With heavy hearts and joyful memories, we pay tribute to the life of Nathan Jatcko, beloved music teacher who accompanied and directed the Villa di Maria children in many musical endeavors, in addition to being held in high esteem among the St. Louis jazz community. Tragically, Nathan, who was 31, took his own life in early January. A lovely tribute by Upper Elementary Guide Rebecca Callendar and the Upper Elementary children, below.
Nathan was a jazz and rock pianist, in addition to being (in his words) a “lover of good food, good books, traveling, and of course, great music.” He played with several bands, varying in genre from jazz, to soul, to funk, to indie, to progressive rock. A native of the St. Louis area, he enjoyed the artists and musicians in the local scene, and was proud to share his original music. His talent and love for music could not be denied. To Villa di Maria, he was a source of musical inspiration both through his raw talent and also through the many ways in which he engaged the children.
Rebecca Callendar shares her thoughts below.
“I must preface my thoughts on Nathan by saying that we have had several wonderful accompanists at Villa, who each brought something special to our elementary students. That being said, what a gift it was to have had Nathan Jatcko, our beloved Mr. Nathan, in our lives at Villa. During our all-too-short time with Nathan, we accomplished so many things. We wrote two musicals from scratch, sang numerous songs, and worked on theory and music history. He helped enrich our knowledge of music, exposed us to a level of skill and expertise unheard of for most elementary school programs, and, through example, showed us that music can be an integral part of everyone’s life. He was a collaborator, a mentor, and a friend.
“When I first met Nathan, we were auditioning pianists, requesting that they play warm-up exercises and sight-read music from our current regimen of songs: The Element Song, Animal Beatbox, Happy, and If I Only Had a Brain. It wasn’t going well. Nathan whisks in, donning newspaper boy hat and clad in his uniform of all-black, sits down at the piano, winks, and says, “I won’t need sheet music”. His fingers begin to masterfully play through each of our songs as if he had been playing them all along. Beautiful sounds emanate from the keys. Jazz, pop, classical, funk, blues, broadway – all were all in his repertoire. Mr. Nathan could play anything and play it well. His skills were so advanced for our needs—indeed, I often wondered why would someone with so much talent and finesse wish to play for our school? But, when I watched him interact with our children, authentically giving himself to our students, it was clear to me how much the students meant to him.
Within the Villa di Maria community, Upper Elementary students share what they remember and loved about Nathan.
“I liked it when he was like, Helllllooooooo! (child waves one arm above her in an arc). He also quieted us by using the composer’s way to stop music. And it worked!”
“He was really nice. He had such a friendly smile!’
“He taught us so many new cool songs, like Rag Tag songs we had never heard before! He was so good at playing the piano.”
“He helped us sing by doing vocal exercises. He helped all the band members learn their parts. He helped all the dancers learn their dances. One time I tripped and he caught me in mid air!”
“Mr. Nathan was super kind. Whenever we were sad, he would check in on us. Like when I couldn’t get my part right, I kind of felt bad about it, but he said that happens to him all the time. He helped me, made me feel really good.”
“I remember how Mr. Nathan would always say ‘strong and wrong,’ which means he would rather us be loud and wrong than quiet and unsure. And he was the first person to teach me an instrument. He taught me the cowbell, and before, I had never even heard of it. He wanted everyone to play. He was really kind, really funny.”
“I’ve known Mr. Nathan since Primary. He was really awesome. Every time he came in, he taught us new songs and he made us feel really happy. I really liked him. He was just so happy and vibrant all the time. I remember when we would sing, he would tell us to pull the imaginary string on our heads, so we would pull the string and smile.”
“Mr. Nathan really helped me with a lot of piano. I’ve been playing since I was four, but he really worked with me. He was a really happy and funny guy.”
“Last year we’d have music right after recess, we would come into the room and Mr. Nathan would be ready to play piano with us. Once everyone was in the room, he would say, ‘Stand up!’ and everyone would scream, ‘Noooo!’ but he taught us that if we were sitting down, we wouldn’t project our voices as loudly. He taught us so much. Like when you want to sing high, you have to raise your eyebrows. He was a really nice guy, jolly, great. He was an incredible musician too.”
“I think he was a really nice guy. In St. Louis, they knew Mr. Nathan as a really good musician. But we got to know another side to him. He was really devoted.”
“One of the things I liked most about Mr. Nathan was how positive he was. Everyone was always super tired from P.E., but he just went with it and made us feel better. He made everyone smile, he tried his best. He didn’t care how good you were at singing, he just wanted you to be a part of the music. He just accepted us how we were.”
“Mr. Nathan made everything funny instead of boring.”
“Mr. Nathan knew how to encourage people in a very fun way. He was so nice to us too.”
“He sort of was the guy who made me laugh all the time. He was never mad at us. One time he kept making us do this voice exercise faster and faster. It was awesome. I can’t believe he’s gone. I’m really going to miss him.”
“I wish he was still here. I really appreciated him.”
“There were so many times that Mr. Nathan helped people. He really helped my sister a lot with her solo. It’s hard to know that he’s gone. It’s hard to understand. As soon as I heard it, I just broke out in tears.”
“I loved that Mr. Nathan played Charlie Brown and different types of music to cheer us up. He was really upbeat. I love that he used to wave his arms really big when he said hello. It’s so sad that he’s gone. We miss him. Sometimes I think about how sad it would be to be his sister. My mom said that if you explain how sad you are, and how much he meant to you, it can make the other people who loved him feel better.”
“I wish he could have told us he was sad. Maybe through a song or something. Maybe we could have helped him if he told us he was sad. It was hard to see that he was sad, because when he was with us he was so joyful.”
Of Nathan’s impact on Villa di Maria, Head of School Laura Ceretti-Michelman remembers: “Nathan’s passion for music was abundantly evident even to someone like me who casually passed through the environment while he was working with the children. I appreciated not only the depth and breadth of his knowledge, but how he was willing to take on any challenge. More importantly, I appreciated that he knew our children were musically capable of so much more than they expected. If a child had never played an instrument but wanted to be a part of the band accompanying a performance, no problem. No experience reading music? No worries, even if the child wanted to help write a score for a play. Nathan knew how to bring out the best in our children and he was the catalyst for taking our Upper Elementary originals to the next level. I am grateful that many children had the privilege of working with the talented Mr. Nathan. Nathan is irreplaceable. He was adored and his absence is felt deeply.”
Nathan, who grew up in Highland and studied music at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, played with many bands, including the popular local band (which has since disbanded) Kentucky Knife Fight. Read more about Nathan’s life and work here.