Jim Duren, the band director from Gordo who shared music with 1000s of kids for 39+ years

Jim Duren conducting at Oak Mountain
Jim Duren conducting at Oak Mountain. Photo via Melinda Ponder Goode

When you were navigating your awkward teenage years, did you play in band? I did, for four years, with Jim Duren as my band director, and the experience shaped so much about the person I became. On November 5, 2020, Mr. Duren passed away, and the memories have been flooding in. Keep reading to learn more about the life and legacy of this remarkable man who touched so many.

He fell in love with music back in Gordo

On April 5, 2012, before Mr. Duren’s retirement, he and Cliff Brane, known as the “Voice of the Spirit of Cahaba”, did an interview. He talked about how he got interested in music:

“It all goes back to your teachers. Fortunately for us, we came through Gordo High School when we had a teacher that was just a phenomenal musician and cared about us kids and was willing to do whatever he needed to do—he and his wife—to have a band program.

Prior to his getting to Gordo, the program wasn’t very big at all and it wasn’t very good at all. By the time he’d been there for seven years, he’d developed a group that had 16 members when he got there to a group of 96, and that’s in a high school that probably in 7th grade through 12th, now, was 220 kids, so almost half of the school was in the band.

Back then, particularly in Gordo, you either played football or you were a cheerleader or you were in the band. But he was a huge inspiration and I speak with him on a regular basis to this day. I saw what he did and I saw how much he enjoyed what he did and I thought ‘that’s something I would like to do one day.'”

By 9th grade, Mr. Duren knew the direction he wanted to go in.

Bear Bryant was the reason Mr. Duren went to college at the University of Alabama

Paul "Bear" Bryant was the reason Jim Duren wanted to go to Alabama
Paul “Bear” Bryant. Photo via the Paul W. Bryant Museum on Facebook

Growing up 20 miles from Tuscaloosa and hearing about Coach Bryant and the Crimson Tide, Mr. Duren knew he wanted to go to Alabama. The big challenge was getting in.

But get in he did, as a music major from day one. He was chosen to serve as one of several student directors of The Million Dollar Band. This meant conducting at pep rallies, which led to this memory:

“I actually got to be the guy that did the pep band at homecoming one year and I got to stand next to Coach Bryant. That’s always been primo in my mind. That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”

While he was at Alabama, his love of music deepened in many ways:

  • Member of the Trombone Studio
  • Member of the Jazz Ensemble
  • Bass Trombonist with the Brass Ensemble
  • Principal Trombonist in the Symphonic Band
  • Member of + student conductor for the Million Dollar Band

He got his first job, at Mountain Brook Junior High, when his cousin didn’t want it

Back in the day at Mountain Brook Junior High School. Photos via Facebook

Duren’s first trip post-graduation was to see his cousin—also a band director—in Greenville, Mississippi. The cousin had been talking with people at Mountain Brook Junior High about a position, but he didn’t want it.

Duren asked if he could talk to them. That conversation led to five years at Mountain Brook Junior High and eight years at Mountain Brook High School.

Next came Pelham, then Oak Mountain

The job at Pelham came open in the middle of the year, and one of my dear friends and fellow bandmates still remembers people at Mountain Brook crying after Mr. Duren announced he was leaving.

He served as Director of Bands at Pelham from 1987-1999 and was the founding Director of Bands at Oak Mountain High School from 1999-2012, when he retired.

Bham Now’s Sheila McCallum, who was a band mom at Oak Mountain, added this:

“The band room at Oak Mountain High School was named in his honor upon his retirement. The room is filled with trophies, plaques, and banners showcasing the success of the school’s band program under his direction and the direction of his successors, Kevin Ownby and Dr. Travis Bender.”

Jim Duren with the Oak Mountain Band
Jim Duren with the Oak Mountain Band. Photo via Oak Mountain Band on Twitter

The music under Mr. Duren’s direction was top-notch

One of the things Mr. Duren was most proud of was the caliber of musical literature his students were able to perform at a high level. Like his mentor before him, he expected great things, and he got them. Below is a playlist put together by two former students of his.

Jim Duren went ’round the world with music

According to the Alabama Music Educators Association Hall of Fame:

“During his 39 year career, Mr. Duren’s bands have performed throughout the southeastern and midwestern United States, The Bahamas, Toronto and two performances at Carnegie Hall in New York.”

Accolades aplenty

The Mr. Duren’s Opus Band, comprised of former + current band students on his retirement in 2012

In his long and distinguished career, Mr. Duren was a member of many organizations devoted to the advancement of music + music education:

He racked up quite a few awards in his time, as well:

  • 1996, “John Philip Sousa Legion of Honor Award”
  • 1999, “Honorary Conductor” of the University of Alabama Wind Ensemble
  • 2011, “Outstanding Band Director or the Year” award for the State of Alabama by the Rho chapter of Phi Beta Mu Band Director’s fraternity
  • 2011, “Outstanding Alumni” at the University of Alabama

The biggest impact Mr. Duren had, though, was on all of us who were fortunate enough to have him as our band director. Many of his former students went on to become band directors or teachers themselves. Some alums moved to Oak Mountain so their kids could have him for band. All of us have carried a lifelong love of music, an appreciation for hard work and great memories. Many students and colleagues were also inspired by his deep faith.

Mr. Duren is survived by his wife Sharon, son Jason and daughter-in-law Bashan. He leaves behind thousands of former students whose lives have been forever changed by the love of music he shared so freely with all of us.

A celebration of Mr. Duren’s life will take place Monday, November 30th at Hunter Street Baptist Church at 1PM. Visitation will be from 11:30AM to 1PM. There will be a graveside burial at Southern Heritage on Highway 119 following the service.

Do you have a Mr. Duren memory? Tag us on social @bhamnow and let us know.

Sharron Swain
Sharron Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference

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