William Paterson Jazz Swings @ 50


The William Paterson Jazz Orchestra performs with guest artist Randy Brecker at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

(Photo: Courtesy William Paterson University)

In anticipation of its 50th anniversary in the spring of 2023, William Paterson University is already gearing up for the celebration. “Next April we’re going to have a gala concert to mark the occasion,” said jazz studies coordinator David Demsey. “And we’re hoping that Rufus Reid and Bill Charlap will be available, along with some alumni and former faculty, to play the music of Thad Jones, Mulgrew Miller and James Williams at the concert. Also, 2023 is the centennial of Thad Jones. Dizzy’s Club has already asked us to perform there on the day of his birthday, which is March 28, which I’m super-excited about.”

That’s touching on a lot of William Paterson history right there. The great trumpeter-composer-arranger Thad Jones was the first artistic director of the jazz degree program, which was created by Dr. Martin Krivin in 1973. Jones served in that capacity until moving to Copenhagen in January 1979, at which point bassist Rufus Reid took over as artistic director and steered the program for the next 20 years. Pianist James Williams, who replaced Reid in 1999, died suddenly in 2004. His replacement, pianist Mulgrew Miller, took over as artistic director in 2005 and subsequently died in 2013.

“That’s the saddest part of the history of this program was losing not one but two directors while they were teaching here, both as young guys,” said Demsey, who became jazz studies coordinator when Krivin handed over the reigns in 1992.

Grammy-winning pianist Bill Charlap, who became artistic director of the jazz program in 2015, continues the William Paterson tradition of its directors being world-class working professionals. “We try to emphasize that there is no line between the students’ academic classes and the real jazz world,” said Demsey. “We’re trying to make it as real as possible and to connect them with the New York jazz community as much as possible. And we do that by having people like Bill Charlap, who has spent his life in the world’s great performing venues. So he’s bringing that into the classroom and he’s teaching the ensembles as though they’re his band.”

The first college in the New York area to offer a professional jazz degree program, William Paterson University has turned out such celebrated alumni as saxophonists Bill Evans, Eric Alexander, Mark Shim, Bruce Williams, Adam Niewood, Jacam Manricks, Aaron Stewart, Matt Vashlishan and Roxy Coss; pianists Travis Shook, Matt King and Tomoko Ohno; guitarist Amanda Monaco; trumpeter Freddie Hendrix; bassists Doug Weiss, Joe Martin and John Hébert; drummers Carl Allen, Bill Stewart, Ari Hoenig, Tommy Igoe, Dana Hall, Tyshawn Sorey, Mark Guiliana, Johnathan Blake, Vinnie Sperrazza and Joe Farnsworth.

Its full-time faculty, along with saxophonist Demsey and pianist Charlap, includes trombonist-composer-arranger Pete McGuinness and trombonist Timothy Newman, while the list of adjunct professors reads like a who’s who in jazz: trumpeters Cecil Bridgewater and Jeremy Pelt; saxophonists Vincent Herring, Rich Perry and Dayna Stephens; pianists Geoffrey Keezer and Mike LeDonne; bassist Steve LaSpina; guitarist Russell Malone; trombonist-arranger Ed Neumeister; and drummers Kevin Norton and Horacee Arnold.

In addition to undertaking challenging, performance-based course sequences in jazz ear-training, improvisation, arranging, jazz piano, and jazz history and analysis, students are active in a wide variety of small ensembles, as well as the Latin Jazz Ensemble and the 18-piece Jazz Orchestra. These ensembles form the core of the program. Throughout the years, William Paterson University students have won numerous awards in the most prestigious national and regional jazz competitions, including the DownBeat Student Music Awards, the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival, the Casio Northeast College Jazz Playoff, Mid-Atlantic Arts and the Southern Comfort/National Association of Jazz Educators All That Jazz Collegiate Championships.

The newest element of the program is the Living Jazz Archives, which opened in 2004.

The brainchild of trumpet great Clark Terry, it contains the collections of arranger, cornetist and founding program director Jones, as well as Terry, pianist and educator James Williams, influential saxophonist Michael Brecker, pianist Harold Mabern and trumpeter-composer Art Farmer. These collections contain hundreds of original pencil manuscripts, thousands of LPs, hundreds of hours of unreleased audio recordings and other memorabilia.

“And we just took in Lee Konitz’s stuff within the last year — 38 boxes of music and letters and tapes and reels and cassettes and everything,” Dempsey said. “Plus, the family donated his horn, the actual alto that he played on the Birth Of The Cool record, which is kind of stunning. It just furthers the mission of the program, bringing jazz and musical reality directly into the laps of these students. Because when you get this stuff out on a table and can actually see and touch this history, it’s different than just reading about it in a book.”

Demsey added, “The best moments of the archive, for me, are when a student will spend two or three hours here and they’re about to walk out the door and they turn to me and say, ‘Wow. You know, it feels like I’ve just been hanging out with Mike Brecker for two hours. I really feel like I’ve been at his house or something.’ And I’ll say, ‘That’s it. That’s what it’s supposed to be.’ Because this year’s freshmen were born in 2004, and to them, John Coltrane and Dexter Gordon and Joe Henderson and Mike Brecker are all the same. They’re YouTube videos, they’re not real.

“And so this Living Jazz Archives makes it very, very real for them. When they’re going through Mike Brecker’s practice notes and they say, ‘Hey, wait, I know this lick. He used this. This is part of that tune.’ And all of a sudden, you kind of see a light go on. ‘Demsey and Kevin Norton are telling me to keep a notebook. Mike kept a notebook. Maybe I should do this.’ It’s just a much more immediate thing than reading about Michael Brecker in some jazz history text book.

“Every one of the students in this program has played Thad Jones’ tune ‘Groove Merchant,’ he continued. But when I throw the penciled score, encased in plastic, on the table in front of them, the whole room just falls silent and you see the reality kind of smacking them. Because you see the erasures, you see how Thad worked it and how he decided, ‘Oh, I don’t want this to be an alto part, I want it to be on soprano.’ You know, that was a historic moment, to have soprano lead. Nobody had really done that. That whole first alto part is erased and he changed it on the score, and it’s amazing just to see that. And the same thing is true with Mike Brecker. To be able to read Mike’s notebooks and see the notes he makes to himself about voicings and intros and such. … You get to see Mike’s mind working. So it’s rarefied air for the students over here.”

Situated on a 300-acre nature preserve in suburban New Jersey, William Paterson University is just 18 miles from Manhattan. And Demsey takes advantage of that proximity to the Big Apple to immerse his students in the real deal. “We’re a New York jazz program,” he maintained. “The faculty here are veteran New York players. Dizzy’s is one connection we have for performing, but we’re always encouraging our students to jump-start their careers when they get here by going into the city to see concerts and to sit in and jam. We want them to become a part of the New York music community when they get here rather than thinking of themselves of being in Wayne, New Jersey, for four years before ever exploring New York City. That defeats the purpose of the location.

“The crux of the program, as stated by my predecessor and mentor Martin Krivin and by Rufus Reid, is to bring the vibe and the spirit of the New York jazz community into the classroom; that it’s not just talking about the music, it’s actually doing it. And there is no line between the faculty and the classrooms that are here and the jazz community. And there’s enough people that come through here — the faculty that are here every week, but also all the guests that come through on a weekly basis — so that the students get to feel as though they are part of this community from the outset.

“Usually it takes them a year to kind of find out where the door handles are and where the keys are,” he continued. “But by the end of that first year, they’re making jam sessions at Small’s and other places in New York, they’re going to the Vanguard and other clubs, they’re starting their own bands and they’re doing their own thing. They’re starting to be feel like professional players. To me, that’s just always been the spirit of the program.”

An important outlet for performing on campus is the weekly Jazz Room series in the 960-set Shea Auditorium. “We do probably 50 or 60 performances a semester there,” said Demsey. “And those concerts are always preceded by a thing we call Sittin’ In, which is like a meet-the-artist session. For instance, we recently had a Sittin’ In session where we did a Q&A with all the members of Artemis, followed by a great concert.”

The first Jazz Room concert, held 44 years ago, was by pianist Joanne Brackeen. Back then, concerts were held in the school dining hall but the crowds got too big so they were moved the big auditorium. “And then it became a thing where the students formed an opening band for the featured act, which is great for the students,” said Demsey. “They get to share the dressing rooms with the featured artists, they get to share the soundcheck. But more importantly, they get heard. And that’s one of the main outlets for our 24 small groups in the program. They’ll all play on the Jazz Room series at one time or another.”

Demsey mentioned that vibraphonist Steve Nelson will be a featured soloist with the 18-piece Jazz Orchestra as part of the Jazz Room series. “The arranging majors are going to write charts for him on his tunes with the big band. He sent us a list of his original compositions, and he was very close to Mulgrew Miller, so he wants to do one of Mulgrew’s tunes as well. And the students are writing charts on these tunes with him. So the writing thing is much more of an integral part of the program now than it ever was. And that’s ironic because, of course, the founding director was Thad Jones, one of the great writers in jazz. But I think at that point the program was just getting started and there weren’t enough students who were necessarily at a level to do that yet. It took a few years to develop.”

Demsey added, “The jazz program was the brainchild of my predecessor, Martin Krivin. He was the one who hired Thad Jones, so Thad and Marty laid the groundwork. But it was Rufus Reid and Marty that lit the engines on the rocket. So my role for the past 30 years has been keeping it in orbit and building this space station. But it was Marty who really started it all. He was a real innovator and a great mentor to me. And I’m following in his footsteps, bringing some continuity to the program while branching out with things like the Living Jazz Archives and the high school summer jazz program. So we continue to grow, but the mission remains the same.” DB

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