Dave Loeb and the Jazz Studies Program at UNLV

January 16, 2018

Berklee, NEC, USC Thornton School of Music, University of Miami Frost School of Music, University of North Texas College of Music – these and a handful of other colleges and universities are the “big” names when it comes to jazz education, post-high school. And deservedly so. Boasting world-renowned faculty and facilities and alumni that read like a “who’s who” of significant jazz musicians, there’s every reason why anyone reading this article is familiar with these institutes of higher learning.

It nonetheless behooves jazz scholars and educators to not underestimate or discount some of the perhaps less well-known jazz programs (to some) out there. Accomplished faculty and ambitious, talented students are advancing jazz culture at numerous jazz departments – of all sizes and stature – throughout the world.

One such department, The Jazz Studies program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), has truly been making folks take notice in recent years. Building upon an already strong reputation, under the guidance of director Dave Loeb – an exceedingly accomplished performer, composer, conductor, arranger, and educator – UNLV is making a compelling case for young jazz students to consider making the trek to Vegas.

We recently sat down with Loeb to learn more about his background, as well as his takes on how best to teach this uniquely American art form, and where jazz sits in contemporary popular culture.

Can you provide a little insight into your own background in music? When did you first get involved with playing an instrument and how did your education evolve?

I began piano lessons at age 7 in Norristown, Pennsylvania and began playing professionally in the greater Philadelphia area when I was 15 years old in churches, private parties, clubs, theaters, miscellaneous events, and later for a local television show at age 21.

While performing professionally in the Philadelphia entertainment community, I attended and subsequently graduated from West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1974 with a Bachelor of Science in Music Education. I continued to perform professionally throughout region and nation with various groups and then moved to Rochester, New York in 1976, where I attended and graduated from the Eastman School of Music with a Masters of Music in Jazz and Contemporary Media in 1977, after studying jazz piano with Bill Dobbins and jazz arranging with Rayburn Wright.

I was offered the position as musical director, pianist, conductor and arranger for the Tony Award-winning entertainer, Ben Vereen, while a student at Eastman, and moved to Los Angeles, California, at Mr. Vereen’s request, upon my graduation. After moving to Los Angeles, I established a successful career as a jazz and studio recording pianist, on the soundtracks and underscore for many popular television shows and several acclaimed movies, and musical director for many celebrity entertainers. I also composed and arranged for PBS television documentaries and was employed in other related musical activities including conducting for major television shows, orchestras and theatrical performances and performing as principal keyboardist for the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. 

So how did you wind up at UNLV?

My good friend and brilliant jazz bassist, arranger, and composer, Tom Warrington, was teaching at UNLV and asked me to apply for the position as director of Jazz Studies after the departure of former director, Stefan Karlsson. I interviewed and was offered the job in 2002 and moved to Las Vegas to administer and develop the UNLV Jazz Studies Program. Although I was primarily absorbed in teaching and administrating the UNLV Jazz Studies Program, I maintained my extensive contacts and activities with the professional music network in Los Angeles and abroad in order to have the ability to connect students with important opportunities in the contemporary music industry.

Can you talk about the current makeup of the UNLV Jazz Studies program? How many students are enrolled? How many faculty members are there?

We currently have approximately 60 students involved at the undergraduate and graduate levels in our award-winning UNLV School of Music, Division of Jazz Studies. We have three full-time faculty including assistant professor, Adam Schroeder, associate professor Nathan Tanouye, and myself. The UNLV Jazz Program is dependent on our exceptional part-time faculty to deliver essential additional instruction including: composer, arranger, pianist, and director Uli Geissendoerfer; bassist Steve Flora; jazz vocalist JoBelle Yonely; jazz vocal ensemble director Janet Tyler; jazz guitarist Jake Langley; jazz trumpet artist, Gil Kaupp; arranger, composer, and saxophonist Julian Tanaka; composer, pianist, and arranger Alex Clements; drummers Bernie Dresel, Larry Aberman, and Pepe Jimenez; and trombonist, arranger, and composer Nate Kimball.

For the three auditioned large ensembles, what’s the audition process? Of those who apply, what percentage makes it in?

Our audition process for the three large jazz ensembles consists of performances of three contrasting jazz selections demonstrating improvisational ability in the jazz idiom, a short classical etude, playing scales and modes and sight-reading. Most of the students who audition are placed in one of the three large jazz ensembles, our Latin, Vocal, Guitar, or Contemporary Jazz Ensembles or other performing combos. We also have combos available that specifically provide performance opportunities for students who are learning to improvise in the jazz idiom.

UNLV’s jazz combos have experienced success at a number of prominent festivals. How often do the groups travel to perform or compete?

UNLV Jazz Ensemble I, Latin Jazz Ensemble, Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, Joe Williams Scholarship Combo, and Honors Combos have consistently experienced significant success at important jazz festivals including the Monterey Next Generation and Reno Jazz Festivals. In 2017, UNLV Jazz Ensemble was invited perform at the acclaimed Monterey Jazz Festival after tying for first place in the highly competitive College Big Band Division at the prestigious Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival. UNLV Jazz Studies students have received eleven distinguished international DownBeat Magazine Student Music Awards since 2010, including best undergraduate Latin Jazz Group in 2015 for the UNLV Latin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Uli Geissendoerfer. In addition, our UNLV Jazz Program CD releases, on TNC recordings, have received sustained outstanding reviews from the widely respected jazz publication, Jazz Times, since 2010. Our groups have travelled extensively throughout the years to festivals including the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival, Reno Jazz Festival and Midwest Clinic, in Chicago, Illinois, as well as for recruiting performances and tours of Southern California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, and Arizona. 

How often does UNLV’s Jazz Studies program host guest lecturers or musicians?

UNLV Division of Jazz Studies hosts many world-class jazz artists and educators throughout the year who perform with our student ensembles, combos, and faculty groups, and provide relevant and informative master classes and clinics for our dedicated students. Some of the legendary jazz artists who have visited UNLV include Chris Potter, Wayne Bergeron, Rich Perry, Bobby Shew, Bob Sheppard, Joe LaBarbera, Bill Cunliffe, Peter Erskine, Carl Saunders, Marlena Shaw, Bob McChesney, Clay Jenkins, George Stone, Tom Scott, Brandon Fields, Scott Henderson, George Garzone, and many others.

Much has been made in recent years of how college music programs are producing “too many” musicians – in other words, there are only so many viable music careers out there. How do you help prepare jazz students to actually make a living in music, post-college?

At UNLV, and because of the deep connections our jazz faculty enjoy in the contemporary music industry, we have a unique opportunity to engage our students as professional musicians in Las Vegas, the entertainment capital of the world, for many shows, concerts and other related performances. Although there are many musicians assimilated in the professional music industry from the best collegiate music programs, we are fortunate to have a steady stream of professional options for our students. This is primarily due to the proximity of our institution to the burgeoning Las Vegas entertainment community and the professional level of playing our students consistently produce as a result of the comprehensive training they receive in the UNLV Jazz Studies program.

Who are some of the most well known graduates of UNLV’s program?

UNLV Jazz Studies alumni have populated top professional musical ensembles, including the Count Basie Orchestra, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, the John Scofield Jazz Quartet, the Dukes of Dixieland, the Saturday Night Live Orchestra, the Santana Band, Chicago, and numerous others. Alumni have conducted important performances, composed and arranged for television, major concerts and shows, and taught at prestigious universities and institutions throughout the world. UNLV Jazz Studies alumni include: drummer, composer, and arranger Dennis MacKrel; composer, arranger, and jazz trumpet artist Kenny Rampton; jazz pianist Mike Eckroth; jazz saxophonist Paul Taylor; trombonist, conductor, arranger, and composer Nathan Tanouye; drummer Walfredo Reyes, Jr.; pianist, composer, and arranger Uli Geissendoerfer; trumpeter and composer David Perrico; trombonist and composer Nathan Kimball; trombonist Curt Miller; trumpeter Tom Ehlen; and numerous others.

What’s your own perspective on the current state of jazz in contemporary culture? Do you feel its popularity is waning or on the rise?

Although there have been published articles on the decline of jazz music, I have observed considerable evidence to the contrary. Jazz is an original American art form and contributes to the creativity and development inherent in many forms and idioms of music in our popular culture. Jazz is also one of the musical genres that demand spontaneous composition through the performance art of improvisation. Although this aspect of musicality is not entirely unique to jazz, the very high level of ability in improvisational technique required of jazz artists certainly places jazz as one of the most revered conduits of musical expression available in contemporary music worldwide.

How do you feel the radical changes to the recorded music industry have affected jazz musicians? On the one hand, the relative ease of recording these days and the ability for essentially anyone to upload and stream music online can be seen as having “leveled the playing field” and provided opportunities for exposure to far more artists, while on the other hand, with fewer album sales and less record label support, there’s less financial stability – even for established acts.

There are many issues for jazz musicians in the contemporary music industry, including deriving income from musical compositions and arrangements as well as receiving sufficient remuneration for performances. Although there are incredible opportunities available today for visibility and exposure through social media and other related outlets for jazz musicians, composers, arrangers, orchestrators, producers, directors, and educators, it can be more difficult to obtain reasonable income, particularly for original creative works, as a result of instant and free access to music through Spotify and other sources.

This is an ongoing dilemma that is currently being addressed with members of the Grammy organization with our Congress through the Fair Play/Fair Play Act and other impending legislation. However, there seems to be an increase in live concerts and similar performances that give musicians ample means of remaining employed in the music industry. In addition, many artists sell their CDs at live concerts and receive substantial income from their original pieces through iTunes and other media. Many musical artists balance teaching at universities with professional musical activities and, as a result, have achieved significant success in the contemporary musical world.

What’s the best part of being a jazz instructor?

Teaching jazz has been very challenging and yet rewarding for me over the past fifteen years at UNLV. When our students perform at a very high level both in UNLV concerts and in professional settings, my efforts are validated and I am very proud of their significant accomplishments. We strive to foster an environment that respects each student’s unique musical abilities and talents and encourages them to achieve an important balance in all facets of their respective musical development. One of the most important aspects in their musical educational is the process of discovery and our faculty embraces this philosophy in their teaching. The teaching of improvisational [performance] can be challenging, but can be enhanced by using recordings of the jazz masters for students to emulate while also developing their own unique musical voice through multiple performances on and off campus with jazz combos and ensembles.

Any words of advice you’d like to pass along to your fellow educators?

The only advice I would offer to my colleagues in the world of jazz education is to provide a learning environment that gives students essential musical skills while exposing them to jazz and world music, the legacy of the classical musical tradition, as well as commercial music in all idioms including film music. It is also essential to offer them the chance to develop their potential as performers, composers, arrangers, orchestrators, conductors, musical directors, and educators through meaningful musical experiences that are made available at your institution.

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