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A Conversation with…Trombonist Steve Wiest

Jazzed Magazine • June 2007Spotlight • June 21, 2007

Steve WiestSteve Wiest, the teacher, is also Steve Wiest, the eternal student.

“What is it that Dizzy said?” he asks before answering: “‘The more I learn, the more I learn there is to learn.’ If Dizzy said that, then the rest of us have some work to do!”

Today one of the country’s most sought-after clinicians, Wiest is certainly sharing what he’s learning far and wide. Born in Cleveland to a father who was a salesman by day and a weekend warrior on the trombone at night, Steve and his family moved to various cities, including Chicago. The Wiests eventually went south to Hattiesburg, Miss., where they set down roots.

“When I entered the seventh grade, my parents had divorced and my father was held in great esteem in my imagination, so I wanted to emulate him,” Wiest recalls. “And he was always listening to the big band of Sinatra and Kenton – anything that featured trombone. I had that sound in my head.” His dad had also given him Urbie Green’s famous 21 Trombones album. “I tried to play along with that before I even knew all the positions,” Steve laughs.

Hattiesburg is 90 miles from Jackson, Miss., which is a crossroads of sorts attracting a lot of big acts on their way to one coast or the other and from Chicago to New Orleans, so Wiest was exposed to more jazz than one might assume. The local scene also created the need for players, and the young trombonist got thrown into performing at an early age: “As a young person tossed into the profession, it was sink or swim.”

He studied under Raoul Jerome at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. “The second year somebody gave me a J. J. Johnson record, and I thought, ‘Now this is what I want to do. I must spend the rest of my life trying to sound like this.'” After graduating, Wiest ended up back in Chicago where his cousin, trumpeter Nick Drozdoff, helped him into that scene, though he was playing for free more often than not. In 1981 the jazz gods smiled on him and suddenly Steve was bass clefing for Maynard Ferguson. He would spend nearly five years on the road with the great trumpeter, performing, arranging, and recording with him on Storm and Live from San Francisco.

“After I got a good hard look at the [performance] business, I decided it was more important to have a family,” he says. At the “old” age of 29 he left the band and went on to get his master’s at the University of North Texas, which he not so jokingly referred to as “The American Justice League of Jazz Education.” From there Wiest taught at the University of Texas in Arlington before landing at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, where he was director of Jazz Studies and Trombone Performance. He handled the school’s top jazz ensembles, a big band, and smaller groups, and taught improvisation, history, and arranging.

Wiest maintains an active performing and recording schedule and released his own album, Excalibur, in 2006 on the Arabesque label. Steve was in Dallas recording on former Ferguson drummer Stockton Helbing’s new CD, For Nothing is Secret, when we spoke recently#151;also he had just received some big news: he had just accepted a new position at the University of North Texas, Denton, where he was to immediately begin his new job as Assistant Professor of Jazz Composition and Jazz Trombone.

Steve WiestTrombone = Sexy
JAZZed: On a scale of one to 10, 10 being Angelina Jolie, 1 being Phyllis Diller, how sexy is the trombone?
Steve Wiest: I’d have to say about a 20! [Laughs] I’ll tell you, it’s a marketing thing. The trombone gets a bad rap sometimes, but it just needs better marketing! It’s the one instrument that best captures the human voice. It bends, moans, growls#151;does everything a human voice can. That’s just an appealing thing to me.

JAZZed: You recently recorded with Maynard Ferguson for the last time…
SW: Last summer the old alumni from the 1980s reunited for 12 sold-out shows and recorded what turned out to be his final CD [The One and Only#133; Maynard Ferguson].

My whole time with Maynard was magic, and once you were in his band, you were part of the family. After I left, whenever the band was in the area, I was invited to sit in. We became very close and he opened up a lot of doors for me.

But that time at the Blue Note turned out to be very special. On the first day of rehearsal, everybody pulled out their digital cameras and was snapping pictures#151;veteran professional musicians snapping pictures like tourists! [Laughs] And the album turned out great. It was a wonderful party, and he sounded great.

JAZZed: How many clinics do you do a year?
SW: Somewhere around 20 to 25. It’s an honor to do these clinics.

JAZZed: What’s your approach?
SW: My overriding principle is to find some way to communicate the essence of the music in the same way that turned me on to the music. I try to get to the sparkly essence of the music. Also it’s important to be very positive and never speak down to people.

JAZZed: Do you lecture or mostly play?
SW: I base it all on playing as much as I can. What’s that quote? “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” One needs to speak about the music and compositional tools, sure, but I try to back it up with my playing as much as possible. I believe that when students are exposed to the music that comes from trained jazz musicians, they fall in love with it. It’s the thrill of a shared language. You can’t help but love the music when it’s grooving just right.

At a typical high school clinic I have them play first because they are really excited about playing and I don’t want to take that away from then. Then I’ll talk a little – just a few comments – and then play. That’s basically the method.

JAZZed: What’s your approach to teaching on the college level?
SW: What I try to do is break the music into aspects of vocabulary that can be studied. We’ll take the J. J. Johnson solo on “Laura”#151;it’s such a beautiful composition#151;and I’ll have the students transcribe it, and then play along with the recording to get the nuances. Then we’ll analyze the note choices and try to assimilate it all into their own playing. I also break that down into other aspects, like basic compositional tools including ii-V progressions, extensions, et cetera.

JAZZed: You’re out there on the front lines seeing and hearing what’s going on. Do you think it’s a good time for jazz?
SW: To quote, “It’s the best of times, and it’s the worst of times. Time for wisdom and time for foolishness.” I think that’s how things are for the arts in America in general. It’s the best of times in that there are a lot of great publications out there. So along with making my students transcribe, I will enhance the process with published music, which is just as deep as classical music, practically.

JAZZed: But you still insist on your students transcribing?
SW: There are these wonderful publications in the jazz world to go along with the most important aspect: transcribing and assimilating.

JAZZed: So you’ve seen much progress in jazz material in general?
SW: I think we’re seeing the fruits of the first wave of the great jazz education programs of the 1960s and 1970s. Now for a lot of students from those programs, it was natural for them to say, “I’m going to publish a text on my approach.” Now the market is filled with great material with great voices. Like Jamey Aebersold#151;the grandmaster! The information age has been kind to jazz education. [See Sidebar.]

JAZZed: So, in what ways is the “worst of times” in your opinion?
SW: The arts have been enriched despite cuts in funding, oddly, and there are great jazz educators out there performing and recording as well as teaching. But it’s the worst of times in that the market-driven arts industry is not supporting the music like it should. You see so many great small independent labels putting out great music, but when it comes to distribution, it’s not trickling down to the young people. They aren’t getting jazz.

Wynton Marsalis is great. Everything he touches is great and I’m glad he’s the jazz ambassador crying out in the wilderness. It would be nice if the music industry in general at least marketed jazz better.

Festivals = Education
JAZZed: Are jazz band directors getting the support they need?
SW: In some places, jazz programs are in a dire situation. Programs and positions are cut, so a place that used to have two or three directors now might have to make do with one. On the other end of the spectrum, there are regions in the country that support music at a much higher level. You hear most about the programs that are getting cut, but there are unbelievable places and educators that are out there thriving.

And the flourishing programs typically have people in the administration who were educated in the arts. The more the arts are cut, the more people will become in positions of power without an appreciation for the arts. It’ll feed on itself.

JAZZed: Any pet peeves?
SW: The thing I see most often are directors who for one reason or another weren’t educated in jazz, and then they are so uncomfortable that they will de-emphasize jazz and improvisation in their program. Tied into this is that some people aren’t even listening to jazz. I’ll hear a school band that is obviously not listening#151;it’s like trying to learn a language without ever hearing it!

But there are many more programs where people are doing the homework, listening, and are passionate about it.

JAZZed: Are festivals and contests valuable?
SW: I think they are if they are done with education in mind. When festivals and contests started out in the 1970s, there was this perceived need to have trophies and for people to be in first place. But now there are too many that are just about that. There are much better models. At IAJE clinics, it’s about listening to the music and getting critical help. It’s where students get to hear other bands.

When students hear other bands that are successful, get good feedback on their playing, plus hear a great jazz artist, it’s great. If they are just going to get themselves a first place trophy for the sake of a first place trophy#133; that’s understandable, but less valuable. When the top band wins at 92.7 and another band “loses” at 92.1, and that’s what it’s all about#133; these events are most effective when they are about getting the young students exposed to the playing.

JAZZed: Are students being challenged enough in terms of jazz styles?
SW: This can be a problem If you’re going to have a jazz program, it makes a lot of sense to include fusion, for example, because it’s an important part of the jazz tradition.

[Jazz Composer/Performer/Educator] David Baker calls the bebop/hard bop era “the common practice era.” From there comes the vocabulary that fuels all the other styles, even avant-garde. But a program of just bop – or just fusion, or just swing – is not enough.

Another pet peeve of mine is that high schools, in general, are spreading their students way too thin. In jazz, the only way to get good at improvisation is to practice improvising. But these poor kids are spread thin and have a stressed-out schedule. Some even have to have jazz class in their zero hour and play jazz at 6 a.m.! Unless I stay up all night, I can’t play that early! [Laughs] I couldn’t do it with today’s environment. I hope things are cyclical. I hope it gets better and the pressure backs off a bit.

JAZZed: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What are you most excited about?
SW: The luckiest person I know is me. I would describe myself as blessed.

It’s pretty easy to get excited everyday. For one thing, I have the family. It sounds sappy, but when one of my children say, “I love you Daddy,” this is way beyond any solo Coltrane did. My family fuels my day.

As far as the music, everyday I’m trying to learn something, get to the essence of the music. It’s exciting enough to make it hard to go to sleep!

JAZZed: And now you have the honor of beginning a new phase of your career at the University of North Texas in Denton…
SW: I am thrilled to be joining the team at The University of North Texas. I have always believed that UNT has the best jazz program in the world. It will be a treat indeed to work with my good friends on the faculty and to bring all of my professional experience into play to contribute to the already thriving UNT community. The passionate, talented students at North Texas are an inspiration and we will no doubt make each other better musicians via the happy path of jazz education.

JAZZed: Any last words to jazz educators?
SW: The overriding thing I would recommend is creating a jazz environment. Try to find every single opportunity to expose your students to the music: DVDs, streaming, Web sites, CDs#133; Have music playing all the time. If you have a lunch hour situation where the kids hang out in the band room, put a Dizzy video on TV.

The Jazz educator Bart Marantz at Booker T. Washington [in Dallas] told me once how one of his good student trumpet players, upon hearing a Clifford Brown recording for the first time, instantly found his direction and became a great trumpet player: Roy Hargrove!

It’s the most important thing, letting them hear the music.

Steve Wiest Pr#233;cis

Education: Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies (Performance) – The University of Southern Mississippi; Masters Degree in Jazz Studies (Performance and Arranging) – University of North Texas.
Significant Musical Collaborations: Trombone/arranger with Maynard Ferguson, 1981-1985; Doc Severinsen Big Band: 1994-2000.
Selected Discography: Maynard Ferguson – Storm, Live from San Francisco (Palo Alto), The One and Only Maynard Ferguson (Contemporary Productions); The UNT 1:00 Lab Band – With Respect to Stan, Live from Australia, North Texas Jazz: Fifty Years; Doc Severinsen – Swingin’ the Blues (Azica): The Steve Wiest Big Band – Excalibur (Arabesque).
Composer/Arranger (partial list): with Maynard Ferguson: “South 21st Shuffle,” “Portuguese Love,” “I Love You,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Besame Mucho,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone”; Numerous works for the UNT 1:00 Lab Band which are available through UNC Jazz Press; All pieces on the Excalibur CD.
Selected Published Compositions/Arrangements/Texts (partial list): University of Northern Colorado Jazz Press: “The Miles Files,” “Upside Downside,” “On The Edge,” “Gotham City,” “Night Visions,” “Another Frame,” “The Modal House of Hip Hop”; Hal Leonard: Take the Lead; Doug Beach: selected charts from the Excalibur CD; selected charts from the Excalibur CD; Really Good Music (Ron Keezer): “Art Appreciation.”
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