So Pas High Band Director Connects Life and Music

Howard Crawford, South Pasadena High School band director, talks music and life with orchestra students during class. Photo by Skye Hannah

The sound of music continually filled the family home of Howard Crawford as he grew up in Newark, New Jersey. From the rich jazz tones of Sonny Stitt and William “Count” Basie to the operatic jazz vocals of Sarah Vaughan that rang out from his dad’s 78 vinyl record collection, the longtime South Pasadena High School band director learned to love music that brought emotion and spirit to life.

“My parents listened to music all the time when I was a kid, especially my dad,” recalled Crawford. “He was really into jazz. I remember every paycheck, he would go buy the latest records.”

Next year, Crawford will ring in his 30th year of teaching music at the high school, where he conducts the jazz band, concert band, symphonic band, marching band, drum line and orchestra. “You get used to it, and then every year, kids are like, ‘don’t leave until I graduate, don’t leave until I graduate!’” Crawford shared. “So, here we are, 29 years later.”

Looking back at his roots, Crawford never wanted to be a teacher. He has always been a performer since his own school days. He started on the clarinet in middle school and when his older brother picked up the saxophone and didn’t take to it, he fell in love with it in his stead, learning every note and oftentimes falling asleep beside the instrument. He’s played it ever since. 

“Music has always been good to me,” said Crawford.

At age 13, he was playing the sax in funk and pop music bands in clubs around Newark alongside his brother and friends. Despite his dad’s encouragement to become a certified public accountant like his godfather, Crawford continued to pursue music and attended Arts High School in the city, the nation’s first public high school for the arts. Upon graduation, he accepted a full-ride scholarship to Howard University in Washington, D.C. and played in the school’s jazz band.

After a brief stint back in New Jersey, where he worked as a substitute teacher, Crawford returned to Howard University for graduate school where he taught undergraduate saxophonists. Following graduation, he fell in love with Southern California after visiting his best friend and initially was recruited by the Oakland Unified School District. Once he arrived, however, he learned there was a job freeze, so he improvised and found a job with Princess Cruises. He performed with a quartet for six months while voyaging across the Bahamas, Europe and the Baltic Sea. It was between cruises that he found South Pasadena Unified School District (SPUSD). The rest has been history in the making.

Since joining South Pasadena as band director, Crawford has raised two daughters, Karissa and Naomi, with his wife Maria. With a mindful nod to family and his own music background, he appreciates that all of his students at South Pasadena High have different personalities and he focuses on relating to them conversationally when it comes to music.

“We have conversations and when I’m teaching with the music, we talk about it,” said Crawford. “It could be about life, it could be about anything. With music, how do you want to phrase it?”

That talkative relationship translates to high-achieving bands. In competitions, the orchestra recently scored 96 out of 100 and the band scored 94. The groups have earned numerous individual player awards as well. 

“I still get nervous when I conduct,” laughed Crawford. “But it’s really been good these past 10 years. They’ve been consistently scoring these amazing scores.”

Under his eye, the band room at South Pasadena High also serves as a warm and inviting hub where students will often come in for a word of advice or to work on other homework, spreading their work across the floor. Crawford said many students come to him with concerns, anxious they won’t get into their college of choice, but he’s quick to remind them of their inherent worth as people.
“They’ll all be successful,” said Crawford. “We talk a lot about life whenever we’re outside of class.”

Looking towards the future, Crawford ultimately wants his students to hold themselves to high standards and be happy.

“I guess I must be making some kind of impact on these kids,” Crawford said with a smile. “We do it enough times and we talk about it. They’re really into the music.”