He’s got rhythm: Jim Widner named Outstanding Jazz Educator for second time

Jim Widner

The Missouri Association for Jazz Education honored UMSL Jazz Studies Director Jim Widner with the 2018 Outstanding Jazz Educator Award. It’s the second time he’s won the award, which recognizes an individual’s outstanding contribution to jazz education. He also won it in 1990. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Jim Widner never expected to win the Missouri Association for Jazz Education’s Outstanding Jazz Educator Award – not in 1990 nor again in 2018.

“Guess they went around to everybody and couldn’t find somebody else,” teased Widner, an esteemed bassist and the director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

MOAJE presented him with the award at the Missouri Music Educators Association Conference in January. In recognition of an individual’s outstanding contributions to jazz education, the award isn’t known for having repeat recipients.

But considering the banner year Widner and the UMSL jazz program are having, alongside the years of effort Widner spent growing the UMSL jazz program into an internationally regarded ensemble, the repeat makes sense.

“It’s up to people like myself and folks I work with to pass what we have, the experience that we have, on to them,” Widner told UMSL Daily in a recent article.

Igniting the love of jazz in the next generation and the one after that continues to drive Widner as a jazz educator. He says the music form allows students a whole new way to express themselves – a freeing from rigidity that they enjoy.

“It’s like learning a foreign language,” Widner said. “I have to speak it to them.”

He began to skat: “Schwee-bee-doo-bee-doo.”

His students learn stylizing, concept and phrasing. And Widner also focuses on the jazz mindset – teaching them not to think themselves out of the business and learning to play what feels right.

“I do it ’cause that’s what I enjoy,” he said. “It’s more than having the knowledge. You have to have a passion for it.”

Widner says that’s especially the case because music education of any kind isn’t an 8-to-5 job. He often comes in early and leaves late to help students squeeze in practice sessions or offer precollegiate jazz opportunities to middle and high school students.

Take, for example, the annual UMSL Jazz Camp that Widner puts on in the summers. He’s modeled the weeklong camp off of jazz musician Stan Kenton’s famous line: “Take a bath in jazz.” It’s an intense immersion in the music and one of Widner’s favorite teaching opportunities, especially the improvisation class and final performance.

“To hear a student improvise for the very first time, because they’ve never done it, especially in public before, that takes courage,” he said. “And that’s my big pay off.”

Widner joined the Department of Music in 2003 and intends to retire in the summer of 2019, although you’ll still find him performing around town.

“You know when you’ve reached a time where you have to bring someone in to take it to the next level,” Widner said. “I know it’s my time, and I have to believe that someone will step in to this thriving program and really make it swing.”

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