Jazzin' Up OU's Music Program

Posted by Paula Paine on September 10, 2014 in "Brave Jazz", jazz, "jazz ensemble", "jazz invitational", "jazz studies", "Todd Wilkinson" The music legacy at Ottawa University is strong, and the recent additions of a Bachelor of Music and a Bachelor of Music Education have only served to make it stronger. Last year’s choir tour to Italy brought back memories of a much-loved OU tradition, and new Choir Director Dr. Dong-Hyun Son is set to infuse some multi-cultural flare into the choral program (see opposite page).
Another welcome stride within the music department is the addition of a Jazz Studies major, along with the introduction of a number of jazz ensembles. Dr. Todd Wilkinson, a renowned performer on the Kansas City jazz scene, heads up OU’s Jazz Studies and has been highly instrumental in building the new program’s reputation over the past several years. 
The Brave Jazz Ensemble is the premier group in Jazz Studies. It is an 18-piece chamber group featuring rhythm, trumpet, trombone, and saxophone sections. Although membership is limited to one person per part, jazz ensemble is open to all University students. Selection and placement are by audition at the beginning of each semester.
Smaller jazz ensembles are also available to students, including Jazz Singers and Jazz Combo groups. At the end of each semester, the ensembles showcase their work in a final concert that also features the OU Faculty Jazz Ensemble and a guest jazz band. The upcoming November 19 concert will headline 9+1 Little Big Band, while the April 15 spring concert will feature Vine Street Rumble. 
OU jazz ensemble members have the opportunity to play in a live setting within the community by participating in jam sessions each Wednesday evening, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m., at Ottawa’s Smoked Creations Barbeque restaurant. Musicians from throughout the area are encouraged to participate in the sessions throughout the fall and spring. Another performance opportunity is the Jazz Lunch Combo, where ensembles play over the lunch hour on Wednesdays in the dining commons on a rotating basis. 
To expose high school jazz band directors and prospective students to OU’s Jazz Studies program, Wilkinson introduced a Jazz Invitational event three years ago.  Seven or eight schools are invited to the free day-long workshop that features one-on-one instruction from OU faculty, jam sessions, section performances with feedback from Dr. Wilkinson, and a campus tour. The event culminates in an evening performance by the schools and an OU Jazz Concert.
“We are starting to get more response than ever to these bi-annual invitationals,” says Wilkinson. “They are full every session and have been really instrumental in turning around our reputation in the region. The high school students and directors love the level of personal interaction and instruction that they get, and the consistent exposure to OU’s music program through this event is starting to pay off. The benefit to our own students is incredible, as well – they love the opportunity to be involved.”
Wilkinson’s reputation as a jazz musician and his contacts within the industry have helped secure a number of top-notch adjunct faculty that provide professional learning and performing experiences for OU’s music students. That network of musicians is also providing mentorship opportunities for OU students and drawing them into the Kansas City performance scene. Two such mentors are Ottawa University alumni Eboni Fondren ‘00 and Millie Edwards ‘76.
Wilkinson himself plays every Friday from 5:30 – 8:30 p.m. with the Tim Whitmer Quartet at the Green Lady Lounge in Kansas City, Missouri, and he has a standing gig on Monday’s at Hayward Pits BBQ in Overland Park, Kansas. Though his “Pit Band,” which includes several of OU’s adjunct faculty, is the headliner, the evening is actually a jam session, with musicians of all ages joining in.
“Our students love going to these gigs,” says Wilkinson. “Playing with several of their instructors, professional jazz singers, and whoever else shows up gives them the opportunity to be taught on the bandstand. It doesn’t get much better than that.”