Hed: Big Band
The University of Northern Colorado's jazz program is taking on East Coast conservatories.
David Baker studied classical bass while growing up in Atlanta in the ’90s, but he always knew he wanted to play jazz. He considered some East Coast conservatories for graduate school, but one of his teachers had studied at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and suggested that Baker check out its jazz program, which has earned some serious accolades.
Over the past three decades, the UNC program has been honored 152 times by DownBeat magazine's Student Music Awards. And since Baker arrived on campus five years ago, the awards have continued to roll in.
Most recently, the university's Jazz Lab Band I, which Baker plays bass for, was invited by Wynton Marsalis to perform at a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert in January 2020. The group was also this year's DownBeat Graduate College winner in the Large Jazz Ensemble category — considered by many to be the highest honor for university jazz ensembles. This was no fluke: The band has topped the competition in four of the past five years. UNC’s Vocal Lab, the school's vocal jazz group, was also recognized this year.
What Baker likes about the university is that it is accomplishing the same things as big-name East Coast conservatories, but with fewer teachers.
“And what that meant to me as a student was that the teachers are making more with less, and by default, their students are going to learn to make more with less,” he says. “Digging a little deeper, I found out they had students getting placed in jobs consistently. And that meant a lot to me as an incoming graduate student. I wanted to go to a place where I was going to learn how to make a lot with a little, a place that had a good track record for getting people out — not only as great performers, but as great teachers.”
Greeley, with just over 100,000 residents, offers fewer distractions than big cities, which allows students to focus on their studies while still getting to hone their chops at a few venues that book jazz acts in town, like Tower 56, Kress Cinema & Lounge, and the Moxie Theater. Students also gig in Denver and Boulder, which are both just over an hour away.
When Baker went to UNC for his audition, he found the people there incredibly friendly.
“[There] wasn't a sense of competitiveness or formality with the professors and the students,” he says. "But there was a sense of community that exceeded the alienating presence that I would get in some of the other schools I was looking at.”
Baker's Jazz Lab Band I is helmed by Director of Jazz Studies and Professor of Music Dana Landry.
In 2002, Landry took over for Gene Aitken, who had headed up the program for nearly three decades and put UNC on the map by taking groups to perform at International Association of Jazz Educators conferences and growing the school's annual jazz festival, which started five decades ago.
Two years after Landry took over Jazz Studies, UNC began offering jazz degrees, in instrumental music, singing, business, performance and composition. And five years ago, the school introduced a doctorate in jazz studies. Prior to 2004, studying jazz had just been an option in a larger music program.
Landry attributes Jazz Lab Band I's continued success to the camaraderie and chemistry among the players, as well as the songs they select, which are often composed and arranged by students in the program. The composers take on the Duke Ellington tradition of writing the music themselves and tailoring each part to complement the strengths of specific players.
In addition, Landry notes the benefits of mentoring among the students within the eighteen-piece group.
“I love that part of it, because you're seeing this mentorship happening within the band for people who have a lot more experience and who are in there with people who are very good players but might not be having the same experience. You can watch their growth,” he says. "[And] I think it works both ways: Those people coming from underneath, who are the freshmen and sophomores and juniors, can end up pushing the doctoral students and the master’s students.”
A big part of UNC’s program has been its annual jazz festival, one of the largest in the country. This year, the school would have celebrated the event's fiftieth anniversary, but it was postponed until next year because of COVID-19. When the festival returns in 2021, it will include a virtual component dubbed Global Jazz Celebration.
“We’re really expanding the scope of the festival to be more global,” Landry explains. “We’ve had groups that come from Germany and China and Thailand and all over the place to the festival, but this will allow them to do it virtually, as well.”
Most of the hundred students in UNC’s jazz program are from out of state, and some come from as far away as Asia, Europe and South America, bringing international sounds to the group's performances and compositions.
A number of UNC alumni have gone on to professional careers, most notably jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, former Lumineers cellist and vocalist Neyla Pekarek, vocalist Trist Curless of the Manhattan Transfer, and singer-songwriter Angela Parish, who was featured in the film La La Land.
Saxophonist Amaya Arevalo, who also plays in Jazz Lab Band I, is one of the few students from Colorado. The Greeley native has been interested in the program since she attended UNC Jazz Camp for middle- and high school students.
Like Baker, when Arevalo started at UNC, she found the students and faculty to be kind and encouraging. She has friends who study on the coasts and report that the environment there is brutally competitive. In contrast, she says, students at UNC aren’t serving their egos; they’re serving the music. She describes a family vibe that she believes comes through in the music.
“I think it's been a good lesson for me just to remember that I'm not here to impress anyone,” Arevalo adds. “I'm here to make music with people, and music is like this sense of community. It's not just a one-man job; it's everyone's job collectively.”
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