Per usual, Jim Widner is thinking about the gig.
The longtime jazz studies director at the University of Missouri-St. Louis is among a group of alumni who will perform Thursday at the Missouri Theatre as the University of Missouri celebrates 50 years of jazz on campus.
“I think the proof is — when we get back next week for this reunion — we’ll pick up right where we left off,” Widner said. “The enthusiasm is still there.”
The event will feature a who’s who of Missouri jazz, honoring the past as Widner, a bassist and charter member of the MU jazz program, joins classmates and players from other eras in a 19-piece alumni band.
The program will revel in the present as Kansas City saxophone great Bobby Watson joins the MU Concert Jazz Band to celebrate “Flying Colors” — the group’s sixth CD under current director Arthur White. Widner and alum Allen Beeson will also sit in with the ensemble.
“What I’m going to love about hearing both of those bands on the same night is that you will get to hear tradition in place while you’ll get to hear ... the present and future, perhaps, of jazz composition,” White said.
That is what jazz always does: press on into the future, enjoying the next moment, the next and the one after that. As an art form, jazz has freed itself from worrying about the next big thing by focusing on the next small thing: the next change, the next fill, the next solo.
FROM THE TOP
Let’s dispense with the usual facts on how the world has changed in 50 years. Yes, milk, bread and gas cost a lot more than they used to.
The world of jazz has changed so much on its own in a half-century. Fans have seen their beloved music travel back and forth between the club and concert hall, heard the many sides of Miles Davis, been treated to seminal albums by the likes of Herbie Hancock, survived the ascent of Kenny G, watched many of its pioneers pass from this world and seen jazz meld, seamlessly at times, with Latin, funk, rock and hip-hop sounds.
In the mid-1960s, as now, there was a “nucleus of us who just loved to play,” Widner said. Students weren’t sitting around waiting on MU — they craved playing, gigging together and enjoying each other’s company in informal — yet serious — jam sessions.
The first iteration of the MU Studio Jazz Band, formed under the leadership of then-director of bands Charles Emmons, was already ahead of schedule. There was a certain chemistry, a tightness in the playing, owed to all that extracurricular music-making.
Those eager students found their match in first director Larry Sutherland, who will be here Thursday — “He was the perfect person at the perfect time,” Widner said.
Sutherland knew what he was doing from Day One: He took the band to perform at high schools across the state, to jazz festivals and secured a gig backing “Tonight Show” bandleader Doc Severinsen at a concert in Chillicothe.
“We thought we had arrived,” Widner said of the date.
Sutherland also brought guest artists to campus from the get-go — the first Widner remembers was singer Marilyn Maye, whom he later backed professionally.
That tradition of collaboration has carried on throughout the program’s history; it is an element that really mattered to trombonist and composer David Witter, who finished an undergraduate degree at MU in 2010 and graduate degrees and certifications in 2012 and 2013.
Under White’s predecessor, Doug Leibinger, Witter played with the likes of woodwind specialist Jeff Lederer, drummer Matt Wilson, bassist Chris Lightcap and “Pink Panther” saxophonist Plas Johnson.
It has certainly been a hallmark of White’s tenure, whose bands have recorded with Robin Eubanks, Jimmy Greene, Sean Jones, Mike Metheny, Byron Stripling, Bob Sheppard, Mike Mainieri and Watson.
Live, the guest list has been equally impressive — maybe more so: Christian McBride, Meshell Ndegeocello, James Carter, Joe Locke, Geoffrey Keezer, Russell Malone and Rufus Reid have all sat in with White’s bands.
“Flying Colors” is “top to bottom ... the strongest record, musically, we’ve put out to date,” White said.
The album is the latest in a steady stream of releases under White; clearly, the perpetual musical motion both exhausts and satisfies the director.
“I’m not really much for sunshine — I spend every summer” at recording engineer “Pete Szkolka’s place,” White joked. “ ... Neither of us tans well, so we’d rather do a CD instead.”
As with most of the records, “Flying Colors” primarily revolves around student arrangements, which have grown stronger with each class.
“I think our CDs have been a reflection of the development of the program,” White said.
The album features multiple-Grammy winner Randy Brecker as well as Mainieri for a tune.
Bringing in respected collaborators gives White a chance to cast vision for his students, to help them see what the future could look like with enough luck and pluck.
It “gives our students a view into the world-class window — how good can you be?” he said.
But this record also shows how good White’s students already are.
“We could do a CD without a guest artist, if we needed to,” he said. “We don’t have to have somebody to help us carry the weight anymore.”
FORGING AHEAD TOGETHER
Relationships are the heart of a collaborative medium like jazz. When White considered what he was proudest of over seven years on campus, he ultimately pointed to the people.
When White arrived on campus, “he graciously welcomed me into his circle of friends who were into free improvisation like I was,” Witter said in an email, which allowed him opportunities to lead ensembles at improvisation conferences.
Bonds made at MU, and extending out into the wider Columbia jazz community, have been key to his maturation.
“There was/is a lot of cross-pollination from my experiences with the composition/theory side of MU to the jazz side,” Witter added. “I benefit greatly from being able to take advantage of where those two programs converge.”
Much of that benefit came in the ability to try new things and take risks, Witter said. White and composition professors Stefan Freund and Thomas McKenney let Witter stretch himself — and stretch ears — without prejudice.
“I appreciated their trust that I was going to be legit about how I approached teaching and performing improvisation,” Witter said. “That was my favorite part about being at MU — the understanding was established that I wanted to pursue unusual things diligently, and faculty left me to my own devices, even facilitating my being able to use university musicians for my own projects.”
Relationships created in the MU jazz program live beyond graduation in Widner’s experience. He recounted with pride the quality of musicians he played with: Metheny, Randy Holmes, Al Lowe, John Brophy and Gloria Cooper, who now heads the jazz program at Long Island University-Brooklyn.
Widner made lifelong friends in the band, and many have remained colleagues; he has called upon his fellow alumni to help him run summer music camps.
LEADERS OF THE BAND
Widner sees White as the right leader for this time at MU, a leader who plays in the pocket, finding the sweet spot between musical quality and notoriety.
Among his proudest moments to date was the creation of a master’s degree in jazz performance and pedagogy, an offering that places MU in rare company, joining just a handful of schools across the country, White said.
As he looks to put the program’s next, best foot forward, he hopes to establish a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies and another graduate degree in jazz composition.
White is also grateful for a relationship with MU’s black studies department that is healthy and growing.
“We play black music. That’s what we do,” he said. “ ... We are stewards of this music. We need to understand its history and lineage and the struggles the players who developed it went through. That’s significant.”
Widner has tried to achieve balance in his own program. He has carried much from his MU days to UMSL, most notable a desire to leave the program better than he found it.
He remembers a lesson Emmons handed down: “When you leave to go somewhere else, you make sure that they know you were there.”
“In other words, you go out and build a program,” Widner said. “You make something out of it for your students, for the school. ... You leave your mark.”
Thursday night’s program promises to provide a few of those “I was here” moments as MU jazzers, past and present, make new memories and marks together.
See story in the Tribune here.