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UW Jazz Week salutes 50 years of music and growth

April 22, 2018

These days it’s not unusual to hear a lot of jazz at UW-Madison. You can find it in classrooms, practice rooms and concerts featuring any of the Mead Witter School of Music’s six jazz ensembles.

Even so, next week is special.

Kicking off Tuesday, this year’s UW Jazz Week will celebrate the 50th anniversary season of the university’s first jazz ensemble, the UW Jazz Orchestra. The group was founded in 1968, at a time when jazz was still a novel – and sometimes controversial – addition to educational music programs.

UW Jazz Week 2018 will include three public concerts featuring student ensembles and guest trumpet soloist Marquis Hill. The Chicago-born Hill, winner of the 2014 Thelonious Monk Competition, has been described by JazzTimes Magazine as “one of the most promising jazz musicians to gain a national reputation in recent memory.”

Along with working with students during Jazz Week, Hill will perform in a free concert Tuesday with the UW Jazz Composers Group and the UW Contemporary Jazz Ensemble. Ticketed shows are Thursday — with Hill and a faculty jazz quartet led by pianist and UW-Madison director of jazz studies Johannes Wallmann, Les Thimmig on saxophones, Nick Moran on bass and Matt Endres on drums — and Friday, with Hill, the UW Jazz Orchestra and the UW High School Honors Jazz Band.

A new ensemble in 1968

The UW Jazz Orchestra got its start in 1968 under the direction of trombone professor Al Chase, who played in many big bands around town and wanted to offer students training in the same thing. The new jazz ensemble reflected the big band sound of musicians like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, said Thimmig, who came to campus in 1971.

Thimmig headed the band for awhile, as did other faculty who followed. The ground-breaking free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, who died earlier this month at age 89, came to campus in 1970 and during his short tenure formed the Black Music Ensemble, which later would be taken over by legendary jazz artist and UW-Madison bass professor Richard Davis.

“So we had this jazz ensemble and Black Music Ensemble as two separate tracks running along the same direction,” said Thimmig, who is primarily a woodwind and composition teacher. Students would take the for-credit ensemble courses as part of their overall musical training.

Jazz pianist and music professor Joan Wildman helped foster jazz at the university until her retirement in 2002, but it wasn’t until a decade later that the music school had a dedicated faculty member for the genre. Wallmann was hired to fill the new John and Carolyn Peterson Chair in Jazz Studies, created with an endowment spearheaded by Full Compass Systems co-owner Susan Lipp.

“The big marker, I think, is 2012” with Wallmann’s arrival, said Thimmig, who after 47 years at UW-Madison jokingly calls himself “the walking history book” of jazz education on campus.

Under Wallmann, more ensembles have been developed and a jazz major established. UW Jazz Week and an honors jazz band for high school students came about, campus performing spaces have filled with concerts and visiting artist workshops, and more adjuncts have been pulled in from the deep pool of musical talent already in Madison to teach on campus.

A ‘stage band,’ not ‘jazz’

A teachers’ college in Texas, today the University of North Texas, and then Indiana University were at the vanguard of offering jazz training in the early 1960s. In Wisconsin, UW-Eau Claire and Lawrence University developed strong programs.

But jazz was a hard sell in some communities that considered the music immoral, Thimmig said.

He recalls how organizing a jazz concert at his college almost got him thrown out of school — and how a friend at another institution told him the college Steinway piano bore a brass plaque proclaiming: “Jazz is not to be played on this instrument.”

Though he attended “a big city high school” in Chicago, “a lot of people said (jazz) doesn’t belong. You weren’t even allowed to use the word ‘jazz’ in the public schools. The typical thing was to call it a ‘stage band,’” said Thimmig, who has recorded his memories of the early days of college jazz programs in a podcast that can be found on the school of music website.

A lot has changed since them. Jazz bands (as they’re called now) have boomed in middle and high schools, which are turning out well-versed musicians with classroom experience and resumes that include intensive summer jazz camps and other programs.

Madison itself has developed a reputation for fine musicians in and out of the university, who give the city a healthy jazz scene, said Ripon College music professor Kurt Dietrich, author of the book “Wisconsin Riffs: Jazz Profiles from the Heartland,” which was published this month by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press (Dietrich will be in Madison June 6 for a 6 p.m. book signing at the Wisconsin Historical Museum).

In Wisconsin, “it’s pretty darned good as jazz scenes go. Madison’s got a pretty nice scene going on,” said Dietrich, who received his Ph.D. at UW-Madison.

“It’s a really vibrant scene here,” Wallmann agreed.

UW-Madison allows students to double-major in music and another field.

For students who pick a jazz track, “what they all have in common is that they are passionate about jazz,” Wallmann said. “It’s the music they love to listen to and have a lot of experience playing.”