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In Full Swing
It’s a Saturday night. In the hotel ballroom, the perfect mood lighting emanates from crystal chandeliers. Murmurs pass through the crowd—hundreds of people sitting at round tables covered in white cloths. It’s only moments until the band takes the stage.
A few minutes later, more than 20 musicians wearing rocket red zoot suits come bounding up and take their places behind red or black big-band music stands. Emblazoned on the front of each stand in silver, glittery letters are two words: Mood Swings.
One, two. One, two, three, four…bomp ba da domp, and the band comes alive. As the night goes on, the energy builds. Musicians wave their saxophones, trumpets, and trombones back and forth to the beat. They jump; some sing, and they all smile.
When playing the Benny Goodman classic, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the band is going wild. Horns are wagging in the air. Then comes the drum solo. Some band members leave the stage and run throughout the audience. After about a minute or so, the band director steps up to the mic. “Where’s the band?” he jokingly asks. With that, flashes of red pop up on chairs throughout the ballroom. It’s the band, and they begin to play. The music surrounds the crowd, who laughs and claps.
One musician, a new member of the Washington College family, puts his lips to his trombone and begins to play. Like the other musicians, he waves his instrument back and forth to the beat.
For most people, it’s a typical Saturday night. But for this band, the night is really swingin’.
That man in the zoot suit, standing on the chair and playing trombone? He’s Xavier Cole, the new Vice President for Student Affairs at Washington College. On weekdays, you’ll most likely find the Ph.D. wearing a regular suit, shirt, and tie and sitting at this desk in front of his computer on the second floor in the Casey Academic Center or talking with students about school policy.
After nearly two decades of working in student affairs, Cole came to Washington College in the summer of 2014 because he was ready for a new challenge. “I wanted to work in student affairs at a place where I could have all the administrative responsibilities of an executive staff member and report to the President, but also be at a school small enough so that I would still have plenty of student contact and could see the effects of the work that I did sooner rather than later,” he explains.
Other aspects of Washington College drew Cole as well—one being its history. Throughout his life, Cole has been a history buff. He earned his undergraduate degree in history at the University of Mississippi and his master’s degree in history at Miami University in Ohio. “Washington College and Chestertown, both being steeped in history, were very attractive to me,” says Cole. “Lots of things came together with the school: its size, its focus, its mission, and its historical significance. This school being the tenth oldest college in the country, and the first chartered in the new nation—I found that appealing.”
At Washington College, Cole works with policies that will impact students’ lives. He says he likes being able to create positions with specific educational messages that are sent out to students, then watch the positive impact it has. “The ‘win’ you have is that students have a safe and comfortable learning environment in which they can flourish and be the best students that they can be.”
When interacting with students, Cole also loves the “transformational moment.” This is the moment after he’s had a conversation with students and has been sharing his life experience and things he’s learned. “You see a shift in thinking that’s almost immediate, and their eyes light up,” says Cole. “Some faculty members call it the ‘teaching moment.’ That’s when you see that students have shifted their way of thinking, and they look at the world in a different way because you’ve impacted them. That’s what I love the most.”
Cole has had a few transformations of his own. An important one came through music.
Born and raised in Biloxi, Mississippi, Cole hails from a family of musicians; his mom worked as a professional singer, and his dad was a history teacher and band leader. “Music was everywhere,” he recalls. “There was always music playing. It was always a part of our life.”
When a family friend, who wore silk jumpsuits and sported a big ’70s Afro, put a trombone in young Cole’s hands and said, “Try playing on this,” his life changed forever.
The musician gave Cole his first trombone and a cassette tape with music by jazz trombonist Bill Watrous and trumpeter Woody Shaw. He told Cole: “Learn how to play like them, and you’ll be fine.”
Two years later, Cole joined the music program at his school. He already knew how to play by ear, but learned to read music. He continued playing in organized music programs throughout his childhood up through high school.
All that Jazz
It’s not surprising that Cole would find his place in the music scene at Washington College. When Cole heard that the jazz ensemble was recruiting, he contacted music department chair Ken Schweitzer and asked if administrators were allowed in. He’s been playing with the jazz ensemble ever since.
Rebecca DeSantis, a junior who has played saxophone in the ensemble for two years, says that she thought it was cool when Cole joined the group. “It’s been great,” she says. “He really adds a lot to the band. He’s really good.” She also knows Cole in her capacity as an RA. “He’s been a great asset to the campus. He’s been a great help in terms of residence life, and we look forward to what else he’s going to do here.”
Cole is excited to be part of the music community at Washington College because it brings out his authentic self. “I play because I have to—it’s almost like breathing. It’s something that I have to do in order to fulfill a part of myself that’s important to who I am as a whole person,” says Cole. “I could be a dedicated administrator who focused only on being a student affairs professional. But I think it would make me a much less interesting person if I didn’t have this other interest, this other side of myself.”
When the Music Stopped
With Cole’s love for music ardently professed, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when he walked away from it. When he started college, though, that’s exactly what he did.
While auditioning for a music scholarship at Ole Miss, Cole expressed to the band director he had concerns about marching. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do it; he had marched with his high school band. “The main reason I really didn’t want to march is because the uniform had a rebel flag on its shoulders,” says Cole. He told the band director he would participate in everything else—concerts, band, jazz band—but that he couldn’t bring himself to wear the rebel flag.
The director responded that anyone who had a music scholarship had to be in the marching band. That meant wearing the uniform.
“At that moment, I had to make a decision: Do I go for the money I could get from the band or do I hold to my principles? I was old enough to know that this was something I didn’t want to do,” says Cole. He decided not to apply for a music scholarship.
“So I put the horn down. I was pretty upset about that experience. It kind of turned me off to playing for a while,” says Cole. In fact, Cole didn’t play the trombone during college or graduate school. Why did he stop music for so long? Cole says that at age 18, he had played in school-based organized music for so long that he didn’t think he could still play music. “I was a trombone player. It’s not exactly something that you start a rock band with.”
During the time he didn’t play music, Cole found another passion.
Cole had a leadership scholarship to Ole Miss and became an RA to help with expenses. “Ironically, that’s how I got started in higher education,” explains Cole. “I was an RA for three years, and I found out that I love working with students.” While attending Miami University, Cole worked as a graduate hall director.
He had to put down his trombone to find his life’s work. Eventually, though, he would pick it up again.
While working at his first job in academia, Cole and his wife, Susanne DeBerry Cole (also new to the Washington College faculty), were listening to the school’s jazz ensemble play. Cole noticed they only had one trombone player.
He casually said to his wife, “I can do that, you know.” Actually, she didn’t. He had stopped playing before he met her, and had gotten rid of his trombones.
She laughed because she thought he was joking. “The next day, I went to a pawn shop, picked up a horn, and started getting my chops back,” says Cole. Two weeks later, he auditioned for the school’s jazz ensemble and got in. “That’s what got me back on the track of playing again,” he says.
Eventually, Cole played in the orchestra pit for the school’s musicals. During one show, a professor playing with him asked if he liked big band music. He was in a band called Mood Swings, and they needed a third trombone. Would he be interested in coming to a rehearsal?
Cole went. At the end of the rehearsal, they asked if he was interested in joining on third trombone. Cole agreed.
The Mood Swings, composed of 28 members, plays big band music at gigs about twice a month. One aspect of the band that makes it different from most is that the members have day jobs—they are doctors, nurses, accountants, teachers, administrators, and the like. That in itself surprised Cole, but he would soon have a much bigger surprise.
Becoming a Showman
Cole remembers his first gig with the Mood Swings at an Oktoberfest celebration. They played a bit, and then everything took off. “It was a bit of a whirlwind. The music was fast; there were all these dance moves and horn flashes,” says Cole. What he discovered was that Mood Swings is as much a show band as they are serious musicians. And in addition to the zoot suits, they wear black tie, costumes like The Village People, dress like Baltimore Hons, and much more.
Today, Cole is used to it. But at that first performance, he didn’t know the music like the rest of the band, and he was trying to keep up with the moves.
During a break, he asked Ken Stastny, one of the group’s founders and its CFO: “What’s most important now? For me to read the music or get the moves?” Stastny answered, “Oh, get the moves.”
After he had been with the band for about a year, Cole was singing at a rehearsal, just goofing around, he says. “So you sing?” someone asked. Cole insisted he didn’t. “But I just heard you,” the person said. Some band members asked him to sing James Brown’s classic, “I Feel Good.” They liked what they heard. Soon after, Cole was also singing with the band. “It came very naturally to me, but I didn’t join the band as a singer. It was just one of those things they brought out in me,” he says.
“Xavier is not only a great horn player, he’s also a dynamic singer and entertainer, and that’s a very rare combination,” says Stastny. “Usually you’re either one or the other. You’re either a horn player or a singer.”
Cole covers a lot of Motown—Barry White, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, among others. His talent has enabled Mood Swings to add to their repertoire. “Xavier was the first one to add a dynamic to the band that was outside of what people expect from today’s big band music—because he has that talent. That’s something else we bring to the table with our big band sound, and Xavier is the one who pulls it together for us,” says Stastny.
Fourteen years later, Cole still loves the band. He’s played with them at the White House, for Bush family weddings in Maine, at Maryland’s Boordy Vineyards, and countless other venues. He considers the band family. Although Cole is new to the Washington College family, he already loves the place and the students. “I love the interactions I’ve had with students,” says Cole. “I love their honesty and their willingness to learn and to experience something new.”
— Michele Wojciechowski
Washington College Magazine, Winter 2014