Musician, Teacher, Benefactor: Georgia State Alumna Pamella Windham Helps Bring Jazz to Atlanta’s Youth
“He got the idea he wanted to play guitar, so he bought one, and after work he’d take lessons. He was real good at it, too,” she remembers. “He played the Hawaiian guitar. He wanted me to play the Spanish guitar, which is also known as the straight guitar.”
When Pamella was in sixth grade, “Dad took me down on Auburn Avenue, to Ritter Music Company, and he said, ‘OK, we’re gonna buy you a guitar. Choose what you want.’ I got a Gibson.”
Now, just as her father did, Pamella is passing along a love of music to a younger generation: She donated $20,000 to the Rialto Center for the Arts’ Jazz for Kids program.All That Jazz
Pamella didn’t just develop an appreciation for jazz as a listener — she was also a performer. After her father bought her that guitar down on Auburn Avenue, she started taking lessons, and by the time she was a senior in high school, she’d joined a jazz sextet that played clubs and other venues downtown.
“I guess they needed someone to play the guitar, and they got me,” she says with a humble smile. “The lady who led it played the bass fiddle; one girl was going to Agnes Scott, she played the clarinet; and then we had the drums and I played the guitar. And we had a xylophone and we had a man who played the viola.”
Pamella says they played a number of different musical styles, but mainly jazz and swing in the style of Benny Goodman — anything that could get their audiences up and dancing. They performed at the Standard Club, then located on Ponce de Leon Avenue, and the Tea Room at Rich’s department store downtown. “I hated to see them do away with Rich’s,” she says. “That was a good department store. Everyone went to Rich’s.”
A Life Full of Stories
The sextet only got to perform for a short time before World War II started. A flat foot kept Pamella from serving in the Navy, but thanks to the National Youth Administration set up as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, she got to serve for two years in the Women’s Reserve of the United States Coast Guard.
“Two of my friends I grew up with, the three of us came into the program together,” she says. “They took jobs as machinists and I took radio. I learned Morse Code and the fundamentals of radio, how they operated and everything.”
After leaving the Coast Guard, Pamella decided it was time to go to college. Her first stop was Tift College in Forsyth, and from there she went to Nashville to earn her master’s degree from the Peabody College for Teachers (now part of Vanderbilt University). After returning to Atlanta, she came to Georgia State to earn her Ed.S. “I got a six-year certificate so I could make more money,” she says with a laugh.
Pamella started out teaching fourth grade; then, when a pair of first-grade teachers passed away in a short time span, “the principal told me to go back and teach 1st grade,” she says. “I said, ‘No way!’ but he finally talked me into it. Then after I taught first grade, I went to the second grade because I changed schools.”
Throughout her career, Pamella says, music remained a part of her life. “I always brought music into the classroom,” she remembers. “They loved to sing.”
Music for the Masses
Pamella retired decades ago after spending 32 years as a teacher. But she’s still found a way to express her twin passions for music and teaching.
Jazz for Kids is an outreach program that sends musicians to elementary and middle schools around Atlanta to perform for students and teach them about jazz. Not only do the students learn about the origins and history of what has been described as “America’s one true original art form,” they have access to follow-up instruction on specific instruments. Some Jazz for Kids alumni have gone on to train at prestigious institutions such as Juilliard and the Berklee College of Music.
A few weeks ago, to show their thanks for her generous donation, a group of students — middle schoolers probably about the same age Pamella was when she first picked up a guitar — visited her apartment building in Marietta and treated Pamella and her neighbors to a performance. Pamella says she’s “real glad” to see so many young musicians reaping tangible benefits from her contribution.
“We had a good audience. They played right before supper, right there in the lobby,” she says, the pride evident in her voice. “They were so good!”