Music Memories Column: Nick Leist and Pat Schwent

For many years, Nick Leist and Pat Schwent were the “dynamic duo” of the Jackson Band program. Nick passed away in 2015, and we recently lost Pat to cancer in November 2023.

They were the best personality mix for dealing with rambunctious junior high and high school kids: Nick was an easygoing, Santa Claus type of guy, while Patricia was an intense, high-energy director. Kids respectfully called her “Sarge.”

Nick was born and raised in Illmo, Mo. After graduating from Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) in 1962, he directed bands in Advance, Mo.; Hayti, Mo.; and Caruthersville, Mo., before he came to Jackson in 1968.

Pat Schwent of the Pat Schwent & Her German Bierfass Band laughs after finishing a song during the Uptown Jackson Oktoberfest, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015.
Southeast Missourian file

Years ago, he shared a great story with me about his earliest days in Jackson. At first, he was very apprehensive about leaving his Caruthersville job. In his first year at Jackson, he was having an issue with a young brass player in the band. So, he called the student’s momma, who was a stout farmer lady with a pronounced German accent.

After talking with her about the problem, her response was, “It took all my egg money to buy that horn, by Gott, he’s going to play the %%#@ thing!!” At that point, Nick realized with that level of parental support, he was in the right place and remained as head director until he retired.

Nick also directed the Jackson Municipal Band for 42 years. The Jackson Band Shell is named after him.

Nick Leist demonstrated a trombone at Shivelbines Music in 2007 where the retired music educator worked part-time by calling on area band directors.
Southeast Missourian file

When my family and I returned to Cape from South Carolina in 1991, Nick Leist was the first local music person I connected with.

In the first week we moved in, he showed up at my front door, introduced himself, and asked if I’d be a guest and come play at Jackson Municipal Band.

As we visited, my youngest daughter who was just a year old at the time climbed up into his lap. I remember how he beamed and said, “Steve, you’ve got a million-dollar family!” He was right; I do.

Pat Schwent was cool. She grew up in Ste. Genevieve and played saxophone in her big sister Brenda’s all-girl band “The Swing Tones.” They played the dance club circuit all throughout Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois.

Pat was the jazz band director at Jackson High School and developed a phenomenal program. Her kids routinely filled seats in Missouri All-State Jazz and Concert Bands.

She had enormous respect for musicians who could improvise, regardless of the genre. Jazz, rock, country, blues or bluegrass — didn’t matter. If she and her husband Tim were out and about and came up on a live band, chances were good she’d be talking to the fellows about how they went about processing “licks” and playing over chord changes.

In retirement, Pat continued her study of jazz music and took lessons with jazz players all over the U.S. to further develop her — already amazing — chops. She put together several combinations of bands. She and pianist Pete Parysek formed a jazz duo and performed the winery circuit. I had a lot of fun playing some gigs in a ginormous Motown band she put together. In most combinations of bands, Pat was the only female and was always regarded as “one of the guys.”

In the spring of 2008, I asked Pat to play in the pit orchestra for our Cape Central High School production of “Grease.” Rehearsing and performing with a consummate pro like Schwent was an invaluable experience for the student musicians in the pit. Pat was always the first to rehearsal. In 2017, Schwent retired from playing completely and devoted herself to her grandkids, biking, trout fishing and volunteering at Immaculate Conception Church.

Due to their work ethic and commitment to the band program, it continued to grow, along with the population growth in Jackson in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The “dynamic duo” convinced Jackson school officials a third director was needed. Scott Vanguilder, who was a former student of Nick’s and a SEMO grad, was added to the team in 1984.

Jackson’s band program was the first three-director program in Southeast Missouri. Pat Schwent and Nick Leist taught together for a total of 27 years and touched thousands of lives. How do you put a value on a legacy like that? You can’t.

Like the commercial says, “It’s priceless.”

Steve Schaffner is the director of the Music Academy at Southeast Missouri State University. Previously, he was the orchestra director for Cape Girardeau Public Schools and Davidson Fine Arts Magnet School in Augusta, Ga. He has performed and/or directed in 48 states and 11 countries.