Grant Union High School drum line director James Van Buren didn’t expect to be headed for the national spotlight when he and his student drummers boarded a tour bus for Los Angeles two weeks ago.
They were told only that the 15-member band was to perform at an event ABC News anchor Robin Roberts was having for her celebrity friends, and that it would be featured on an online blog, Van Buren said. He was merely hoping the trip would generate donations to help the drum line travel to Washington, D.C. in July to play in the National Independence Day Parade.
“I was stoked,” Van Buren said. “If I’m connected with Robin Roberts that’s a good thing.”
The L.A. gig turned out to be a ruse.
Instead, Van Buren – known affectionately as “Mr. V” by students – learned that Roberts would feature him as one of three “unsung heroes” honored during an ABC Thanksgiving special airing Thursday night. The show “Thank You America! with Robin Roberts” features Van Buren, a family that has raised more than 90 foster children and a sanitation worker who cashed in his 401(k) to feed the homeless.
The news was revealed to Van Buren, 59, while he sat in the audience of the Jimmy Kimmel Show, where Roberts had invited the Grant teacher to watch her tape an interview. He was eager to have his drum line perform for Roberts elsewhere after the Kimmel taping.
Roberts was talking to Kimmel about great teachers when the talk show host said, “Do you mean Mr. V?” Suddenly, Van Buren was called on stage, the curtains opened and the drum line began to play.
Band member Classey Bent said Wednesday that drum line members were just as surprised as their teacher. They had been asked to perform just moments after Van Buren was escorted to the audience.
“That is crazy,” she said. “We are on national TV.”
Bent said Van Buren was honored because “he’s a good guy, a great person and they know he works so hard for us to get where we are now.”
The Grant drum line, started in 2008 by Van Buren, is in demand at events and celebrations around the Sacramento region. Unlike most drum lines, Grant’s is not a part of a marching band.
At football games, the band plays in the stands, with members moving between keyboards and snare, bass and tenor drums. They throw drumsticks in the air and catch them between beats. Sometimes they break into dance moves.
The drum line’s popularity gives students at the Del Paso Heights school a dose of pride. The 80-year-old school, located in one of Sacramento’s poorest neighborhoods, is among the lowest-ranked high schools in the area academically.
Van Buren, who also is a special education instructor at the school, serves as a model of perseverance for his students.
He said it took him 10 years to earn his bachelor’s degree in political science because he had to hold down a job. It took another 4.5 years for him to earn his multiple subject teaching certificate and another four years to earn his special education certificate. He tells them that many more opportunities were open to him once he graduated.
“I tell them education is No. 1,” Van Buren said. “I tell them the book in front of you is a paycheck. College is your vehicle to success, that and hard work.”
Music is in his veins. He is the son of noted musician and jazz vocalist James Van Buren, who played drums with Big Mama Thornton and Ella Fitzgerald, among other legendary artists. Despite his musical background, Van Buren didn’t start playing music until he was a teenager. That may be because he was raised primarily by his maternal grandmother in Kansas while his father and mother were on the road.
Instead, he learned about music while visiting his paternal grandmother in Missouri.
“She played piano in the church,” he said. “We were in the church every day. It was a good thing. I learned discipline and learned a lot about music. She was my connection to my dad.”
Van Buren’s parents retired from the road when he was 14, and he got a taste of what musicians do when he went to rehearsals with his father. It wasn’t long before he was on the drums, too. But Van Buren wanted his own identity and quickly switched to the saxophone.
He moved between a number of bands but decided to stop touring in 1980 after a bus broke down while he was with his band Smiles, Style and Profile. He was tired of the travel and the paltry pay.
He went to London, started a band and stayed there for a year before moving to California, where he attended school, married and eventually became a teacher.
Today, Van Buren is as much a member of the Grant drum line as he is its director. A musician in his own right, he plays alongside his students. When he’s not playing with the drum line, he plays saxophone with his own band, Elements.
Bent is among the band members who say that Van Buren helped them find direction in their lives. “Honestly, if it wasn’t for Mr. V, I’d probably still be sitting at home bored, not knowing what music really is,” she said.
Other band members say the promise of performing in the drum line, which has a grade-point average requirement, motivates them to improve academically. Others have said the tight-knit group has helped them through tough times.
Van Buren teaches the band that there are times to have fun and times to be serious, Bent said. “When we go places we know how to act,” she said of performances. “‘When it comes to missions you have to be serious,’ he said. He calls it missions. He calls it our J-O-B.”
The Grant drum line plays about 20 performances a month to help it pay for uniforms, travel and equipment. In September, in an effort to raise money for the Washington D.C. trip, the drum line played 35 gigs.
The performances have given many of the drum line members opportunities they would not have had otherwise. Some have never been on a plane. Some had never been to Los Angeles before this trip. Bent spoke with excitement about seeing Michael Jackson’s star on the Walk of Fame, visiting the Santa Monica Beach and seeing subway cars.
And the experience of being taped for national television.
Van Buren said a number of surprises will be revealed on tonight’s show that he can’t talk about until it airs.
“It blew me away,” Van Buren said of the surprise. “And then what they did after that blew me away.”
Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.
WATCH THE SHOW
What: “Thank you, America! With Robin Roberts”
When: 8 p.m. tonight
Where: Channel 10 (KXTV)