Paul Harris Fellow award honoring community service. As a musician, Cantrell worked with Pam Tillis, Dean Jones, Art Linkletter, Chet Atkins, The Platters, Porter Wagner, Loretta Lynn and Toby Keith.
Cantrell's students and peers can thank his parents for introducing him to music.
“My parents wanted to give me the opportunity they didn’t have. My sister started playing the piano, so I played the piano, too. I started in the second grade and took it all the way through high school,” said Cantrell, who graduated from Decatur High and attended Calhoun Community College.
After earning a degree in music education from Athens State, Cantrell returned to Decatur High as the choral director. When a position as a piano instructor opened at Calhoun, Cantrell applied. The college hired Cantrell as the head of the recording studio.
“All I’ve wanted to do is teach music and have some small impact on the students’ lives. I have enjoyed my work immensely. I still enjoy it. After 45 years, though, it is time for someone else to come in and work in this amazing space with very talented musicians,” Cantrell said.