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Teacher who died suddenly at school remembered for passing his love of music to another generation

Derek Cleveland was an active member of the Clark Atlanta University Jazz Orchestra and worked to pass his love of music to all his students.

SOUTH FULTON, Ga. — The Clark Atlanta University Jazz Orchestra will perform at funeral services for elementary school music teacher Derek Cleveland on Saturday at Atlanta's Flipper AME Church.

Cleveland died suddenly while at A. Philip Randolph Elementary School in South Fulton last Friday, according to a letter to parents and students from school principal Marissa Wilson. 

The much-loved music teacher died from a heart attack at the age of 59.

"Mr. Cleveland has been a part of the Randolph School community for many years and was a beloved teacher and colleague," Wilson said in the letter.

The Atlanta native and music teacher was an active part of the world-renowned jazz orchestra while he was a student at Clark Atlanta.

Cleveland's passion for music developed at an early age, according to Jolene Butts Freeman, the city of South Fulton's former director of communications and external affairs.

According to his obituary, Cleveland began taking music lessons at the age of 12, while attending Collier Heights Elementary School -- learning to play to trumpet.

RELATED: Fulton County Elementary teacher dies at school

In 1979, Cleveland graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, where he was a member of the school's Marching Astros band and their concert band.

Following his high school graduation, Cleveland received a music scholarship to Clark Atlanta, where his music skills continued to be perfected and fine-tuned over the years under the tutelage of many musicians and professors at the university, the obituary said.

In addition, Cleveland joined the Clark Atlanta Marching Band as well as the critically acclaimed Clark Atlanta University Jazz Orchestra. While with the orchestra, Cleveland toured Europe, playing trumpet with a number of jazz greats including Joe Sample, Branford Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Marsalis.

After receiving numerous awards and accolades for his musical skill, Derek earned his Bachelor's Degree in Music from Clark Atlanta in 1984.

In subsequent years, he played and toured with the Atlanta-based African American Philharmonic Orchestra along with several R&B bands and jazz ensembles. Derek also played with his church band at Atlanta's Shrine of the Black Madonna Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church.

Bandmate and friend Phil Davis said that when he got the call that Cleveland had died, it was a shock.

"He was kind-hearted and a great musician," Davis said.

They had first played together in 1986 when Derek came back to play at his alma mater. Davis said they played with a variety of jazz greats. 

"Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Joe Sample," Davis said. 

But Cleveland loved playing the most with his students.

According to his obituary, Cleveland followed in his father's footsteps for his career, and became an educator. Music education was a natural fit, given his background.

Returning to his Atlanta roots, his more than 25-year-long career began in the Atlanta Public Schools before moving to the Fulton County Schools

Over the years, Cleveland taught at Kennedy Middle School in Atlanta, Woodland Middle School in East Point, and A. Philip Randolph Elementary School in South Fulton, passing on his love of music to a new generation of youth

"Derek was inspired and enthusiastic about the music," Davis said. "It makes young musicians also enthusiastic."

He said that Cleveland will be remembered for inspiring the next generation

Derek was committed to making a difference in the lives of his students, wanting them to develop an appreciation for music.

"There are very few public schools teaching music at that level and he was one of them," Davis said. "So, his legacy is keeping the music alive."

Additionally, he worked part-time at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than 20 years. Derek enjoyed basketball and was avid reader of books encompassing African American history and ideology.

Davis said that when the jazz orchestra plays at Cleveland's funeral on Saturday, it will the first time they've performed together since the pandemic.