Jim Widner Celebrates the 30th Anniversary of His Big Band and Summer Jazz Camps

November 7, 2017

By Leslie Buttonow

Lincoln East student Ellie Woody practicing bass under the guidance of Jim Widner

Jim Widner’s influence on jazz education is one for the ages. Or, rather, one for all ages. He’s currently a professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he directs the UMSL Jazz Ensemble, but his reach goes far beyond that. This year, he’s celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Jim Widner Big Band and his acclaimed summer jazz camps for middle school, high school and college students.

As a performer, Widner’s resume includes impressive entries as a former bassist with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra directed by Buddy DeFranco. Widner has also performed at the Lionel Hampton and Montreaux Jazz Festivals, as well as concert dates with Clark Terry, Marilyn Maye, Lou Marini, Louie Bellson, Randy Brecker, Bill Watrous, and many others. However, it was his experience teaching at the Stan Kenton camps in the 1970s that inspired him to leave a mark on the next generation of jazz musicians. After receiving the blessing of the Kenton estate after Stan’s passing, Widner formed the Jim Widner Big Band and created his own summer jazz camp from the ground up. For the past 30 years, both have grown hand-in-hand and inspired countless jazz students.

In the mid-1980s, Widner assembled a professional big band – some of whom had been alumni of the Kenton camps – and he created a summer camp under his own name. “I wanted to create something to continue Stan’s legacy for the next generation of players, notes Widner. “After he died, I didn’t think Stan’s concept of jazz education should die with him.”

The camps quickly caught on, and more personnel who had remembered the Kenton camps signed on. Widner says, “While the band personnel have changed over the years, some of the folks in today’s version of the band have been with me for almost 20 years.” The camps, which offer a week-long, immersive experience for students, have grown substantially over the years. In totality, they’ve appeared on campuses in cities from the Gulf coast to the West coast, including Drury College (now University) in Springfield Missouri – where Widner had previously been involved in a Kenton camp – Sacramento State University, University of South Alabama – Mobile, Community College of Southern Nevada – Las Vegas, and their current homes at the University of Missouri – St. Louis, and University of Nebraska – Omaha. Campers take advantage of sessions that include master classes, theory and improvisation, as well as group listening, rehearsals, concerts by the Jim Widner Big Band, and a student performance with the band on the final night.

Beyond personnel and a strong curriculum, what does Widner credit as a key element of the camp’s success over the years? “I think it’s the music itself,” he remarks. “There are more jazz programs in colleges and universities than there have ever been. It used to be that the school programs were only immersed in marching bands and concert bands. Jazz has flourished because the students could relate to it beyond just marches and classical music –it has broad appeal. When many students go on to college, they are more enticed to attend a school that has a jazz program.”

Widner’s conviction of the importance of jazz education led him to also become a founding member of JEN (Jazz Education Network) nearly ten years ago. His campus, UMSL, hosted the first annual conference that provides jazz educators with learning and networking opportunities, and features clinics and concerts. Fittingly, the conference was also the backdrop for one of Widner’s fondest performance memories with his band, involving a rather eclectic assembly of talent. He recalls, “One year we were selected to perform as the headliner concert at the JEN conference in Dallas. I had two special guest performers with the band: Peter Erskine and Lou Marini – ‘Blue Lou’ from the Blues Brothers band!”

Likewise, 30 years of summer camps brings some fond memories as well. Widner reminisces, “The fondest memories, aside from the brotherhood and camaraderie of the people you get to perform with and work with night after night, come from being on the receiving end of the excitement of all the young people attending your concerts. The reaction we get from the campers is what rewards us to keep doing this. We’re influencing the next generation of campers – it’s very gratifying.” As for a standout moment, Widner says, “At the University of Omaha camp, we had one of the greatest jazz vocalist of all time show up – Marilyn Maye. She brought charts, rehearsed with our band and performed. It was unexpected; she was in town and thought it would be fun to sing with us. And a few years ago, at UMSL, Terrence Blanchard did an afternoon concert for the camp, sponsored through the Jazz St. Louis organization. He and his entire band came out for a guest appearance.”

In addition to performing at the summer camps, the Jim Widner Big Band has played live on tour and produced six critically acclaimed albums with the endorsement of fellow jazz artists. “John Clayton wrote the liner notes for our latest CD And the Beat Goes on,” shares Widner. “On my very first recording, Clark Terry and Louie Bellson wrote the liner notes. And Peter Erskine wrote the liner notes for our Out of This World CD.” The band is still very active, performing, making special appearances, and conducting clinics at a variety of universities and other venues including Missouri, Indiana and Nebraska.

Sax students receive a lesson from LA pro Kim Richmond

Widner’s experience as a professional musician has enabled him to inspire jazz students he teaches in both a formal university setting and a less formal summer camp setting. As with any career path, being an educator has its challenges and uncertainties, but with that comes great satisfaction and many rewards. Widner shares some of those rewards and the “secret sauce” that has kept him inspired in each scenario over the years.

“In the formal setting of the university, you have students work under your tutelage, for several years, and you help to develop students and grow a program, getting more and better students along the way. Seeing the growth of a University jazz program – that’s an exciting thing. You also get some very talented students, and the epitome of being a jazz professor is to see your students go on to do great things after graduating.” He adds, “On the informal side, my favorite thing about the camps is that you keep getting more and more and different young people to come because of what the camps are. Sometimes we have campers who come year after year, but when you get the influx of new campers, that’s a testament that you’re doing something right, because word of mouth is still your best endorsement. One thing that excites me about the camps is when the kids get excited to see the professionals play; that’s inspiring. Something else that excites me is seeing a young student improvise for the first time.” From a practical and educational standpoint, he shares another favorite element, both for him and the campers: “The kids get to hear a real live professional big band and hear that wall of sound coming at them. They hear dynamics, phrasing and everything we talk about in the daytime sessions; it makes a lot more sense to them.”

But Widner’s underlying motivation for his camps comes from something very personal to him. “Students of this music need someone they look up to or respect,” he says. “My heroes were Stan Kenton, Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, and others whom I looked up to, worked with, and learned from; they were my inspiration and that of thousands of other artists.” He goes on to declare, “Other people have to step up to the plate and try to do what they did to inspire others. That’s what my band and I are trying to do.”

In addition to inspiring students, Widner’s university and camp programs inspire fellow educators, and those educators, in turn, inspire others. “Every director of a successful jazz program will be asked about programming, etc. Very commonly, they’ll invite you to work with their program or they’ll bring their young students to your concert to hear what a university band sounds like. Educators talk with each other all the time to compare what charts they use, what clinics they attended or summer camps they recommend.” And along with that should be an altruistic spirit amongst educators, as Widner says, “You need to park your ego at the door; we should all be digging and appreciating other bands and programs and appreciating what they’re doing.”

So what advice would Widner give to other musicians and music educators who are helping to bring up the next generation of jazz musicians?Educators need to really take the time, the trouble, and effort to take their students to jazz concerts, clinics and camps, even if they weren’t schooled in jazz and may be a little intimidated by jazz,” he recommends. “I think doing these things shows security by the fact that they’re willing to take their students to hear live concerts, whether it’s a legendary artist in a performance hall, or someone at a college band.” As for personal enrichment, he advises, “Educators should attend clinics to become more confident about starting a jazz program or making the one they have even better. Educators feel like they should know everything in front of the students, but no one knows everything.” He puts that advice into action to this day, noting, “I ask for help all the time; I go up to people and attend clinics to help my band and myself. I learned what I didn’t know about talking to a brass section or saxophone section, and attended a percussion clinic so that I could then go back and talk to my band’s sections and look like the smartest person, all by listening to people who know what they’re talking about.”

Much of Widner’s practical advice and approach can be summed up by a clever quote he recalled reading or hearing somewhere a while ago that said, “If you steal ideas from just one source, that’s considered stealing. But if you steal ideas from a lot of people, that’s called research!”

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