The 19 student members of the University of Missouri–St. Louis Jazz Ensemble have just hit what Jim Widner describes as the trifecta.
Their success, as evidenced by the results of three different blind auditions in recent months, has them preparing to perform at major music conferences around the country.
Next week they’ll travel to Chicago for the international Midwest Clinic, an event that’s been going on since 1946, and they’ll follow that up with appearances at the Jazz Education Network conference in Dallas as well as the annual Missouri Music Educators Association gathering in January.
“Normally, to get one of those, you’re having a good year,” says Widner, UMSL’s director of Jazz Studies. “And to get two is like, ‘Wow.’ But to get all three? I honestly do not know of any other school that has done that.”
It’s not just the coveted venues that have Widner and the student musicians so excited. They’re also anticipating the opportunity to back prominent artists like Dizzy Gillespie disciple Jon Faddis and longtime Army Blues trombonist Harry Watters, among others.
“We’re getting to perform with several world-renowned jazz icons,” Widner explains. “With most bands, you’d be lucky to get to play with maybe one of those people throughout the year. We get all of them.”
Widner, himself a highly acclaimed bassist, joined the Department of Music in 2003 and intends to retire in the summer of 2019, though he emphasizes he won’t be “retiring from life” or from the broader profession he loves.
He’s grown the Jazz Studies program significantly during his time on UMSL’s faculty, developing what was once a single jazz combo into two full big bands – the Jazz Ensemble and the Jazz Lab Band – plus four student combos.
And for students including lead trumpet player Kyle Allen, the experiences and connections that the program provides are making a big difference. Along with opening professional doors around the St. Louis region, the music performance major’s involvement has him exploring new career possibilities beyond the music itself.
“I think these opportunities provide validation to students that they can get excellent results when they apply themselves – especially in the arts and jazz,” Allen says. “So often in our profession we’re asked things like, ‘Are you going to get a real job?’ And experiences like these conferences dispel myths and teach various ways of life maybe once thought unimaginable.”
He offers a few examples, ranging from artist relations and instrument manufacturing to the cruise-ship industry and teaching overseas. One of Allen’s own dreams is to play in Japan, a country he says has an “amazing appreciation” for jazz and is now home to a friend who is teaching English and music there.
The relationships he’s built with fellow UMSL students have also led to various sought-after gigs, as have recommendations by faculty members.
“Gary Brandes got a call needing a trumpet player one day, and he recommended me – turns out it was for Josh Groban,” Allen, now a senior, remembers from a couple years ago. “I went and nailed the gig – and did well enough I got a call the next year and was able to perform a second time with Josh and Sarah McLachlan in Kansas City.”
Widner has enjoyed seeing UMSL students become more passionate and skilled musicians under his and his colleagues’ guidance. He considers them to be “the future of jazz” as well as jazz education, a field he says is thriving due to student demand.
“There’s a real affection for this kind of music from young players, because it’s not so confined,” Widner says. “And I don’t mean that in a negative way. When I attend a wind ensemble concert or symphony orchestra concert, those organizations are just amazing playing that literature. But there’s a difference.”
He experienced the pull of jazz in his own life as a teenager, when a pulsing theme song from the 1960s TV show “Peter Gunn” first drew him in.
“I would go to our neighbor’s house to watch TV, because we didn’t have one,” Widner recalls, “and of course all that great music from Henry Mancini was in that show. That’s what turned me on to it. And it just grew from there.”
He then attended the University of Missouri–Columbia as an undergrad and was a charter member of its first-ever studio jazz band, which started out as jam sessions among Widner and his classmates when they should have been practicing other stuff.
“And a good band it was,” Widner adds.
At UMSL, students benefit from observing him and other teachers in the music department operate in a wide variety of roles. From the classroom to the performance hall, the students learn all sorts of lessons – for the mind, as entertainers and about music itself.
“It’s very fun watching Jim work,” says Allen, who got to travel to China with Widner and several UMSL classmates on a 10-day jazz tour a couple years ago. “He has shown me the importance of tradition through education and how to better connect with people when talking about music and jazz. He says the right thing at the right time, and then everyone just gets it.”
The improvisational, “composing on the spot” nature of jazz makes it something of a mystery to even begin to master.
“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 says. “A lot that goes on with this you can’t find in a textbook. It’s the real thing.”
And it doesn’t get more real than sharing a stage – like Allen and the rest of the UMSL Jazz Ensemble will be in the coming weeks – with some of the biggest names in jazz today.
Widner points out that in addition to the hard work of the ensemble itself, the generosity of donors is key to making the upcoming, high-profile trips possible.
“It does take money to get there, and we’re not swimming in it,” he says. “We were graciously financed for the Chicago trip by an alum who knows the importance and came forward and said, ‘What’s it going to take?’ And that’s beyond wonderful.”
The group is still in need of some funds for the early January trip to Dallas and has set up a UMSL crowdfunding page to that end.
Next on the horizon, in April, is the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival. It’s what Widner describes as the crown jewel of UMSL’s growing Jazz Studies program, which he looks forward to handing off to a successor in the not-so-distant future.
“Somebody’s going to walk into here to find a great program,” he says. “I think this will be very enticing for someone, with the level of the program and the things we get to do and the facilities we have here, like the Touhill.”
And meanwhile, nearly every Friday and Saturday night, St. Louisans are still likely to find Widner at the Cheshire’s Fox & Hounds Tavern, where he’s been the mainstay of a jazz duo for over six years now.
“I’m not retiring from performing, and I’ll still be doing some teaching and clinics and things with high schools and colleges around the country,” Widner says. “But it won’t be the pressures of day-to-day running the entire program, as much as I enjoy it.”