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Former Kalamazoo Gibson Guitar factory alive with music

Alex Mitchell
Kalamazoo Gazette

Kalamazoo — People who don’t often make it to Kalamazoo’s north side could be excused if they’re puzzled by the sounds of rock ballads echoing inside the former Gibson Guitar Co. factory.

It’s not the ghost of Orville Gibson accompanied by a progressive band, just Jeff Mitchell and his Kalamazoo Academy of Rock students.

“If these walls could talk,” Mitchell told the Kalamazoo Gazette wistfully from inside the third-floor studio where he teaches rock music to students ages 8-18 throughout the week.

“I love these crappy old windows,” said Mitchell, who is heading an effort to preserve the factory’s smokestack that says “GIBSON” in white, vertical letters.

Together, the roughly 25 students he teaches through the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock make up four performing bands and one workshop band. Mitchell, who has worked as a band instructor and offered private piano lessons from his home for 25 years, has been in the Gibson building since 2009.

“There’s just so much rich history to this space,” he said. “I jumped when I got a chance to move in here.”

The music-making heritage of the nearly 100-year-old factory now occupied by the Heritage Guitar Co. was also a selling point to some of Mitchell’s students.

“So many people in Kalamazoo don’t even know that this building is here, but it’s a huge deal,” said Zoe Folsom, a 15-year-old keyboardist and vocalist for the KAR’s Wednesday-night band. “I think it’s really impressive that we’re keeping the vitality of the music alive — there’s Heritage guitars downstairs and we’re up here.”

Guitarist Wyatt Hardy, 15, said that before he got started at KAR three years ago he knew the factory used to turn out renowned Gibson guitars, but couldn’t have imagined how it would feel to practice in the space.

“I’m a huge Gibson fan,” he said, noting he has two Gibson guitars himself, a 1995 SG and a 2013 Les Paul.

“There was probably somebody standing right here, building a guitar similar to mine,” he said from inside the old factory. “It’s kind of crazy to think about.”

The band’s other students — drummer Jimbo Bruce, 10; vocalist and keyboardist Sophie Ross, 13; guitarist Colin Jamison, 16, and bassist Sophia Dely, 15 — each said they didn’t know much about the building’s history prior to starting with KAR.

Sophia said her only bit of knowledge came from an older sister who prepped her on Orville Gibson’s ghost, a legend that lingers over occupants of the building to this day despite the fact that Gibson himself never stepped foot in the factory.

“Any time something goes wrong with the equipment, we say it’s the ghost of Orville Gibson,” Mitchell said with a laugh.

The students said they enjoy KAR more than traditional one-on-one lessons they have taken in the past, although Mitchell and the instructors who assist him also spend time individually with students. Primarily a piano and wind instrument teacher at heart, Mitchell’s experience playing in bands and his bachelor’s degree in music education from Western Michigan University make him proficient enough to instruct drummers and guitarists as well.

“He’s great,” vocalist and keyboard player Zoe said of Mitchell. “He’s laid back, but he makes the notes that he needs to. He lets us mess around in between because we know when we have to get serious.”

Mitchell develops diverse set lists covering everything from classic rock to contemporary pop for the band to perform at local gigs every couple of months.

The youngest in the group, Jimbo, said he appreciates that KAR gives him the opportunity to be recognized as a serious drummer when performing publicly.

“It’s nice to know people can be taken seriously because of their passion for music,” he said. “Normally I’m just sitting there playing and when I look out in the crowd my mom’s out there dancing around like a fool.”

As for the factory and its deteriorating but iconic smokestack, Mitchell’s students said they hope they remain to be enjoyed future iterations of the rock academy.

“There’s so much history in that smokestack,” Zoe said. “They can’t just let it go.”