A brash sound is blasting from the second floor of the Southwick Recital Hall on UVM's Redstone Campus. It's Latin jazz, big-band style -- an enticing mix of complex tonalities and ass-shaking polyrhythms. This is music for the brain and the body, a neon splash of propulsive harmony. The UVM Jazz Ensemble are getting a major musical workout playing this stuff, and they look like they're having a great time doing it.
The 21-member group, under the direction of Assistant Professor of Music Alex Stewart, is rehearsing for an upcoming performance at the Flynn MainStage. Opening for the Chico O'Farrell Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, they will perform O'Farrill compositions that are as technically demanding as they are arresting. Known as "the Duke Ellington of Latin jazz," the late composer's harmonically dense pieces combine classical influences with danceable rhythms. O'Farrill's son Arturo will lead the Afro-Cuban group at the Flynn performance. He'll also guest-conduct the UVM Jazz Ensemble for a few numbers, so the students want to be ready. Their professor is helping them get there.
With sandy, curly hair, smallish glasses and an unassuming air, Stewart seems more like a preoccupied physics instructor than a big-band leader. When conducting the ensemble, however, he becomes a whirlwind of activity. His hands wave emphatically as he booms out criticisms and suggestions. "It doesn't sound percussive enough," he explains to the brass section during a break. "Play it like you're the drummer." To emphasize his point, he instructs the rhythm section to sound out the figure for the horns. "It's the beginning of the note that's important," Stewart says. "Concentrate on the articulation." There are a few moments of awkward adjustment, but when the young musicians kick back in, the result is bright, punchy and in-your-face.
The energy at the rehearsal is impressive -- especially when you consider that UVM didn't even have a jazz program until recently. The tide turned when Stewart arrived at his post six years ago. A 1991 graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, he brought enthusiasm and expertise that's driven the department's expansion. Local sax legend Larry McCrorey, who taught at the UVM medical school for 30 years, praises Stewart's tenacity. "Jazz was antithetical to their mission at one point," he says of the music faculty. "They didn't feel it was an art form. I can recall getting into a big argument with a bunch of people in the music school, because they didn't want any jazz musicians to play on their pianos. I mean, can you imagine saying something like that to Oscar Peterson?
"But Alex turned it around," McCrorey continues. "We owe him one hell of a lot for what he has done to transform that music department into something modern."
A saxophonist and woodwind player by trade, Stewart has toured with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and even accompanied the late Ray Charles. Now he focuses on teaching and writing. He's almost finished a book about New York City big bands, which contains a chapter on Chico O'Farrill. "It's something that I've been working on for about eight years now, but it's almost done," he says. "It'll be coming out next year from University of California Press."
In addition to conducting the Jazz Ensemble, Stewart teaches classes in jazz history and improvisation theory and practice. But his main passion is Latin jazz. "It's music of the heart, mind and feet," he says. "It's still connected with dance music, which is a something that a lot of straight-ahead jazz has lost."
According to Stewart, O'Farrill's music is a great example of this marriage of brain and boogie. "Not only did he combine Cuban rhythms and melodies with North American jazz but he did it with the training of a classical composer," he explains. "Chico's writing was an amazing synthesis of styles, and he had a lot of thematic unity. There's so little work in jazz at that level, particularly with longer compositions."
Stewart doesn't just expose his students
to Latin music, but also to the cultures that produce it. "I was taking classes to Cuba up until the Bush administration put an end to that," he says. "So this last January, I took them to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic for two weeks instead. They loved it. It also ties into a lot of things that we're doing here, like the Chico O'Farrill concert."
"Going to Cuba was an incredible experience," says trumpeter Audrey Leduc, a senior who was on the department's first trip to the island. "It was just amazing. The people there just eat, breathe and sleep music." An environmental science major, Leduc has been playing for 14 years, mostly studying classical. "I got kind of sick of it," she says with a laugh. "When I joined the Jazz Ensemble, it was the first time that I'd been challenged in a long while."
Although she'll soon have her science degree, Leduc hopes for a full-time career in music. "I'm going into live sound engineering, and playing in a few different bands," she says. "Music is just what makes me the happiest."
Alex Toth, a trumpet player in his junior year, had no intention of majoring in music when he enrolled at UVM. "I was originally going for psych," he explains. "But I got a lot of encouragement with music, and it was a really good decision to switch." Still, Toth thinks the non-music majors take the band just as seriously as he does. "The key thing is that the students are actually practicing their instruments," he says. "They understand that if they actually want to do anything with it, they have to."
Senior Rob Duguay plays upright bass in the ensemble. A business major with a full course load and a part-time job, he somehow finds the time to gig, study and rehearse. "I play with this group twice a week, then I have another combo, and I play at Radio Bean on Fridays," he says.
Although he's considered one of the finest young musicians in the area, he's relatively new to his instrument. "I've only been playing for four years," Duguay says. "I couldn't really do too much before I came here." He especially enjoys working with visiting artists. "Rufus Reed, Clark Terry, Paquito D'Rivera -- those people are great," he says. "That's another thing to commend Alex Stewart for. He really helped us out with these opportunities. He does an awesome job of exposing us to all kinds of different music."
Stewart refuses to take all the credit, though. "A big part of why this is a great program is the town of Burlington," he says. "It's an ideal place to come to work on your art. I grew up in Boston, and the scene there now is kind of moribund. There are so many students, and there aren't enough places to play. Sometimes the kids here even make good money, which is unheard of in some cities."
Stewart also thinks it's important for young players to gain practical experience before throwing themselves into highly competitive markets. "A lot of kids go to New York long before they're ready. When I was a kid, people would study in Boston, Miami or Texas and get their shit together, then they'd go to New York."
Stewart isn't the only high-caliber talent involved in the program. The university recently hired flutist Patricia Julien to keep up with the department's growth. "She teaches a lot of theory classes," Stewart says. "She's sort of my partner in crime, and we work together really well. Tom Cleary is an essential part, too. He's a great pianist and teacher."
The list of instructors giving one-on-one lessons reads like a Who's Who of the local jazz scene. "John Rivers teaches bass, and he's a world-class player," Stewart says. "Brian McNamara teaches saxophone, and Andy Moroz trombone. Joe Capps teaches guitar and Geofferey Cunningham handles trumpet. Jeff Salisbury teaches drums, and Steve Ferraris percussion. We're very lucky -- they're all really great players."
McCrorey thinks everyone involved in the UVM jazz program is the real deal. "These people are steeped in jazz," he says. "They don't just think of it intellectually or academically. They feel it in their bellies."