Jazz pros, students to celebrate music of past and present at April 30 concert

By: K. Michelle Moran | C&G Newspapers | Published April 21, 2015

 Arranger, composer and pianist Scott Gwinnell and his 16-member jazz orchestra will perform at Music Hall Jazz Café in Detroit on April 30.

Arranger, composer and pianist Scott Gwinnell and his 16-member jazz orchestra will perform at Music Hall Jazz Café in Detroit on April 30.

Photo courtesy of Scott Gwinnell

DETROIT — Local leading jazz musicians will be sharing a famous stage with some aspiring jazz greats of tomorrow when the University Liggett School Jazz Band opens for the Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra on April 30 at the Music Hall Jazz Café.


The ULS band will perform from 6:30-7:30 p.m., followed by two sets from the 16-member Scott Gwinnell Jazz Orchestra from 8-9 p.m. and 9:30-10:30 p.m. Gwinnell, who just received a Detroit Music Award for Best Jazz Composer, said his band will perform works by himself and other arrangers in the group, as well as selections by Francy Boland, Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer.


“Each member of the SGJO is a bandleader themselves or (a) top-call sideman, and you will get to hear every one of the musicians improvising jazz solos,” Gwinnell said in an email interview.


The decision to feature ULS comes as the prestigious private school in Grosse Pointe Woods is shifting its band focus to make jazz studies “the core of the band curriculum, largely due to its emphasis on individual musicianship, understanding of music theory and creative problem-solving,” explained T.J. Wolfgram, the school’s new band director and a music teacher, in an email interview. He said the students will perform in their full 16-member form, as a big band, as well as in jazz combos, playing “an eclectic mixture of works” from the 1930s to today by artists as varied as Charles Mingus, Glenn Miller, Kanye West and Earth, Wind and Fire.


Gwinnell said audiences should definitely catch the opening act.


“I asked University Liggett to open for us in April because I was very impressed by a winter performance at an Oakland University jazz festival that I was tasked with adjudicating,” Gwinnell said. “Their director, T.J. Wolfgram, is extremely committed to jazz education and has his students playing at their peak levels, and having fun doing it.”


Wolfgram knows that this is a wonderful chance for his students to enjoy a professional experience.


“The Liggett students were surprised and delighted by the invitation,” he said. “While Liggett has been presenting annual holiday concerts in historic music halls downtown since 2008, this will be the first time a Liggett ensemble has made its way into one of Detroit’s storied jazz venues. It is a tremendous opportunity for the students to gain real-world exposure in the live music scene in Detroit, and particularly to be exposed to Scott’s band of jazz professionals.”


Wolfgram also shared a comment from one of his students.


“I just like performing,” ULS senior Jonathan Valente told Wolfgram. “I like how we finally can perform for a different audience than just our school. I think it says a lot about our band that Scott Gwinnell asked us to open for them at a professional gig. We’re very excited.”


Nurturing the next generation of jazz musicians is vital to Gwinnell, a longtime jazz educator who himself learned from one of the best: late jazz pianist Bess Bonnier. Gwinnell, a Harper Woods native and graduate of Grosse Pointe North High School, now lives in Clinton Township. The pianist, composer and bandleader has appeared on dozens of albums as a sideman and with his own ensembles. In 2012, he released a collection of locally inspired original works, “Cass Corridor Story,” on Detroit Music Factory, an offshoot of the renowned jazz label Mack Avenue Records.


He teaches at Oakland University, where he’s a jazz piano instructor and director of the Oakland Jazz Singers. He’s also the director of vocal jazz education for Music Hall, and his Metro-Detroit Jazz Workshop — first offered in 2008 — is a weeklong summer day camp for students of all ages and experience levels to work with top musicians and perform in combos with other students. This year, it will take place July 6-10 at Oakland University.


“When I was in high school, going to the Bird of Paradise in Ann Arbor, and listening to the high level of musicianship displayed by Paul Keller and his orchestra, were directly responsible for my love for big band jazz,” Gwinnell said. “Any chance that I can have to provide young music students with the same possible experience, I’ll take. All jazz musicians, whether they know it or not, are educators, and it’s … our responsibility to pass the music on to the next generation.”


Music Hall is located at 350 Madison Ave. in downtown Detroit. Cover for the concert is $10. For more information about this concert or Gwinnell, visit www.wscottjazz.com. For more about the Metro-Detroit Jazz Workshop, visit www.helpwithjazz.com.