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Celebrating Hendrix with some Miles

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 8, 2012 - This Thursday evening Nov. 8, students, faculty and jazz fans from around the area will gather at venerable Holmes Lounge in Ridgley Hall on the Washington University Quadrangle from 8-10 p.m. to hear a performance by members of the University’s Jazz Studies faculty and special guests honoring legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix on what would have been his 70th birthday.

William Lenihan, director of jazz studies at Washington University, will lead an ensemble that will perform music recorded by the late Miles Davis during his fusion period – and interpret it in a style that will pay tribute to Hendrix and his strong influence on Davis’ music during that time.

The combination of jazz faculty playing music by Miles with a Hendrix slant - in a room that resonates with the elegance of the 1904 World’s Fair era - may sound more than a little incongruous. But it’s just one example of the wide-ranging and barrier-breaking approach to music that has become a hallmark of this eclectic music series.

According to Lenihan, who has directed jazz studies for the past 12 years at the university and worked as a visiting professor there for a decade before that, the Jazz at Holmes Series came about in 1998 through an informal process that has evolved into a popular fixture on campus.

“I think many of us wanted to see a regular jazz series on campus back then,” recalls Lenihan during a recent phone interview. “But it was actually a graduate student, Ben Looker, who got things off the ground while I was on sabbatical at that time. He started it with student performances; and then when I returned, I worked with Sue Taylor of the music department and Steve Ehrich, associate dean of University College and Ben to make it an ongoing series.”

As the Jazz at Holmes series grew over the years from summer-only concerts to weekly performances throughout both the fall and spring semesters at the university, the musicians booked for the Holmes series expanded from primarily student and faculty musicians to include top-notch area musicians and occasional national musicians.

For example, a 2009 performance in the series featured pianist Marc Copeland, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Bill Stewart in performance not at Holmes Lounge – but at the 560 Center in University City.

“That was an opportunity to have some world-class musicians play here,” explains Lenihan. “And to make that happen we had to present them in a larger venue with an admission charge, instead of having a free concert at Holmes. But performances at Holmes are really the foundation for the series.”

This semester’s Jazz at Holmes lineup illustrates the eclectic approach fostered by Lenihan for the series. In addition to jazz performances by outstanding St. Louis musicians such as Freddie Washington, faculty members such as Vince Varvel, Kara Baldus Vandiver and himself, concerts feature poet Eileen Gsell and dancer/choreographer Ashley Tate backed by jazz groups.

According to Lenihan, the series has become more eclectic as it has evolved – a direction he thinks is a natural evolution.

“Originally, we saw the series as a way to educate students about various styles of jazz,” he comments. “But with the array of musicians we have been able to draw on from the faculty and the St. Louis music community, it seemed that it was more interesting for everyone concerned to make things more creative and diverse – and to also try and bring in more original music as well.”

Lenihan’s own eclectic musical background clearly factors into the direction the Jazz at Holmes series has taken as well.

A native of St. Louis, Lenihan attended college in the Los Angeles area and, after graduation, moved into composition for films and television due to the lack of jazz performance opportunities in L.A. In addition to working on music for Disney Channel and PBS features and series, he composed music for the George Lucas featurette, “The Making of Willow,” as well as many TV commercials and industrial films.

“Eventually, I got tired and burned out working on commercial projects,” Lenihan says. “I wanted to get back into playing jazz and teaching, and Washington University has been a great way to do that.”

In addition to his duties as director of jazz studies and teaching classes during the school year, Lenihan spends a good deal of his time in Italy. From the end of spring semester until the beginning of fall semester, he lives in Rome, where he focuses on being a professional musician.

Over the past few years he has recorded several albums for the Italian Caligola label with his band, Cyclo. He recently signed with a new label in Italy, Schema Rearwards, and just released a recording with his new group, UKITUSA. He also has plans to record a solo album for the same label in December, working with famed guitarist Ralph Towner.

In terms of the upcoming concert Thursday at Holmes, Lenihan admits that the combining of Miles Davis music with the stylistic approach of Hendrix is “an artificial construct.” But he’s very excited about the chance to explore that musical intersection.

“It’s definitely been documented that Miles was really influenced by Jimi’s music,” states Lenihan. “So we decided to play some Miles songs from the ‘60s – and give it a flavor of Jimi’s musical approach. Vince Varvel is playing guitar and I’m on bass. We’ve got Anthony Wiggins on trumpet and Steve Davis on drums. It should be interesting to see how it turns out.”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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