First Jazz Ensemble European tour last act for Jim Widner
Members of the University of Missouri–St. Louis Jazz Ensemble walked into practice to find something different on their music stands: a three-page handout with instructions to not turn the page.
“It was like one of those timed tests you used to take in high school where you can’t start right away,” said Jim Widner, UMSL director of jazz studies and teaching professor of music, describing how the students’ curiosity built as he made them wait before turning the first page and then the second.
The third page was an itinerary: Vienne, France; Perugia, Italy; and Ronciglione, Italy.
“It kind of blew them away,” Widner said with a smile. “It blew their minds.”
The ensemble was traveling abroad for its first-ever European tour – a trip made even more poignant as it represented Widner’s last act as director before retiring from a 16-year career at UMSL. The group played the Vienne Jazz festival on July 11, opened the Umbria Jazz Festival on July 12 and finished their tour on July 15 at the Big Band Festival in Ronciglione, a small town outside Rome.
Unbeknownst to the 18 band members, Widner started planning the trip a year ago. The Vienne and Umbria festivals, along with one in Montreux, Switzerland, had invited the ensemble to play. The invitation was a significant honor, and though the group had had blockbuster years, they had never played abroad.
“No. 1, it’s an opportunity for our students to get to perform on an international stage, which brings more credence and attention to our program,” Widner said. “I figured the band certainly needed to be recognized on a wider scope.”
Even if this hadn’t been his last year, Widner believed this was the group to represent the university.
“They’re dedicated,” he explained. “They work hard. For most of the students in the band, this was maybe the fourth year that most of them had been in it, so there was a camaraderie there that you don’t normally get. They came together musically. They came together personality wise, and it was just our time.”
For many of the students, it was an opportunity to leave the United States – or even Missouri – for the first time. Abroad, they learned the logistics of traveling, such as finding ways to communicate, changing money, small European hotel rooms and more.
The differences between home and Europe struck the students.
“It’s like an alternative reality,” said saxophonist Trae Riley, a senior studying special education. “Everything is the same but just a little bit different. It’s eye opening to go to a different culture. I think in the United States, we have a very us and them mentality. I learned over there that people are people. It’s not very different from how we live.”
Riley noted the lack of pickup trucks and was amused by square toilets. Then there was the music. European jazz tended toward combos, groups of five or six musicians, which contrasted with the UMSL ensemble’s big band set up – an 18-piece group comprised of saxophones, trombones, trumpets and a rhythm section.
But it was the Italian and French attitudes toward music and jazz that left a lasting impression.
“They love our music more than we do here,” said Dan Callihan, a trumpet player who is wrapping up his music performance degree this summer. “They love jazz. We were treated like little rock stars there, and that was probably the greatest feeling I’ve ever had.”
The audiences abroad were extremely appreciative. In Perugia, where the group opened the Umbria festival, Riley recalled how the festival stage sat in the middle of a piazza surrounded by street vendors who stopped their activities to listen, spellbound, even during soundcheck.
The students also found themselves enchanted by the festivals’ other musicians, especially during the Umbria festival. Their badges allowed them free-range access to backstage areas where they could listen to shows, meet fellow musicians and feel like a significant part of the culture.
“Some of my favorite moments were the big festivals and playing them,” Riley said. “Those were obviously great, memorable moments. But I think the takeaways I have were how much fun it was to go hang out with the band for an extended period of time. We even had fun when we were on a charter bus for nine hours. It was just cool for us to have an excuse to get together and hang out for a while.”
The experience was all the more meaningful because of Widner’s impending departure. The students wanted to make it the best possible experience for him.
“It was a big thing for a lot of us,” said Callihan. “We wanted to make sure that Jim went out on the highest note that you can possibly go out on, and I think we delivered that for him. We all love and admire Jim. I’m very fortunate and blessed to be able to say that I was Jim Widner’s last lead trumpet player before he rode off into the sunset.”
The tour was led by Widner along with Associate Director Ken Kehner and Associate Director Gary Brandes, and the participants were (saxophone) Nick Brothers, David Aubuchon, Trae Riley, Anna Norris and Brandon Vestal; (trumpet) Dan Callihan, Tim Warren, David Sedlock and Jacob Burgdorf; (trombone) Jordan Epperson, Eric Menderski and Simon Hart; (rhythm section) Ethan Saake (piano), Mike Owens (base), Nick Ayala (guitar), Dietrich Plyler and Desiree Jones (drums).
Widner extends his thanks to Chancellor Tom George, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Kristin Sobolik, Director of the School Fine and Performing Arts Barbara Harbach, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Andrew Kersten, Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Curt Coonrod and Executive Director of UMSL Global George Sipos. Their support made the trip possible.
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