Creating Flexible Musicians at WVU


Jarred Sims directs the West Virginia University Mountaineer Honor Jazz Band during rehearsal.

(Photo: Courtesy of West Virginia University)

The idea of a big fish in a small pond is a cliché. But how about being a big fish in a comfortably sized pond that’s connected to an impressively large lake?

That’s the idyllic situation for West Virginia University (WVU) Music Performance: Jazz and Commercial Music undergraduate and Jazz Pedagogy graduate students. “WVU is a very livable place,” said Jarred Sims, WVU director of jazz studies. “The grounds are large — so much so that you have to take a tram, like an overhead train, to get from one campus to another. But the School of Music has about 400 majors and is really a school-within-a-school.”

An academic institution’s setting is secondary to the education it provides, of course. WVU’s approach is forward-looking, Sims said during a phone interview. “My soundbite I give everybody is I’m not trying to prepare students for a gig that happened in 1959,” he said. “And the other thing is that jazz is not necessarily an endpoint, but it’s actually a process and a methodology.”

A jam session that WVU runs in nearby downtown Morgantown serves as a secondary classroom. “We have that weekly session that’s at a bar, and I think it’s really important on a lot of levels,” he said. “I try to get the students off campus as much as possible. I’m taking them to the Mid Atlantic Jazz Festival, which is held in D.C. I want them to perform for people who aren’t other musicians or their parents.

“The other night I was in Pittsburgh, which is about an hour away, and this guy came up to me and he said, ‘Are you still doing those jam sessions on Thursday nights?’ So our jam sessions cast a fairly wide net of older people who are enthusiastic about the music and some high school students, too.”

With the West Virginia Wine & Jazz Festival in the fall and the WVU Jazz Festival in the spring, students have further performance opportunities. “The Wine and Jazz Festival is an opportunity for students to share the stage with professional artists from the region and sometimes New York City and for them to play in front of large audiences,” he said. “And in the spring, there’s a guest artist who performs, coaches students in their performances and gives a master class.

“When there’s not a jam session, the classroom can get disconnected from everything off campus,” he added. “Sometimes we get our priorities messed up where the students only do what the teacher says to do. There’s a high amount of motivation to learn this music when there’s an outlet for it.”

The “Commercial” aspect of the undergraduate major is for students to graduate with a liberal arts-style, cross-disciplinary flexibility. “There are a lot of musicians with an extreme passion about jazz that might use the tools that they have in other genres,” Sims pointed out.

“Musicians in every generation have that breadth, like Jeff Coffin [who currently plays with the Dave Matthews Band as well touring and recording on his own],” he said. “He’s best known as a rock saxophonist, but he’s also a really good jazz player. A deeper cut would be somebody like Warren Smith. He’s known as being an avant-garde percussionist in New York. But he also has experience recording with Aretha Franklin.”

The school’s own alumni already reflect this approach: A multi-woodwinds player, Sims earned his bachelor’s degree from WVU and has performed with the likes of Soulive, The Temptations and Brit-popper Noel Gallagher as well as with Bob Brookmeyer, Anat Cohen and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra. Allison Miller, his WVU classmate and one-time bandmate, has been behind the drum kit for singer/songwriters Brandi Carlile, Natalie Merchant and Toshi Reagon as well as being in jazz acts like Artemis and a variety of her own adventurous groups.

“What we bring to the table as jazz players is just to provide depth,” Sims noted. “And that’s the commercial side of ‘Jazz and Commercial Music.’”

Part of a 21st century jazz education involves learning to have an entrepreneurial self-sufficiency, and Sims and his colleagues promote that, too. “We’re also encouraging students to do live sound and to have experience recording and editing,” he said. “We have a really thriving music industry program, so I’m sending more students to do a minor in that on top of a jazz major.” There’s also instruction in copyright law and the logistics of live sound recording.

While undergraduates are currently from West Virginia as well as Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey, graduate students hail from as far away as Brazil and Malaysia. They’ll earn a master’s of music in jazz pedagogy — an acknowledgment that many jazz teaching positions require graduate degrees.

“I oversee them visiting the high school here so they can basically learn how to teach and how to have objectives, how to measure objectives — all the things having to do with teaching,” Sims said.

As someone who’s both homegrown and a bit of a prodigal son, one who earned graduate degrees at two universities in Boston, Sims tries to share his experience with his students. Drummer and faculty member Brian Wolfe, another of Sims’ WVU classmates, had similar experiences in New York with tours and sessions with Maynard Ferguson, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, David Byrne and others.

“One of the things that Brian and I talked about is what we wish we’d gotten as students here, although we both think very highly of the teachers we had,” Sims conveyed. “We wondered, ‘What experiences did we have out there that, in retrospect, we wish someone would have told us?’”

What they don’t need to convey is the allure of the campus, which is quickly apparent to those who visit.

“You get the best of both worlds — the big football team with the 70,000-person stadium and also a very comfortable scene within the School of Music.

“We have a reputation for being a bit of a party school, but the music school has been isolated from that whole area,” Sims concluded. “And our students are very busy.” DB

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