Music man honored as 2008 Ypsilanti Heritage Fellow for his work with kids

Posted by Susan Oppat | The Ann Arbor News August 14, 2008 13:03PM


Bill Hayes uses the basement of his Ypsilanti home to compose music and orchestrate existing classical music for his collection of young musicians, many of whom would not otherwise have a chance to play in an orchestra.

"He works harder now than he did before he retired."
- Verna Rollins Hayes, on her husband.

Not just anyone can take the latest hip-hop hit and turn it into a concerto - let alone do it for free to give teenagers a shot at playing in an actual orchestra.

But Bill Hayes' Ypsilanti basement is a testament to his devotion to area children. It's stacked high with violins of all sizes, down to 1/16th-size for the youngest children, and has boxes and pails full of string bows and piles of extra violin cases.

In a tiny room there, Hayes' computer is wired to an electronic keyboard, on which he composes music and orchestrates existing classical music to fit the ranges and instruments of his budding musicians. Many are children from low-income homes who would not otherwise have a chance to play in an orchestra.

Ypsilanti Heritage Fellow

Name: Bill Hayes.

Age: 64.

Family: Wife, Verna Rollins Hayes; three grown children.

Work: Jazz bassist and retired Ypsilanti High School and West Middle School orchestra teacher; co-founder of Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra in 1997; conductor of professional River Raisin Ragtime Revue and member of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra's board of directors.

Motto: "Do it. Do it right. Do it right now."

Information: The Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra, a nonprofit offering free orchestra experience for children and scholarships for tutors and to music camp.

The Ann Arbor News has named Hayes the 2008 Ypsilanti Heritage Fellow for his commitment to young people in the Ypsilanti area. The News will donate $500 to the charity of his choice, and Hayes will be recognized during Saturday's Ypsilanti Heritage Festival parade. The festival runs Friday through Sunday.

Hayes was born in Carbondale, Ill., one of 10 children who all now have at least a bachelor's degree - no small feat in those days for African-Americans. His mother was a cook and a seamstress, and his father was a railroad laborer.

Eurma Hayes "was not soft, but she made sure we had what we needed," Hayes recalled.

And that went for the neighborhood children who spent time with the Hayes kids on the family's extra lot.

Eventually, Eurma Hayes was called to a White House community center summit by then-President Richard M. Nixon, after a local neighborhood center was named in her honor for her work with area children.

It never occurred to Hayes that he would follow in her footsteps. But after attending college on a tuba scholarship, he ended up playing jazz bass and teaching orchestra classes with children in Illinois, Bermuda, Traverse City and Ypsilanti schools before retiring in 2004.

In 1997, Hayes cofounded the Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra, a nonprofit that offers free orchestra experience to children, and scholarships for tutors and music camp.

Some of his students led Hayes to his wife, a fellow teacher at West Middle School.

The students decided the two teachers belonged together, and carved her phone number into his piano.

Hayes and Verna Rollins, who taught English in the district for 39 years, have been married for a little over three years.

The couple finish each other's sentences, and she keeps a scrapbook of Hayes' accomplishments with the children and with the Ypsilanti Youth Orchestra while she conducts the group's business.

Contact reporter Susan Oppat at
or 734-482-1166.

The scrapbook highlights the hip-hop concerto the orchestra played this spring, a performance at a wedding this summer and a performance at the University of Michigan Medical Center. Hayes also visits classrooms to discuss the history of ragtime and jazz music and how music influences society.

Hayes uses music to reach out to seniors, too, playing bass for local senior residences, the Kiwanis and in the choir at First Baptist Church in Ypsilanti.

Why does Hayes do all of that - when he hasn't had time to add to his personal book of jazz, rag and orchestral music?

Verna Rollins Hayes has a take on it.

"The 't' in 'retired' should be an 'f,' as in 'refired,' for 'fired up.' He works harder now than he did before he retired," she said. "He has more time now to work with the children, with all of the passion, without all of the politics of a school district."