DANBURY, CONN. — Legendary jazz drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and the iconic Vanguard Jazz Orchestra will headline Western Connecticut State University‘s 19th annual Jazz Fest from April 24 through 26, 2014, celebrating this uniquely American genre and the performers whose artistry and innovation continue to inspire a new generation of jazz musicians.
Watts will appear in concert at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 25, performing with the WCSU Jazz Orchestra and with the Jeff “Tain” Watts Quartet. The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which continues an unbroken legacy of big-band jazz performance begun in 1966 at the Village Vanguard club in New York City, will be featured in the closing Jazz Fest concert at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 26. Both concerts will be in Ives Concert Hall in White Hall on the university’s Midtown campus, 181 White St. in Danbury.
General admission for the Friday concert will be $15, with a price of $10 for seniors, students with valid ID, and children 12 and under. Admission for the Saturday concert will be $25, with a fee of $15 for seniors, students with valid ID, and children 12 and under. Ticket and reservation information is available at (203) 837-TIXX and www.wcsu.edu/tickets.
The WCSU Jazz Fest will open on Thursday, April 24, with two concerts at 2 p.m. and at 7 p.m., also in Ives Concert Hall. Each concert will feature five Western student jazz ensembles in performance with members of the WCSU Department of Music faculty. Admission to the Thursday concerts will be free and the public is invited to attend. Jazz Fest events are sponsored by the Department of Music and the Student Government Association.
In a performance career spanning more than three decades, Watts has been a much sought-after sideman featured on more than 100 albums produced by the leading jazz artists of the era including Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Kenny Garrett, Alice and Ravi Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Dave Kikoski and John Beasley. He has earned Grammy Awards for his Marsalis CD collaborations as well as his work on “Mingus Big Band Live at Jazz Standard” and his own 2009 release “Watts,” one of seven CD recordings he has produced since 1999 as bandleader, drummer and composer.
Breaking onto the jazz scene from 1981 to 1988 as a member of the Wynton Marsalis Quartet, Watts gained national attention in the early 1990s during his three-year stint in the Branford Marsalis ensemble appearing on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” He also appeared with Denzel Washington in the Spike Lee film “Mo Better Blues” in the role of the fictional drummer “Rhythm Jones.”
“‘Tain’ Watts is the foremost jazz drummer of the past 30 years,” remarked Jamie Begian, chair of the WCSU Department of Music and coordinator of the jazz studies program. Begian, who will conduct the WCSU Jazz Orchestra in performance with Watts, observed that the Friday concert will feature the drummer’s takes on original WCSU student arrangements by senior Tim Lewis of Wayne Shorter’s “One by One,” and by Greg LaPine of John Coltrane’s “Naima.”
Saxophonist and bandleader Jimmy Greene, an assistant professor of music and assistant coordinator of jazz studies at WCSU, has performed frequently with Watts in concert and on recordings, and he described his experiences as “magic.”
“It’s thrilling to play with him,” Greene said. “He knows so much about music and about the history of the jazz vocabulary, and he’s able to access all of it in his performance. He’s very creative and propulsive, very much in the moment when he’s performing. He’s always ready to add something new to the music — and when you’re playing with him, you’ve got to be ready to respond!”
Saturday’s concert performance by the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra will bring one of the nation’s longest-running big bands to WCSU with a library of music steeped in the traditional sounds and rhythms of VJO founders Thad Jones and Mel Lewis and enriched by the contributions of former leader Bob Brookmeyer and VJO composer-in-residence Jim McNeely. Since the mid-1960s, VJO has brought together top professional jazz performers for the orchestra’s standing engagement each Monday at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan. Mainstays such as McNeely, alto saxophonist Dick Oatts, drummer John Riley and other longtime VJO members provide remarkable continuity and a strong link to the band’s origins.
“It’s one of the great orchestras in the history of jazz, a real institution in the jazz world,” Greene observed. “Jim McNeely is influenced by Thad Jones, whose music is still a huge part of the band’s performance. They present a style and sound that are very readily identifiable.”
“From its inception, the Vanguard band has been a collection of professional musicians playing the cutting-edge music of the day in a very skilled and artful way,” Begian said. “What’s special about this band is that it’s a mix of seasoned professionals who played with Jones and Lewis and younger musicians who have learned from this tradition and built on it. This has brought renewal as people leave and join the band, and that’s part of what keeps their sound so alive and vital.”
Begian noted that the participation of Watts and members of the VJO in conducting instructional clinics on campus for Western music students during Jazz Fest provides an especially valuable learning experience. “You cannot replicate this kind of hands-on, face-to-face contact with a professional like ‘Tain’ Watts or an institution like the Vanguard band in the jazz world,” he said. “These professionals will be observing and listening to our students with their undivided attention and giving them direct feedback on their performances. As an educator, this is one of the strongest motivations for organizing Jazz Fest each year.”
WCSU music faculty also will offer outreach to the community in providing teaching clinics for middle and high school jazz ensembles during the opening day of Jazz Fest on April 24. The instructional program will gain an international flair this year with the participation for the first time of several Canadian instrumental and choral groups from Linden Christian School, a K-12 institution in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Greene’s children attended Linden during their residency in Winnipeg and his family remains close with that of the high school band director, Chad Pollard. “The culture of band and choral performance is very strong in Manitoba schools, and Linden has produced strong instrumentalists and singers,” Greene said. “This is a great opportunity for their students to come here.”
For more information about Jazz Fest, contact Begian at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.
Western Connecticut State University offers outstanding faculty in a range of quality academic programs. Our diverse university community provides students an enriching and supportive environment that takes advantage of the unique cultural offerings of Western Connecticut and New York. Our vision: To be an affordable public university with the characteristics of New England’s best small private universities.