by Emily Brandler Proffitt, '05
When alto saxophonist Lee Konitz took the stage at the beautifully restored Fox Theater in downtown Spokane this November, the jazz legend's performance with Whitworth's award-winning jazz ensemble not only blew the roof off the place, the concert also represented the culmination of two decades of work developing the jazz program into one that can attract a musician of Konitz's caliber.
Konitz, winner of the 2009 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award – our nation's highest award in jazz – is widely considered one of the world's most important living jazz musicians. He greatly influenced the transition of jazz from swing to the modern era by helping to launch the "cool jazz" movement, which arose in the late 1940s and featured smooth, composed arrangements and improvisation. During the Whitworth concert, Konitz played expanded arrangements from the landmark jazz album Birth of the Cool, which he and a collective of artists recorded with Miles Davis and Gerry Mulligan in 1949-50.
The jazz studies program at Whitworth, bolstered by annual performances with renowned guest artists such as Konitz, has earned a respected place in the national jazz education scene, but it isn't the only note the Whitworth Music Department plays. The choir, wind symphony, symphony orchestra, and women's choir have gained prominence in the region, have toured both nationally and internationally, and have produced several albums. In addition, worship music plays an integral role in the university's music scene. In recent years, Assistant Professor of Music Ben Brody, '98, has been working to expand and deepen worship music's presence on Whitworth's campus and in its curriculum.
Konitz joins a list of jazz greats who have performed with the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble over the years. Other guest artists include Terence Blanchard, Bob Mintzer, Joe Lovano, Slide Hampton, Nicholas Payton, Kenny Garrett, Phil Woods and Gene Harris. Many of those artists also have conducted workshops with Whitworth music students, providing rare opportunities for students to interact with and learn from first-rate musicians.
"Attracting a musician of Konitz's stature is a wonderful testimony to the 20 years of high-quality jazz education that has taken place on Whitworth's campus," says Dan Keberle, professor of music and director of jazz studies and the jazz ensemble. "It's inspiring and motivating for students to be on stage performing with the top jazz musicians in the world. Years later, I often hear from former students who say the guest artist jazz concerts were a highlight of their Whitworth experiences."
Keberle recently had the opportunity to reminisce with some of those past students. The Konitz concert was the highlight of a series of events celebrating the 20th anniversary of Whitworth's jazz studies program.
The jazz alums had plenty of memories to share during the reunion. In the past 15 years, the ensemble has won first place in the college/university division of the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival seven times and has earned second place six times. The group also has been selected from colleges and universities across the Northwest to perform at seven All-Northwest and All-State Music Educators conferences.
The 18-piece ensemble has produced eight CDs and performs several concerts each year on campus, as well as at jazz festivals, in public schools, at civic events, and on annual tours throughout the United States. The group also takes part in international performance residencies, performing with leading jazz artists in Italy, Brazil, Cuba, Germany and Australia. This January, the ensemble will embark on a performance tour of New York City and New Orleans.
Yet the ensemble is just one component of jazz studies at Whitworth. The jazz program has been listed in Jazz Times magazine as one of the top jazz education programs in the country. Students can participate in jazz ensemble II, six jazz combos, vocal jazz class, private jazz-improvisation lessons, and classes in jazz history and jazz arranging.
"Every year some of the most talented high school jazz students in the Northwest choose to come to Whitworth to develop their musical and jazz skills," Keberle says. "For students who come here specifically to be a part of the jazz program, the university has been able to blend the small-college experience with a high-quality jazz program that typically can be found only at the larger universities in the country."
In a wider sense, Keberle says, the jazz program has helped the entire student body gain an appreciation for the artistry and creativity of the American art form, thereby developing future generations of jazz fans.
The jazz program has grown to include eight faculty members. One of the professors is Brent Edstrom, who teaches jazz piano and coordinates the music theory and composition program; a jazz pianist, he also is active as a performer, composer and arranger.
Edstrom says he enjoys teaching traditional theory and ear training as well as jazz, and he looks for ways to intersperse those courses with jazz theory, since jazz can provide insights into the creative process in ways that benefit both jazz and classical music students. Edstrom finds it particularly rewarding to work with students in a performing ensemble and is planning to rearrange his schedule so he can teach a jazz combo.
"In terms of departmental goals, we want to continue to attract the best student musicians, so recruitment is a crucial consideration," Edstrom says. "Last year Dan led a very successful regional mini-tour, and I look forward to traveling with the jazz band on future regional tours."
The future looks bright for the other music department ensembles as well. The Whitworth Choir, led by Marc A. Hafso, professor of music and director of choral activities, has established a reputation as one of the premier choirs in the Pacific Northwest and leads an active performance, touring and recording schedule, including performances of major works with orchestra. In the popular Christmas Festival Concerts, which also feature the women's choir, the choir performs each year to full houses in Spokane and the Seattle area. Last February, the choir performed by invitation at the 2009 Music Educators National Conference Northwest Division Convention, in Spokane.
In May 2009, the choir embarked on a tour of South America, its first international tour in more than 40 years. To view the choir's travelogue of Argentina and Uruguay, visit whitworthchoirtour2009.blogspot.com.
Hafso says he chose South America for the choir's first international tour because Argentina has a rich choral tradition, and it was a destination students might not choose to visit on their own. In the future, the Whitworth choral program plans to send students on an overseas tour every four years.
"International tours are important in part for recruiting purposes and also because of the practical experience students gain by preparing for an extended period of important performances," Hafso says. "We also want to connect our students to diverse musical communities and cultural experiences."
The repertoire of the Whitworth Women's Choir includes sacred and secular music from diverse eras and styles. In addition to performing in the Christmas Festival Concerts, the women's choir, directed by Associate Professor and Chair of Music Debbie Hansen, presents concerts on campus and throughout Spokane, including St. Augustine Church, where it performs each spring.
In addition to Whitworth's choral programs, student-musicians excel in the university's symphonic groups, which are led by music faculty who are current or past members of the Spokane Symphony and are active as recitalists, soloists, and chamber musicians.
Associate Professor of Music Philip Baldwin leads the Whitworth Symphony Orchestra, which performs prominent symphonic and string literature. Through the symphony orchestra's partnership with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, students learn from some of the area's finest musicians, who come to campus to lead master classes, section coaching, and clinics with principal players and conductors. The ensemble takes part in an annual concerto competition and local and regional performances. Every other year the group tours over Spring Break; its most recent tour was to Northern California and the San Francisco Bay Area, in 2009.
The Whitworth Wind Symphony has been recognized as one of the outstanding college bands in the region. Directed by Professor of Music Richard Strauch, the wind symphony has appeared at five state and regional conferences in the past 10 years and has regularly toured the western United States and Hawaii. The group also has released four CDs.
The music department has added two more ensembles in recent years to expand performance opportunities available to students. The no-audition-required men's chorus makes joint appearances with other ensembles and performs at athletics and service events.
The concert band, started by Strauch in fall 2006, is a no-audition-required group designed for students who want to play but don't have the time to commit to the wind symphony. When the concert band launched, the number of students in the Whitworth band program nearly doubled. Kyla Fague, '01, directs the band.
Six years ago, Brody returned to his alma mater to become director of music in campus worship, through which he coordinates and helps lead worship music during campus services. Brody works with worship intern and master of arts in theology student Keith Petersen to recruit and help prepare nearly 30 students to lead worship in Tuesday chapel services as part of one of four chapel worship teams; he and Peterson recruit musicians for Thursday chapels, as well.
Brody also works closely with the leaders of Hosanna, a student-led worship service, and Restore, which is a new Thursday-evening service that focuses on prayer and contemplation. In addition, he plans and works with students to lead worship for other services that take place during the year, such as the Parents' Weekend service, the Christmas candlelight service, the senior commissioning service, and the baccalaureate service.
Brody donned another hat this year when he became director of worship for Whitworth's master of arts in theology program, which was launched in 2008. Brody leads worship services for students that draw on content covered in each course. For example, during the portion of Professor of Theology Jerry Sittser's church history course that focuses on the medieval period, Brody's service will feature medieval hymns, Gregorian chant and liturgical resources from that era.
Brody says his goal in overseeing campus worship is to ground the Whitworth community's focus in worshiping God.
"Participation in worship gathers us as a community across roles, departments and other differences to remind us of our unity in Christ, and puts our work as students, teachers, and staff members into perspective to remind us that our chief purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever," Brody says. "My hope is that more people will come to appreciate that worshipping together is a unique privilege and joy that we have the opportunity to participate in here."
In addition to organizing worship services, Brody heads the certificate in church music program, which was added in 2003 as a track within the B.A. in music degree. Brody started the program to help prepare student musicians to serve churches in worship leadership. Along with the standard music requirements, students taking this track also complete courses in worship theology, church music techniques, music and theology electives, along with a year-long internship.
This year, Brody also led the launch of a new summer diploma program through the Weyerhaeuser Center for Christian Faith & Learning. The diploma in worship, theology and the arts is a non-degree program designed particularly for practicing church musicians and others involved in worship leadership. It combines a core curriculum of theology courses with courses specifically designed to help those involved in church music leadership.
With their combined efforts, Brody and his colleagues in the music department, along with others involved in making and teaching music at Whitworth, are ensuring that opportunities continue to abound for students to create, perform, and appreciate music, in hopes that they will share their passions and talents with others long after they leave campus.
"It is always a poignant moment when our students receive their diplomas on graduation day," Edstrom says. "But that poignancy is tempered by the fact that these young musicians are taking their love of music to a larger community."