Phil Mattson was already considered an innovator in the music industry when he changed the way the music was taught at Southwestern Community College.
When Mattson started his career at SWCC in 1991, the school had a traditional program which prepared students to transfer to a four-year program.
Known as the “School for Music Vocations”, Mattson’s new program was unique in the field of music education because it was a career and technical program, meaning students who graduated were prepared to enter the workforce immediately upon graduation.
“There was a program at SWCC that was a very good music program led by Dick Baumann back in the day,” said SWCC music instructor Jeremy Fox. “It’s not that it became a better music program, but it became a very different music program when Phil arrived.”
Mattson retired from teaching in 2008
“We have been fortunate over the years since Phil’s retirement to have strong leadership for the program through Jeremy Fox, Lucas Mattson, Jason Smith and other,” said SWCC president Barbara Crittenden.
Mattson, who was living in California, died Jan. 9 from complications related to a 2015 motorcycle accident. He was 80-years-old.
Mattson was born in Brainerd, Minnesota where he found inspiration in high school choir director, Kurt Hanson.
“Phil always credited him as being one of the most important people of his childhood that helped him develop musically,” said Fox. “He decided to pursue music as a career because of Kurt Hanson.”
Before coming to Creston and taking over the music program at SWCC, Mattson owned and operated The Phil Mattson School in Spokane, Washington where he taught many of the same classes now taught at SWCC. Mattson also taught at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington, and served as director of choral activities at Foothill College in California and Gonzaga University in Washington.
Mattson devoted his life to music and was well known in the jazz community as an accomplished pianist, arranger, conductor and teacher. He was nominated twice for a Grammy and his resume includes arrangement for groups such as the Manhattan Transfer, Chanticleer, The Dale Warland Singers and the Clarion Chamber Chorale.
“Phil was a world-class arranger,” said Fox. “He’s written for some of the finest choirs and small vocal ensembles in the world.”
Music wasn’t Mattson’s only passion. He was also an avid Harley Davidson rider.
“It’s one of the unique awesome things about Phil,” said Fox. “He earned the Iron Butt Award for riding the greatest number of miles on a Harley. I think it was somewhere around 30,000 miles in 30 days. It was amazing. He really lived life to the fullest and did so many things that so many people would just dream of doing.”
Fox was a student of Mattson’s before he became an instructor for the SWCC music program.
He said he first discovered Mattson through one of the many summer workshops Mattson used to host. When he found out Mattson had an entire program at SWCC, he signed up immediately.
“I just decided to move from Indiana and Illinois out to Creston to start school two weeks later,” said Fox. “He was just a magnetic personality. He changed a lot of lives both at SWCC and before that.”
Fox said he attended a music convention shortly after Mattson died and asked a room of nearly 200 musicians if they had ever been a student, been inspired by, or sung a song arranged by Mattson and more than 75 percent of them stood up.
“Phil was clearly very talented, and he was passionate about assisting others to reach their potential in the field of music,” said Crittenden. “I have been amazed by the talent of the students we have the opportunity to work with through this program.”
“I can’t understate how important he has been to choral music and to vocal jazz,” said Fox. “He was an icon.”