Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie are among the faces scattered on CD case covers around the office. The room smells of basement must and lingering cigarette smoke.
A portly man with glasses askew peers over a large, wooden desk on which a pile of papers threatens to swallow him whole. Absentmindedly, he pulls his fingers through his messy, grayish-white hair. His lips are nearly hidden by a bushy white mustache.
This is Michael Budds, MU professor of music history, appreciation and bibliography — a mainstay in the school of music for 23 years.
“He inspires students; he’s not just someone holding a microphone blubbering,” says Travis Thompson, a former student. “He’s the epitome of a good professor.”
Budds says he chose to teach music because it satisfies his interests and connects with humanities. He always wanted to stand in front of a class, and a William T. Kemper Award for Teaching Excellence he won in 2000 testifies to his success. But he is not a professor who relies on lecture notes and PowerPoint — Budds sings, plays the piano and infuses his lectures with comedy.
“There are a number of people who think I’m unusual,” he says. “I would like to point out that I’m not unusual — they are the ones who are unusual.”
Before attending Knox College and the University of Iowa to study music and music history, Budds grew up in the small town of Pana in central Illinois. Despite its origin as a coal mining town, Pana began to develop a vast rose industry in the 1950s and eventually became known as “The City of Roses.”
“My father was connected with the rose-growing establishment,” Budds says. “I didn’t realize the value of a rose until I bought the first corsage for someone when I was in college.”
Budds likes to use the metaphor of roses on his students.
“It’s wonderful to see talented people who have just left home and see what happens to them over a course of four years,” he says. “When they first get here they are tight little buds, and by the time they graduate the rose has blossomed. Well, certainly not all of them; some wilt.”
Budds’ relationship with students is integral to his teaching.
“I literally get to watch students grow up and find out who they are and watch them make important decisions about their life,” he says. “It’s a satisfying way to spend your life.”
Erin Hiller, a former student and teaching assistant in Budds’ jazz, pop and rock class, says she enjoys seeing the professor’s engagement with students. “My favorite part of being a teaching assistant for the class is sitting in on the lectures,” she says. “It’s fun to see what people get out of it.”
Budds, who is now editing a book titled “The Last of the Band,” describes himself as responsible, dedicated, hard-working and well-intentioned. He says he thinks he has done his best to teach students. “I think the University of Missouri has gotten their money out of me,” he says. “There are a number of students who respond very well. I tend to think that students get out of something what they put into it.”
One thing most students get out of Budds’ class is a good laugh. Despite lacking remarkable skills on the piano, he shows no hesitation playing an improvisational song about socks to demonstrate the blues.
“One time during a review he was trying to get us to remember that our test was in Cornell (Hall), so he made up this song on the piano,” Thompson says. “It was fantastic and hilarious.”
Sometimes, between fits of slapping the board to emphasize his point, he dances to the music samples he plays.
He acknowledges others may not see him the way he likes to see himself.
“I have an image of myself and a lot of people love to tell me how they perceive me,” Budds says. “There are people who think I’m very pedantic, and I see myself as incredibly generous.”
Budds might be generous in his teaching, but not in naming a musical preference.
“It’s a hazard to have a favorite,” he says. “It’s really like a parent. Parents might like one child better than another, but they love them all.”
Budds adds that his taste and choice of music are part of his teaching philosophy. “Lots of people can act out of preference, but because of what I do, I don’t have that luxury.”
His collection ranges from classical to country, but he confesses a certain fondness for Ella Fitzgerald.
In a recent jazz, pop and rock class, Fitzgerald’s voice is absent and the piano sits shuttered in the corner. But a version of “Black Betty” by Leadbelly streams through the Fine Arts Auditorium, packed with more than 250 students, so many that some stand in the back. The song illustrates a lesson in African music.
His toes meet the edge of the stage as he rests his hand on his hip and nods his head slightly, in time with the music. A smile glides across his face. This day, he lets Leadbelly do the teaching.