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Weekend edition December 17, 2021 | Kailyn Lamb

Longtime employee takes the reins of beloved music store

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

A small Knoxville business with a reputation for supporting school bands and orchestras in the region changed hands at the end of September when a longtime employee acquired the iconic retailer.

Rush’s Music, located on Chapman Highway just across the Henley Street Bridge and with a smaller location in West Knoxville, is now in the hands of Jason Cooper. He managed the retailer for the past three years and had been an employee for 18 years. More significant, Cooper is only the second non-family owner of the business since the late Bob Rush launched it from his home in 1958 and opened his first retail location on Cumberland Avenue a few years later.

Rush died in 1977, and Willene, his widow, assumed the leadership role for several decades before selling it to Steve Boyce, another longtime employee, in 1998. Cooper bought the retailer from Boyce.

“Our business is helping people make music,” the new owner says, citing a tradition that the founder fully embraced when he launched Rush’s Music with what was then a very bold idea – renting used instruments so that aspiring musicians would not be denied an opportunity to be a musician because of an inability to buy a trumpet, trombone, clarinet, flute, or whatever.

Cooper says a new trumpet probably cost $300 then; today, the cost is about $1,000. As described on the business’ website, Rush started his rental program at $15 dollars for three months. For that fee, individuals were able to rent a quality, used band instrument that also included books, reeds, oils, etc. No one was turned away as long as there were instruments left.

“His goal was to make it (music) more accessible to anyone,” Cooper says. More than six decades later, Bob Rush’s affordable rental program continues to be a hallmark of the business as it serves its primary clientele – schools. Having been a customer of Rush’s Music while growing-up in Clinton, the new owner understands the importance of the rental program and has no plans to change it.

So, how did Cooper become a longtime employee and eventual owner of the business?

“I did not want to be a band director or teacher,” he says, so he accepted a position as a Road Representative for Rush’s Music after graduating from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “I visited schools in Sevier, Greene, Anderson and Loudon Counties and sometimes Crossville.” Those visits involved sales, instrument repairs and rentals.

“I really enjoyed visiting schools,” Cooper adds. It also helped that, in his words, “I can play almost any instrument.”

With 18 years of history at the company, he is fully supportive of its historical mission and its role in supporting Knoxville’s strong musical heritage.

“We do a lot of outreach,” Cooper says. In addition to schools that benefit from donations of instruments and sheets of music, other organizations that enjoy support from Rush’s Music include the Knoxville Symphony Society Inc., Knoxville Choral Society, and the East Tennessee School Band and Orchestra Association.

In that regard, Mark Brumbelow, PYA’s Managing Principal for Tax, had nothing but praise for the Rush legacy of service to the community. He knows the impact firsthand . . . from his days as a member of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville band to now as President of the Choral Society.

“Music for me has been a passionate pursuit of lifelong learning, and Rush’s contributions to our community to that end have been evident in a number of places,” Brumbelow says. “They have sponsored and supported a number of concerts and musical organizations over the years, but most importantly, they have equipped people of all ages with the instruments and equipment they need to do so.”

Recalling the first time that he sat at a piano as a four-year-old all the way through today, Brumbelow said, “Music is the foundation for so many relationships in my life – and my relationship with Cooper is no different.  Twenty-seven years from when we first met in the Pride of the Southland, we are still part of the same musical community.”

Cooper gave us a quick tour of the Chapman Highway store and another history lesson, noting that Rush’s Music is probably the longest continual serving dealer for the Holton brand of instruments in the country. It was the first line of instruments that Bob Rush started selling. Today, the business’ mainline of instruments is Yamaha.

As he embraces the legacy that Bob Rush established, Cooper also reflects on the future. “Just like band has changed over the years, we will also make some changes,” he says.

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