Behind the Vital New Jazz Program at Metro State University in Denver

Ron Miles serves as director of jazz studies for MSU Denver's new program.
Ron Miles serves as director of jazz studies for MSU Denver's new program.
Courtesy of MSU Denver

It's been a busy month for the Department of Music at Metropolitan State University. Its accreditation was renewed by the National Association of Schools of Music, and it added a new Jazz and American Improvised Music Performance concentration (also accredited). We interviewed Peter Schimpf, associate professor and chair of the Department of Music, and MSU music lecturer Dave Devine about the new emphasis and the importance of keeping jazz fresh.

Gina Tron: MSU has a rich jazz history. How did this new accreditation come about?

Peter Schimpf: We've had some kind of jazz here at MSU Denver for years. Ron Miles is one of our longest-lasting faculty members. He's an internationally recognized jazz musician, so he's always created a presence for jazz. Other members have also joined over the years who are also excellent players. Students here have been playing jazz lessons, but they didn't contribute to any type of degree. There was so much going on that we thought the time was right to turn this into a degree and go through the process of accreditation. We're glad we did. It's already becoming one of our most popular majors.

When did the accreditation start?

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PS: We were sort of unofficially offering the degree last semester. This fall is the first official fully accredited semester that the degree is offered.

What sets this program apart?

Dave Devine: I think what's really unique about the program is that it's a reflection of current times. It's not a cookie-cutter program. One of the most important things is that MSU establish a program that is unique to all the other schools. We didn't want to be the school that is just the most affordable. If you come to this place, you are actually getting a unique experience; it's not just an academic exercise. Metro has such a unique faculty. Not only are they active players nationally, but all of them share such a passion for teaching. They all try to communicate the information in a unique manner specific to the program. It really sets the program apart instantly from the rest of the school.

What can students taking it expect?

PS: All genres of music are to be used in the program. The official title of the degree is Jazz and American Improvised Music. The idea is to really expand the notion of what jazz is beyond any kind of traditional notion, to think of jazz as improvisational, first and foremost, and as a kind of music that can explore other forms of American music and serve as a starting point for improvisation. In the 1940s and 1950s, when jazz superstars like Duke Ellington and Miles Davis were really making a name for themselves, they were playing songs that were popular in that day. As it kind of matured and evolved, traditionally speaking, a lot of jazz musicians still play those same tunes because those were the tunes that they learned from jazz artists. But the idea here is that jazz is an ever-evolving, still-living art form that can look to today's popular music or any kind of music as an opportunity to explore for improvisation. It's about bringing jazz into the now.

Explain how the program goes beyond just the walls of the school.

DD: We have a strong relationship with Dazzle and [the] Mercury [Cafe]. We have a lot of concerts at Dazzle. Students have the opportunity to play in a professional environment and have their friends and family come and see the music.

What do you hope this brings to the school and the future of music?

PS: I would say that the one thing about this program is we start from a very progressive perspective, and we hope to continue to grow in that, both in regard to types of music and in regard to types of instruments.

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