Story Jason Browne | Photograph Micah Green
When does someone qualify as a musician?
Beyond Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours? As soon as they can play by ear? Play from memory? Play from sheet music? As soon as they learn to read music?
Fluency was never Simeon Weatherby’s benchmark, although he struck each of those listed above with ease, and a lingering hint of self-satisfaction. But he’s humble about it.
Still, he was waiting for the life experience that would define his music.
“I didn’t have any struggle so I didn’t have any passion. I was just a sax player, not a musician playing the sax,” he said.
Maybe he thought his passion would be born from some domestic turbulence. Something trying but manageable. He had a strong family around him. He could deal with it.
Turns out he wound up homeless for months after flunking out of college, living out of his car at the University of Alabama.
Finally. A real musician.
You could be forgiven now for thinking that Weatherby plays his tenor saxophone for a living the way he stays busy in, around and beyond the Golden Triangle.
At galas, receptions, dinners, intimate events, etc., he’s typically by himself in a corner playing soothing jazz or romantic mood music.
“Thursday through Sunday I’m rolling. More so out-of-town private events. People get married every Saturday it seems like. Or if there’s a conference where they want to recognize someone, like when Leslie Frazier came to town, the Mayor wanted something classy, so I provided the music for that,” said Weatherby.
If you see him in a bar or a club, it’s probably as a part of Starkville’s own Mississippi-Blues-Trail-recognized funk band The Flames, with whom Weatherby blends fluidly on accompaniment, but tends to steal the scene, or song, when he steps out of line to torch a solo.
And he’s also a member of Muzic In Action, a smooth jazz trio based in Columbus consisting of Weatherby on the sax, his mentor Ashanti Cullen on keys and Raphael Heard on drums.
But Weatherby doesn’t make his living as a musician and hasn’t since he flunked out of Alabama. Back in the days when he was sleeping until noon and when gigs got scarce, so did the food.
No. Now he’s a teacher at West Lowndes High School. Algebra I and II, trig and pre-cal.
“Algebra I is a subject area, and kids have to pass me to pass the state test,” he said.
He’s also the parent coordinator for WLHS, a tutor, the head volleyball coach, an assistant basketball and softball coach, a substitute bus driver, music minister for churches in two towns — Plair United Methodist in Starkville and Glenn Chapel CME Church in Columbus — and he’s a full-time, online grad student at Mississippi State University, where he previously earned two bachelor’s degrees in four years after sowing his oats at Alabama.
But before any of that, he’s an attentive father to his two little reasons for running around like a mad man: Abigail, 5, and Simeon III, 2.
It would be oversimplifying Weatherby’s situation to say that the birth of his children turned him around. In fact, his transformation was less a 180 and more a return to form.
Back in elementary school, Weatherby fell in love with the sax watching Lisa Simpson play the blues on TV. He didn’t even know what the instrument was called, but within a year he was playing his way into honors bands that were two grades above his own.
He rode that wave of discovery through high school and into four years with Alabama’s Million-Dollar Band. He played in the school’s Jazz Band. He studied John Coltrane and Duke Ellington and Count Basie in the listening library.
Then the wave crashed, and Weatherby washed out.
“I made a lot of bad decisions. I wound up living in my car for over three months. Church members would let me come over on Sundays and wash all my clothes for the week. My pride was too much to let people back home know I was struggling,” he said.
“I realized if I ever wanted a family I needed a real job. But I have to play. I think I would have a nervous breakdown if I couldn’t play. When I’m performing, it doesn’t matter what bills I have to pay or who’s mad at me. It’s the one time I can just be myself.”
Weatherby moved home to Columbus without a degree, but he did have those crucial hard-times experience points. Then he began playing with Cullen, whom he credits with teaching him how to truly channel his pain and experience through music.
“That’s when I became a musician. It’s some special kind of power,” he said.
And now he can’t stop. Whether mentoring students or playing to an audience, he’s constantly telling his story.
Seriously. Wherever Weatherby is right now, he’s got his sax in his truck. He’s got his backup sax in his truck.
Now he’s part of a small but burgeoning jazz scene in Columbus that he hopes to help nourish. But he never would have had the confidence to carry the flag for jazz without the experiences that gave him his own song to play.
“This is me crying out to you, because it’s so hard to keep everything together in life. So I look forward to the weekends when I can finally say ‘OK. I’ve had a hard week. You’ve had a hard week. Let’s have a good time.’ And we have fun.”