Jim Widner Tracking the Measure of Progress
Amongst the foremost names in, and advocates for, jazz camps and workshops, Jim Widner is also an accomplished performer, recording artist, and educator. Widner currently serves as director of Jazz Studies/Artist in Residence at the University of Missouri, St. Louis and has also taught at Memphis State University and North Texas State University, in addition to hosting summer jazz camps across the country for the past two decades-plus.
An alumnus of the Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and Glenn Miller big bands, Jim has performed with the likes of Buddy DeFranco, Bill Watrous, Randy Brecker, and Clark Terry, among others. The Jim Widner Big Band maintains an active performance schedule and, to date, has released five albums on the Chase Music Group label.
JAZZed recently spoke with Jim Widner about his life in jazz and his unique perspective on the benefits of music camps and workshops.
JAZZed: Jim, let’s start by discussing your early music teachers and mentors. Who were some specific folks who had a major impact?
Jim Widner: Well, when I was in the 8th grade I wanted to join the school band, but since my mother was a single parent, she could not afford to rent an instrument. One day while sitting in study hall, an announcement was made inviting students to try out for the school orchestra, at that time directed by an individual named Ernie Pratt. Not truly having an interest in joining the orchestra but being completely bored in study hall, I decided to give it a try, especially since the school provided the instruments. I initially began playing the cello but never developed an attachment to it. Quite honestly, I just was not good at playing the cello. However, I still wanted to join the band.
JAZZed: So it wasn’t exactly what you were after, but that’s how things really got started for you, musically.
JW: Exactly. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I was proficient enough at playing the cello. Encouraged by the new director of the high school orchestra, who had just taken over the program, I auditioned for a seat with the Springfield, Missouri Youth Symphony directed by Jay Decker. Surprisingly, I made the cut. Later that school year, the director of the high school orchestra decided he needed bass players in the orchestra and thought that I would be a good candidate. Still not having established a bond with the cello, I decided to switch, and instantly a love affair with the bass began.
JAZZed: How did you get introduced to jazz?
JW:The summer before my junior year, my director allowed me to join the school band if I learned to play one of the school-owned sousaphones. Coincidentally, the same director had recently started a school jazz band. When I heard the first strains of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” performed by the jazz band at a school assembly, my life changed forever. I knew right then, one way or another, that I was going to be the bass player in the jazz band the following year. I made good on my vow, and after hearing the Kenton Band live in a concert at Ft. Leonard Wood, I attended the Stan Kenton Summer Jazz Camp in the summer of ’63. The band director, who changed my life and countless others over his years of teaching, was a gentleman by the name of Jerry Hoover. He currently is the director of Bands at Missouri State University.
JAZZed: You ended up at University of Missouri, Memphis State after high school, yes?
JW: Yes. After graduating from Lebanon [Mo.] High School in 1964 with the knowledge that I could not afford college tuition, I decided to join the Air Force. Becoming a fighter jet pilot was one of my dreams. Once again, Jerry Hoover interceded and arranged for me to audition for a scholarship at the University of Missouri, with Charles Emmons, the Director of Bands at Mizzou. Much to my surprise, I was awarded a full tuition scholarship. Consequently, my dream to fly fighter jets was never to be realized.
JAZZed: Aviation’s loss was surely the music world’s gain. Let’s discuss your time at University of Missouri, Memphis State.
JW: Sure [laughs]. Although the University of Missouri did not have an established jazz band, I was honored and thrilled to be there. My scholarship included membership in the orchestra, concert band, and Marching Mizzou Yes, I still had to carry that damn sousaphone! Another part of the scholarship required me to work on campus for two hours each morning in the library. Making the mighty sum of eighty-five cents an hour gave me enough money to pay rent in a rooming house close to campus. Since University of Missouri had no organized school jazz band, the only opportunity to play jazz were jam sessions with other students who also wanted to play this kind of music. Soon I started getting calls to play dance gigs around the area and made enough money so I could afford to quit my library job. After a couple of years, the University Band program decided to start a jazz ensemble, and it was a privilege to be a charter member.
JAZZed: Sounds like you made the most of your time there. Let’s shift gears a little bit: you’ve worked with the Kenton, Herman, and Miller big bands can you talk about those experiences and how they informed your approach to teaching? Let’s start at the beginning: How did you get hooked up with Stan Kenton?
JW: Having attended the Kenton summer camps continuously since 1963, I was honored that my friend John Worster, Kenton’s bassist for a number of years, had arranged for me to play in Stan’s band after his departure. Needless to say, this was a dream come true in every way imaginable. During the summer of ’67, Stan only had the band out on the road for short periods at a time; however, it enabled me to play with the band during two summer camps. This afforded me instructor status at the camps, which was the ultimate prize.
After my first concert with the Kenton Band at Redlands University (Calif.) during a weeklong camp, Stan pulled me aside the next day and asked me to get my bass and meet him in one of the music rooms. Of course, this made me a little more nervous than I already was, but Stan always had a reason for everything. He said, “Let’s just play some blues,” so we did. After a couple of courses, he stopped and asked, “Now Jim, do you really feel like you #149;feel the time,’ or are you just playing?” Having never been asked that before, or even thought about it, I answered, “I guess I was just playing.” He said (while clicking his fingers), “Let’s do it again, but this time, I want you to really think about the #149;time’ before you start playing.” I did just that, and when he gave the count off, it had a totally different feel to it. Stan’s lesson is one that I never forgot, and I use it to this day with all students and bands with whom I work.
JAZZed: Grasping the feel of a piece is pretty essential to understanding and playing jazz, no question. Moving on: when did you join up with the Woody Herman Band?
JW: After the last camp that summer, I returned to the University of Missouri to continue my studies. Just prior to the start of classes, I was asked to join the Woody Herman Band. It was yet another great honor that proved to be one of the most intimidating experiences I ever had. The band was completely different as it was loaded with world-class players and was more of a business band instead of a “family” atmosphere as in the Kenton Band. I quickly became extremely uncomfortable with the situation. It only took the first night for me to realize I was in over my head.
JAZZed: Really? It was that intense?
JW: Well, playing with Ed Soph and the late John Hicks in the rhythm section was intimidating enough, but trying to keep up with soloists like Sal Nistico, Lou Marini, Ronnie Cuber, Billy Hunt, Bob Burgess and many others was more than I could handle. But man, what an education! After the first week, the road manager and I knew the band needed to find a more suitable bass player. Playing with Ed Soph and Dee Barton further emphasized the value of just playing good “time,” and the lesson has stayed with me throughout my career.
JAZZed: You seem to have been able to focus on the positive aspects of the experience, even if it was nerve-wracking at the time. Finally, can you tell me about the Glenn Miller Orchestra?
JW: In late #149;68, I received a call to tour with the Glenn Miller Orchestra (GMO), which was then under the direction of Buddy DeFranco. I had mixed feelings about joining the band because, having played with Kenton and Herman, I thought I was probably too “hip” to play with GMO. It was not until I toured Japan and played to sold-out concert halls (sometimes two shows a night) that I gained a whole new respect for the name Glenn Miller. To be halfway around the world and have the audience request specific tunes that they knew from listening to Miller albums, I again had a valuable learning experience not to be so judgmental of the music. Besides: touring Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe a couple of times, along with working with Buddy DeFranco how bad could it be?
JAZZed: Were all these gigs concurrent with your college career or did this all happen after you graduated?
JW: These tours were interludes with my undergraduate studies, but I finally decided to finish my degree. By going on the road, it took longer to conclude my courses, but I finally earned my degree in Music Education in January of #149;71. During this time, I also received requests to work with the fabulous vocalist, Marilyn Maye. These gigs were usually on the weekends in the Midwest and did not interfere with school. But I did have the opportunity to perform with her in Las Vegas a couple of times. Even with a busy road schedule, I still continued to teach each summer at the Kenton camps directing student bands.
In the early #149;70s, I moved to Los Angeles to work in Kenton’s office, where I was specifically charged with the details for all summer camps, which had now spread to five locals across the United States and Canada. Stan’s first camp outside of California was one that I established at Drury College in Springfield, Missouri with Don Verne Joseph and Matt Betton. While teaching at these camps, I met Dr. Tom Ferguson, who convinced me to come to Memphis and work with him at Memphis State University.
JAZZed: Tell me about your responsibilities at Memphis State?
JW: I not only worked with Dr. Ferguson for three years but I was also able to earn my masters degree there. Tom then accepted the position of director of Jazz Studies at Arizona State University, after which I was asked to direct the jazz program at Memphis State. The appointment was my first official full-time teaching gig. After directing the program for the following year, I finally received an offer to become a part of the jazz program at North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas). One of my colleagues at the Kenton summer camps was Leon Breeden, who happened to be the director of the jazz program at North Texas State University. As a result, I was offered the opportunity to direct the 3:00 O’clock Lab Band. Directing one of the lab bands at North Texas, along with teaching at the Kenton camps, was indeed the crowning jewel of my jazz education.
One of my major contributions to the Lab Band program was taking the 3:00 O’clock Band on a five-day tour outside of the state of Texas. This had never been done, yet I managed to convince Leon Breeden that this was a great opportunity to demonstrate the true depth of the program. Interestingly enough, the jazz tenor player in the 3:00 O’clock band at the time was Tim Ries, who records with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra and tours with the Rolling Stones. Other players from that band included lead trumpet player Dan Fornero (an L.A. session player currently with Gordon Goodwin), Joe Eckert (former director of the Airmen of Note) and Brad Dutz (L.A. session percussionist, Gordon Goodwin, et cetera) and several others who now have a career in jazz performance and jazz education.
All of the above mentioned individuals were extremely influential in my teaching career, but I have always credited my high school band director, Jerry Hoover, Stan Kenton, and Kenton bassist John Worster as the major influences that forged a path for me to enjoy a career in jazz.
JAZZed: Can you describe how you came to be on staff at University of Missouri?
JW: After a year of post-graduate work at North Texas and with a wife and two children, I made the decision to move back to Missouri to be near family. From the time spent at Kenton’s office through my time at North Texas, I had developed a successful clinic program of my own, conducting concerts and clinics with high schools and colleges across the United States. These programs continue to this day and include jazz festivals in schools as well as regional festivals such as the Quad-Cities Jazz Festival in Moline, Illinois.
One of the first festivals I established was at Mineral Area College (MAC) in Park Hills, Missouri, where Dr. Dixie Kohn, who was then president of MAC, hired me. A friend from our days at the University of Missouri, Kohn later retired from MAC and accepted a position as vice-chancellor of University Relations at the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL). When the position of director of Jazz Studies became available at UMSL, it was Dr. Kohn who recommended me as a candidate. I was hired to take over UMSL’s program, which included directing the jazz ensemble and combos and the responsibility of building a more widely known program.
JAZZed: Tell me a little about your duties there and how your job has evolved over the years?
JW: One of my first tasks as director of Jazz Studies was to focus on recruiting students. My previous relationships with many band directors in the St. Louis Metro area proved to be a valuable advantage.I was able to immediately begin working with their programs on behalf of the university. To gain additional recognition of our jazz program, I established UMSL’s Greater St. Louis Jazz Festival. In four years, the festival has featured guest artists Clark Terry, Mulgrew Miller, Gordon Goodwin and the Big Phat Band, Conrad Herwig, Bobby Watson, Jeff Hamilton, Clay Jenkins, Tim Ries, Marilyn Maye, and many others. One of my other responsibilities when I came to UMSL was to develop a jazz combo/improv camp. In the summer of ’08 we are adding the Jim Widner Big Band Camp to the UMSL campus. These events put prospective students on our campus who might not otherwise be exposed to our program.
The jazz festival itself has taken on a life of its own and it has expanded to four days. We have partnered with Jazz St. Louis to host two days of school combos at Jazz at the Bistro, which was recently named by USA Today as one of the top 10 jazz clubs in the country. Each student combo participates in a clinic session with our guest artists and performs in the club. In addition, we host two days of school big bands (high school, middle school and college) in our beautiful, state-of-the-art Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on the UMSL campus. The festival is based on a non-competitive format and emphasizes clinic sessions with our guest artists following their performance. Evening concerts featuring the guest artists with the UMSL Jazz Ensemble follow daytime activities.
Since coming to UMSL we have added an adjunct jazz faculty to include classes in improvisation as well as secondary applied study in jazz on each instrument. This has helped establish continued growth in the program.
JAZZed: What do you find to be the most rewarding element of teaching?
JW: The most rewarding element of teaching is recognizing the progress of each student throughout the semester and how their progress contributes to the development and musicality of each ensemble. I always ask any band I direct, whether it is my university ensemble or an honors band, to remember how they sound on the first day and then remember how they sound on the last day. That is the measure of progress.
JAZZed: Ok how about the flipside of the same topic: What’s the most frustrating or un-enjoyable aspect of being a music teacher?
JW: You do not encounter many frustrations when teaching, but the biggest frustration for me is not being able to reach that one student who I know has the talent. The student may have the skills to play in one of our bands, but for whatever reason, he/she does not connect. However, given the opportunity to connect, he/she could become better that is the ultimate reward for any educator.
The biggest challenge in establishing a new jazz program is convincing prospective students of the strengths in your competitive program versus a recognized program. This is especially true for UMSL, as we are the new kid on the block.
I imagine I speak for a lot of teachers when I say that probably the least enjoyable part of teaching is when you have to dismiss a student for reasons beyond your control.
JAZZed: “Jazz,” as a topic or subject of study, is perhaps more prevalent in jr. and sr. high school music programs than it was long ago, but for some teachers with a more classical background it’s still “mysterious” or “difficult.” How would you advise a music director to best introduce jazz education into their overall curriculum?
JW: To the music director who still finds teaching jazz mysterious or difficult, I would strongly advise him or her to attend clinics and workshops to help unlock the door of fear. Many directors either did not have or did not take the opportunity to play in a jazz ensemble. Understandably they may be afraid to introduce jazz to their students because they don’t know what to do or how to go about it. Consider taking a week or two in the summer to attend a jazz camp (maybe one big band camp and one combo camp) to help secure some of the tools you need to get you started in teaching jazz. Sadly, a lot of directors view this as an act of weakness, when in reality it shows a sign of strength. In today’s market, there are a plethora of recordings, methods and materials to help any director get started. Camps and workshops let you learn from the best of the best jazz artists/educators. Most of all I’d say: “Go for it! Your students deserve it.”
JAZZed: Can you discuss your experiences with the Kenton, Hermon, and Miller big bands and how that has informed your approach to teaching, if at all? To what extent have those been “learning experiences” for you, personally?
JW: Having taught at the Kenton camps for 10 years, I was strongly influenced by Stan’s dedication to young student musicians and jazz education in general. When he died in 1979, Stan strongly expressed in no uncertain terms in his will that there would be no Kenton “ghost band.” Everything he did came to a screeching halt. In the nine years following Stan’s death, I often asked myself why the concept of the Kenton camps had to cease, even if there was no Kenton band. I kept waiting for someone to step forward and “carry the torch,” but no one ever did. Finally, I went to the Kenton estate and asked for their permission and blessing, to pick up where Stan left off. After a brief hesitation, Audree Kenton gave me her blessing to do a camp in Stan’s likeness, as long as I did not use Stan’s name in any way. I agreed, but did ask for a letter in writing to use as an endorsement. She graciously obliged, but to this day, I have never used that letter. I called former sidemen with Kenton who had been involved with the camps over the years. After a lot of begging, most agreed to come on board and give it a try. By the way, the drummer on the Jim Widner Big Band for the first four years was Ed Soph, previously with the Woody Herman Big Band! This past summer we celebrated our 20th anniversary of the summer camps in what started out as only a dream. Now, like many others, I am still drawn to these camps because I know they work. In addition to daily classes in improvisation, instrument master classes, big band or combo rehearsals, sectionals and jazz theory, the students get to hear a professional big band or combo, depending on which camp they attend, each day or evening. This is the frosting on the cake.
JAZZed: Very cool. From a professional standpoint as a performer and recording artist, what do you consider to be the highlight of your career?
JW: The highlight of my professional career is being able to hold a big band together for twenty years under my name, a band that includes world class artists (many of whom have been on the band for as long as 15 years), and recording five critically acclaimed CDs.
JAZZed: Same question, but this time: What are the career highlights as an educator?
JW: My highlight as an educator has been to be able to walk in to any situation be it clinic, festival, or anything else and make a contribution to help a band or even a single individual sound better. I credit this ability to the knowledge that I have gained from working with and learning from some of the finest artists and educators that this art form has to offer. Not only have I experienced a great career in jazz, but a year ago last Father’s Day, thanks to my son Lance and his connections, I finally got my ride in a fighter jet!