Updated Friday, April 25, 2014 to include audio from Cityscape.
On April 17, 2004, the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival debuted on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
That one-day event was the brainchild of Jim Widner, who had been named director of jazz studies and artist in residence at UMSL the year before. It was a tentative first step to create an annual jazz festival on the campus. In addition to presenting a public performance that night at the Touhill, Widner’s goal was to establish a festival format that balanced public performances by top-flight jazz musicians with a strong educational component aimed at student in high school and college music programs.
In 2014, the 11th annual Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival includes a three-day run of performances and music clinics from April 24 through April 26. The festival features evening concerts at the Touhill that showcase trumpeter Arturo Sandoval on Friday and the Count Basie Orchestra on Saturday. In addition, a Thursday evening performance at Jazz at the Bistro will spotlight pianist Reggie Thomas, bassist Rodney Whitaker and outstanding St. Louis-based musicians Willie Akins on saxophone and Montez Coleman on drums.
But much more is going on in terms of music education for the 30-plus high school and college bands -- and hundreds of students -- attending the festival.
“We’re going to expand to three days of big band performances and clinics,” Widner said in a recent telephone interview from his office on the UMSL campus. “That will give all the big bands the chance to perform at the Anheuser Busch Hall – and also allow plenty of time for our jazz clinicians to talk to and coach each band in the Lee Theater after their performances in the main hall. And, of course, we’ll still be doing jazz combo clinics all day Thursday with Reggie Thomas and Rodney Whitaker working with the students.”
Widner’s music-education balance
Like the festival, which balances public performances by name musicians with education, Widner’s resume includes both strong music education credentials and an impressive professional reputation as a top tier bassist and bandleader.
Widner began as a musician in his hometown of Lebanon, Mo., about halfway between Rolla and Springfield. Starting on cello and sousaphone, Widner decided to concentrate on playing bass in high school. He enrolled at the University of Missouri Columbia and playes in the Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and Glenn Miller bands. By the early 1990s, Widner was leading his own big band.
Widner’s career as a jazz educator also goes back decades. He began teaching jazz at the famed Stan Kenton Clinics in 1967 while he was still a student Mizzou. Widner continued with that program and eventually took over the management of the summer Jazz Clinics in the 1970s until Kenton’s death in 1979.
In 1988, Widner started his own annual jazz camps; basing his approach in the Kenton method he had learned over the years. Widner’s band camps will be into their 27th consecutive year this summer.
Now that the Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival has grown and established itself as an annual event on the music calendar, the event seems to have settled into a three-day format of clinics and performances. But as Widner said, the work doesn’t end.
“It seems like when one festival is over, we’re already thinking about the next one,” Widner said. “But it’s been great to have Jazz St. Louis involved in helping us put it all together.” That organization hosts the Thursday night concert at Jazz at the Bistro and books the headliners for Friday and Saturday.
A matter of balance
Much as he tries to balance the educational and public performance aspects of the festival, Widner said it’s very important to find balance in the name musicians who headline the evening concerts at the Touhill.
“The biggest consideration with our headliners for Friday and Saturday nights is to try to appeal to different audiences,” he said. “Last year, our Friday headliners were the Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour Band, which was filled with great musicians like Christian McBride, Benny Green and Dee Dee Bridgewater. We balanced that out with Doc Severinsen and his Big Band to close things out on Saturday. So we had two different genres of jazz – performed by musicians from different generations.”
Widner believes the festival will again appeal to a wide range of music fans.
“We’ve got a good mix again this time, with the great trumpeter Arturo Sandoval on Friday and the Count Basie Orchestra Saturday,” he states. “Arturo is Arturo. What can you say about a musician who has won 10 Grammys and is such a master of his instrument? What’s incredible to me is that most people don’t know that Arturo is also an amazing pianist.
“But there are very few people who can approach what he can do on the trumpet in terms of range and technique. One of the few I can think of was the great Maynard Ferguson. And I recall in 2003 when the Touhill first opened, hearing Arturo and Maynard [playing together on stage there]. So Arturo coming back will be something special.”
Widner sees the choice of the Count Basie Orchestra as a great bridge between the evening performances and the educational aspect of the festival.
“The Basie Orchestra continues to set the standard for other big bands to follow,” he says. “When we’re working with students in an educational setting, we try and get them to play Basie’s music. When you throw that at them and they can play it and handle it well, you know they can play anything. Once a music student can master that style, they’re definitely on the right path.”
Building student benefits
Widner is also enthusiastic about the professional jazz clinicians he has lined up to work with students. In addition to Thomas and Whitaker who will be working with combos, he has tenor saxophonist Charles “Chip” McNeill; composer, arranger and conductor Alan Baylock; and pianist and composer Matt Harris.
“Chip is a professor and chair of jazz studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana,” Widner said, “and he also toured and recorded with Arturo Sandoval. So I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up playing with Arturo Friday. Alan Baylock is the chief arranger for the great Airmen of Note ensemble, and he’s worked with almost anyone you could name. Matt Harris is the professor of jazz performance at Cal State Northridge, and he’s worked with Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich and many others. So it’s an impressive group.”
As usual, UMSL’s Jazz Ensemble will serve as the opening act for both Sandoval and the Count Basie Orchestra on Friday and Saturday at the Touhill. And for Widner, that’s always a special moment for both his students in the university’s jazz program – as well as himself.
“I know I sound like a broken record, because I say this every year,” Widner said. “The festival is really a crown jewel for the jazz program here at UMSL. First of all, it’s just an amazing thrill for the Ensemble to share the stage with great musicians like Arturo and the Basie orchestra. In fact, Arturo is going to come out and play a number with the ensemble before his own set.
“But the festival also is a great way to showcase the jazz program here and the way it’s grown. When I first got here, there was only one jazz combo in the program. Now we have five combos and two big bands. And we’re getting more notice outside of St. Louis. Three years ago we played the Notre Dame Jazz Festival. Two years ago, we were one of only three bands from the U.S. selected to perform at the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. And this year, we’re the only college band selected to perform at the annual Missouri Music Educators’ Conference.
So I guess you could say we’ve arrived. And this festival is very much a part of that.”
For more information about the 11th annual greater St. Louis jazz festival, go to: www.gsljazzfest.com. Admission is free for all student combo performances at the UMSL Student Center on April 24, as well as the student big band performances April 24-26.
Who: Reggie Thomas, Rodney Whitaker, Willie Akins & Montez Coleman
- When: 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. April 24
- Where: Jazz at the Bistro, 3536 Washington Ave.
- Tickets: $33. 314-289-4030 or www.metrotix.com
Who: Arturo Sandoval, UMSL Jazz Ensemble opens the concert
- When: 8 p.m. April 25
- Where: Anheuser Busch Performance Hall, Touhill Performing Arts Center, UMSL
- Tickets: $20 & $40, www.touhill.org or 314-516-4949
Who: Count Basie Orchestra, UMSL Jazz Ensemble opens the concert
- When: 8 p.m. April 26
- Where Anheuser Busch Performance Hall, Touhill Performing Arts Center, UMSL
- Tickets: $20 & $40, www.touhill.org or 314-516-4949