By GWEN OREL
When Jack Suarez Kimmel, now 11, was a toddler, he ditched children’s music.
He wanted to listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana and other groups his parents liked.
“We have videos of him when he was little singing along to Jay-Z,” said his mother, Aleida Kimmel. When Jack was 6, his parents looked into guitar lessons for him, and were told to wait two years.
“OK, I’m 8,” Jack said on his birthday. He enrolled in School of Rock Montclair, and never looked back.
“About a year ago, he said, ‘I play drums now,’” his mom said with a laugh. “He taught himself.”
Jack and his parents spoke to us from their car, as they drove to Dallas for the final leg of the national tour of the Broadway musical “School of Rock.” He’s been on the road for six months. A swing performer, he covers five roles in the Broadway smash. In September, he’ll return to Edison Middle School in West Orange to begin sixth grade. His parents stopped at a store at one point to pick up some school clothes.
“I always wanted to play guitar,” Jack said. “It was that one instrument where you’re going really fast, a lot of notes per a second.”
At School of Rock Montclair, which he joined in 2015, Jack has studied with Montclair’s James Stivaly, a recording studio owner and founder of the indie metal band Organ Dealer.Jack had “a very natural tempo and rhythm,” Stivaly said. “I didn’t have to explain certain aspects of feeling the music.”
Jack went right from “Basic Rock 101” to the “intermediate-advanced” performance group, skipping the beginning performance group. When a kid can come in and six months later play at extreme speed, it’s not an issue to skip a step, Stivaly said.
“He fell in love with megadeth and bands that play very fast,” Stivaly said. Jack fell in love with metal and began performing in concerts that were tributes to ACDC, Motorhead vs. Thin Lizzy and others. “The most impressive thing about Jack was how unafraid he was to express himself onstage,” Stivaly said.
Finding one’s own voice and becoming expressive is one of the biggest things School of Rock teaches, and Stivaly could see James had already done that.
“He definitely wants to be a rock star,” Stivaly said with a laugh. “Students who want to do the crazy shreddy guitar solos are very extroverted.”
Jack found out about the audition for “School of Rock” from an older kid who was too old to audition for the Broadway show, his mother said. His parents brought him to the open audition in New York City in November, and sent in an online video submission.
“We kind of forgot about it,” his mother said. “We thought the audition was fun and exciting, but there would be a very small chance anything would happen after that.” His teacher, on the other hand, said he was “extremely confident” Jack would be cast in the Broadway show. After all, Jack had taught himself drums, picked up the bass too, had a good understanding of music theory from his classes, and was confident on stage.
Many of the students at School of Rock Montclair come from Broadway and theatrical parents, Stivaly said. “We get a lot of theater kids.”
Jack, however, isn’t one of them. His dad is a former high school principal who now works for an education nonprofit and his mom teaches preschool. Neither are professional musicians, though there is always music in the house. Jack got a callback in January. He was given music to learn. He practiced his secondary instruments.
A week after the callback, he was cast.
“I was running around screaming, running into windows, getting onto couches,” Jack said. “Then my throat really hurt, but it was worth it.”
The family had two weeks to get ready. “We hit the road on Feb. 12,” said Brett Kimmel, Jack’s dad.
Aleida Kimmel stayed home with the Jack’s little sister, Liana, 5, and joined the family on the road when school ended, going out to visit the touring Kimmels every few weeks.
Liana is too young for lessons, but, said Aleida Kimmel, “our basement is slowly turning into music studio. There are guitars, keyboards. She loves to play along with her brother.”
Jack worked with tutors on the road, as did the other kids in the show. He got to meet Jack Black, who starred in the 2003 movie “School of Rock,” and the musical “School of Rock” composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. He’s visited many American cities: Cincinnati, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco. His first stop in February was Austin, and he loved getting out of the New Jersey winter to the balmy climate of Texas.
The company stays in the same hotels, and often carpools to the theater, and he’s enjoyed that closeness, he said.
And yet, he missed his friends and family. “I got to go home for a night on a travel day from Philadelphia to Buffalo,” Jack said. “I went to school that day and hung out with [my friends] at recess. It was like nothing had changed. They were super excited to see me. We played kickball.” He saw his Maine Coon cat, Mia. He looks forward to cuddling with her.
“It will be fun to get back to normal life, waking up early, doing homework, going to bed at a normal time,” he said. It’s not so much that he looks forward to getting up early, as just getting back to it, he explained.
“He’s excited to start sixth grade,” said Aleida Kimmel. “We’re excited to sleep in our beds again.”