by Lauren Vogel Weiss
James A. “Jim” Sewrey, a founding member of the Percussive Arts Society, passed away in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin on January 20, 2024, less than three weeks before what would have been his 97th birthday. A longtime percussionist and educator, Sewrey was involved in all aspects of the percussive arts.
Born on February 9, 1927, Jim Sewrey devoted his life to music education for more than six decades. He was an instrumental music educator, teaching general music to 3rd and 4th graders, band and orchestra to middle schoolers, as well as directing high school bands. He was also a former college professor, teaching instrumental music education, applied percussion, and percussion ensemble. According to his bio on the Yamaha website, Sewrey served his profession as a “teacher, lecturer, conductor, director, writer, professor, manager, representative, advisor, consultant, clinician, advocate, performer, adjudicator, conceptual creator, mentor, visionary, arranger, and guest percussion educator at various summer music camp venues.” Throughout his career, he served as a clinician and/or conductor at various music camps, state music educators association conventions, and national and international band and percussion conferences.
Sewrey earned his Bachelor of Music degree from Butler University (Indianapolis, Indiana) in 1951 and his Master’s of Music Education from the University of Colorado (Boulder) in 1959. He was a charter member of the American School Band Directors Association, which was founded in 1953, and was invited to be the editor of the “Percussion Clinic” column for their School Musician magazine. In 1959, he co-founded the Percussion Workshop of America, which hosted guest clinicians such as Frank Arsenault, George Gaber, Haskell Harr, Joe Morello, and Dick Schory.
But members of PAS should remember Jim for a most important contribution to our organization. In his 90th birthday tribute on the PAS website in 2017, Sewrey recalled several meetings in which he participated. “In the late 1950s, there had been a lot of discussions at Midwest and various MENC state conventions—any place percussionists and band directors were gathering. Remo Belli was always asking, ‘Isn’t there a possibility we could have an organization through which we could discuss everything involved in our craft: how to teach it, how to play, and so on?’
"Remo found out that I was giving a lecture in January 1961 at the Southwest Regional meeting of the Music Educators National Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico and said, 'Jimmie, I am calling a meeting for us to discuss a name for our percussion educator group, and I want you to come up with a suggestion.’ ”
Sewrey continued, “So, on January 21, 1961, Fred Hoey, Frank Arsenault, George Frock, Remo and myself, met at the Sundowner Hotel, and, when Remo called for suggested names, I put forth the name Percussive Arts Society. The guys liked it, and in May of 1961, the name was accepted and became official.”
John H. Beck, Past President of PAS and Professor Emeritus of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, recalled his friend’s involvement in PAS. “Jim Sewrey was there in the beginning, the middle and the end. His passion for percussion, and in particular the Percussive Arts Society, is something to be admired. He was always there with an idea to make PAS the innovator of new concepts for percussion and percussion education. He was respected by the percussion community and his ideas were always held in high regard.”
In 1963, Sewrey was named Assistant Professor of Percussion at Wichita State University in Kansas. He also served as Principal Percussionist with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.
From 1967 until 1974, Jim Sewrey served as Product Manager for Ludwig Industries, where he served as the Associate Editor for the Ludwig Drummer publication, Educational Director of the Ludwig clinic program, and Director of the Ludwig Symposiums. “For me,” he wrote in an email in 2016, “these were great times to be involved with the music industry, and in instrumental music education with bands, orchestras, jazz and rock groups, as well as those behind the baton or performing.” He also worked for Hal Leonard Publishing for a time.
“I met Jim Sewrey in 1972 at the Ludwig factory on Damen Avenue in Chicago,” remembered Ward Durrett, a veteran of the music industry and member of the WGI Hall of Fame. “Along with Al LeMert and Dick Schory, they were the marketing team that put the Ludwig company at the forefront of the drum industry. Jim helped create so many educational tools that percussion educators still use today. He contributed so much!”
In 1975, Sewrey began teaching at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where he served as an Adjunct Music Professor in Percussion for 25 years. During this time, he also created his own private percussion teaching studio.
Beginning in 1979, Sewrey performed for over three decades as a percussionist with the Waukesha Area Symphonic Band (WASB). He also served as an educational advisory member, as well as Chairman, of the Woody Herman-Sister Fabian Fund Jazz Scholarship Committee.
In 1981, Sewrey, along with Ben Hans and Tom Schneller, compiled Modern School for Mallet-Keyboard Instruments. This book contained materials for the development of technique, performance skill, reading ability, and musicianship on marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, bells, and chimes, and addressed musical literacy, musicianship, performance, and technique as applied to two-mallet and four-mallet playing.
Sewrey organized and established the Project Create Percussion Ensemble (PCPE) Program, the Community Drum Brigade, and the Spring City Area Percussion Ensemble (SCAPE), a pro/amateur adult endeavor. He was also instrumental in establishing a body of literature written and arranged around the symphonic percussion ensemble concept.
Wisconsin native Steve Houghton, Past President of PAS and Professor Emeritus of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, wrote, “Jim was a good friend and a dedicated educator who helped countless young percussionists. He actually judged the Wisconsin solo and ensemble contests – and my mom saved all my cards! His Project Create was a wonderful percussion activity that served the entire state. And his passion for PAS was never ending.”
In 2003, Jim Sewrey received the “Outstanding PAS Supporter Award” at PASIC in Louisville, Kentucky. In 2006, he received the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Civic Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award.
Sewrey was called out of retirement in 2007 to serve as adjunct professor of percussion studies at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, where he continued to teach until 2014.
He presented a concert bass drum session at the 2009 American School Band Director’s Association conference. A video of his presentation may be viewed at https://banddirector.com/percussion/drums-timpani/2009-asbda-concert-bass-drum-session/
In 2011, Sewrey received the Wisconsin Music Educators Association's Michael George Distinguished Service Award for making a difference in students' lives.
Throughout his life, he served as an advisor to the Wisconsin Chapter of PAS and maintained an active percussion studio, influencing generations of percussionists throughout the Midwest. Sewrey also participated in several Percussive Arts Society International Conventions, including an education committee panel discussion (“A Fly on the Wall in the Private Lesson”) at PASIC 2005 in Columbus, Ohio, and playing rudimental snare drum at the Drummers Heritage Concert at PASIC 2016 in Indianapolis.
PAS Hall of Fame member Michael Balter commented on Sewrey’s passing. “Jim's love for promoting percussion education not only to the next generation, but to educators themselves, is legendary. There is no question that PAS was part of his DNA and he helped mold the Society to become what it is today. Jim was overly proud of the fact that he was there from the very beginning.”
Bob Breithaupt, Past President of PAS and Professor Emeritus at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, added, “Jim's trust and commitment to PAS never wavered as long as I knew him. He was a dedicated educator and proponent of everything we ever stood for. Jim lived a long and productive life… wishing the same for all of us!”
In 2017, Sewrey wrote, “I am blessed with the opportunity to be active, mentally and physically, especially in the artistic field of percussion performance and education. I have had the opportunity to meet and know so many fine individuals, including performers, educators, conductors, directors, students, and their parents.”
John H. Beck remembered his longtime percussion colleague: “Jim will be missed, but never forgotten.”
Author’s Note: I had the honor and privilege of meeting Jim Sewrey early in my decades-long association with PAS. His experience, knowledge and guidance were extremely helpful to me as a chapter president, committee chair, and member of the Board of Advisors. Not to mention he was a delightful man, whose joy of all things percussion was infectious! Thank you, Jim, for giving my lifelong hobby the amazing name “Percussive Arts Society”….