Rarely, if ever, does an unheralded student music ensemble win a major award from a prestigious international publication, but that’s exactly what the Fredonia New Jazz Ensemble did when it received DownBeat magazine’s Student Music Award for Outstanding Performance by a College Large Jazz Ensemble – Undergraduate College division, for 2019.
“This is an incredible honor for [director] Nick Weiser and the students in his jazz program,” said Mel Unger, director of the School of Music. “We are absolutely thrilled!”
Now in its 42nd year, the magazine’s Student Music Awards are often dominated by the country’s most prestigious conservatories and universities, such as the University of North Texas College of Music, whose jazz program is the largest in the nation; Eastman School of Music; and Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.
“The fact that this is blindly judged means that the results can’t be biased by the history or reputation of iconic jazz programs or big names,” Dr. Weiser said. “To be selected from what was sure to be a strong pool of applicants is all the more satisfying.”
What makes Fredonia winning this award even more remarkable is that the live recording Weiser submitted to the magazine was drawn from the ensemble’s inaugural performance, held last November in Rosch Recital Hall. Weiser, who joined the School of Music in 2017, rechristened the former Latin Jazz Ensemble and began emphasizing music by living composers, composers of color and composers who are otherwise under represented.
“The change welcomes a new perspective and energy, and really opened the band up to exploring a repertoire that doesn’t get programmed as much,” Weiser remarked of the new catalog. “Students are excited about it; they own the music because they can relate to it.”
The three selections submitted by Weiser were “Wyrgly” by composer/jazz orchestra leader Maria Schneider; ”Skylark,” arranged by musician/composer Bob Brookmeyer; and Radiohead’s “Kid A,” arranged by Steve Owen. “The students knew the band Radiohead, and I think that framed the energy with which they approached the music,” Weiser said.
DownBeat magazine is renowned for recognizing the cutting edge of the jazz tradition, Weiser noted. “Obviously they explore the traditional, but they’re also well-attuned to where the music is going. I think that played to our advantage,” he added.
Judging criteria included overall quality of the performance, with an awareness of style, the ensemble’s sound and blend, as well as improvisational acumen and overall impact.
That his students performed so well didn’t surprise Weiser. “I have been impressed with the work ethic of my students and their desire to make and present music of the highest quality,” he said. “I hold them to a very high standard, and I believe their receiving this recognition is evidence they are up to the challenge.”
Misael Villa, a junior Music Education major who grew up reading about great saxophone players in the magazine, said receiving the award was incredible. “To know that an organization like that reviewed and heard us playing means a lot, so I’m really excited,” Mr. Villa said. He’s very proud of what the ensemble has been able to accomplish, especially since it’s a new program.
Fredonia has one of the longest histories of jazz music making in higher education, which began with the founding of the student-lead Fredonia Jazz Workshop in 1934 – coincidentally the first year of DownBeat magazine. Despite this history, the formal B.A. Jazz Studies program was not launched until 2017, and its now award-winning Fredonia New Jazz Ensemble was founded just one year later.
Weiser acknowledges the contributions of Bruce Johnstone, who directed the former Curricular Jazz Ensemble, now the Fredonia Jazz Orchestra, and John Bacon, who directed the former Latin Jazz Ensemble, now the New Jazz Ensemble.
“This is a testament to their legacy here,” Weiser said of the DownBeat award.
“My hope is that the award will shine a spotlight on the excellent music making that is happening here,” Weiser said.
The DownBeat award represents an achievement of the entire School of Music – students and faculty, according to Weiser. “The jazz ensemble draws musicians from many different instrumental areas, so its success is contingent on the successes in those areas.”
School of Music Director Unger believes the honor will place Fredonia’s jazz program “on the map,” and that many more students will give serious consideration to auditioning at Fredonia.
Recipients of all Student Music Awards will be published in the magazine’s June issue, which goes on sale this week.