Jim Widner was all set to start the UMSL Jazz Ensemble off on its final piece of the night, the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan,” during its performance at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on Saturday.
The jazz ensemble would be playing one more tune that night, one that was not on the program: “Mister Quarter Note,” a chart commissioned by Widner’s students and written in his honor by friend and fellow bass player John Clayton.
Widner, the UMSL director of jazz studies, is retiring from teaching this year. Saturday night’s concert marked the end of the latest edition of the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival, which Widner founded and has directed every year since 2004.
Every jazz player worth his salt knows how to improvise. Widner just had no idea this particular variation was on the docket.
“The emotions were on overdrive at that point,” Widner said. “It was appreciated more than they will ever know.”
This year’s Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival doubled as a celebration of Widner’s time at UMSL and influence on young musicians in the St. Louis region. He started the festival as a one-day event and grew it into what it is today: a place where more than 1,100 area middle and high school jazz musicians in big bands and combos can come to play for, and learn from, some of the top professional jazz musicians over four days.
Each band got the chance to perform for two adjudicators – who recorded their thoughts and suggestions for improvement during the performance – then got a 1-on-1 session with a clinician to go over particular parts of their program.
“I like doing this stuff because I feel like I’m passing on the cultural legacy of our country,” said Aaron Lington, a Grammy Award-winning baritone saxophonist and professor at San Jose State University who served as a clinician. “To be able to work with young players who are getting into the music and trying to get better at it is just fun.”
The festival also included three straight nights of concerts from a 24-member UMSL alumni jazz band Thursday night, the DIVA Jazz Orchestra on Friday and a 16-piece all-star big band Saturday night.
The all-star band was directed by drummer Gregg Field, a former student of Widner’s, and included big-time artists such as Tom Scott, Scotty Barnhart, Gordon Goodwin, Eric Marienthal, Carlitos del Puerto and Shelly Berg.
Pete Madsen, a trombonist in the all-star band and an adjudicator at this year’s festival, got his first professional gig as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri–Columbia in a band Widner led.
“My entire career, Jim has been a mentor and teacher. Some of the real highlights of my musical career are because of Jim,” said Madsen, coordinator of jazz studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “I’ve learned how to treat people from watching Jim and how he runs things. To be here and help him celebrate his accomplishments at UMSL is really special to me. I had to juggle a lot of things at home to be able to make it, and I’m really glad I did.”
Widner and the UMSL Jazz Ensemble performed both Friday and Saturday nights, setting the stage for “Mr. Quarter Note.”
Brandes said the band received the sheet music just two weeks before the show and only had the chance to rehearse it once.
“I tried to figure out when they were rehearsing it because I didn’t miss any rehearsals,” Widner said. “They pulled off the ginormous surprise.”
An even bigger surprise than the one he received just two days earlier, when Mayor Lyda Krewson officially proclaimed April 11, 2019, as Jim Widner Jazz Education Day in St. Louis.
Widner will pass off a nationally known festival to his successor, along with a legacy of fostering a love of jazz in the next generation. He also has been instrumental in securing outside support for the UMSL jazz program, such as the lead gift from the Steward Family Foundation last July to establish the David & Thelma Steward Institute for Jazz Studies.
And he’s not quite done yet.
“What a great way to end the year and a career,” Widner said. “It’s a great way to go out swinging.”