The Murray State jazz ensembles have leaped into the limelight this semester.
When Todd Hill began at Murray State several years ago, he had trouble retaining one group. Today, he directs five jazz ensembles including jazz orchestra, blue jazz combo, gold jazz combo, jazz lab and symphony orchestra.
“When Dr. Hill came here, he barely had enough people for one big band and now we have three,” said Will Brooks, senior from Bloomfield, Ky. “It’s been constantly growing. We’re finally at that point where we can go out there and show people what we can do.”
The jazz orchestra and blue jazz combo have already been successful this academic year.
The two ensembles have had multiple performances at the Kentucky Music Educators Association (KMEA) conference in Louisville, Ky., and the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival in Chicago, Ill.
“It was incredible to be around so many jazz groups of such high caliber,” Brooks said. “Not only to listen to them but to learn by being immersed into everything that was happening.”
To be invited to play at the KMEA conference, ensembles must be selected through blind auditions judged by a committee of the leading music educators throughout the state.
While at the Elmhurst College Jazz Festival (a national event), the Murray State jazz orchestra and blue jazz combo both earned “Outstanding” distinction awards. There were more than 50 performing groups and only eight were awarded with this distinction. The Murray State jazz orchestra band was also named “Outstanding Big Band” at the festival.
“It was a really cool experience going back because the first time we had some constructive comments because the group then wasn’t as tight as it is now,” said Colton Burge, senior from Mt. Vernon, Ill. “It was really cool going back to see how much better we’ve gotten.”
It was an honor for the jazz ensembles to be invited back to Elmhurst to perform again because it is such a prestigious event, Hill said.
“The Elmhurst College Jazz Festival is one of the oldest in the country,” Hill said. “Groups are invited based on previous achievements and reputation. It is terrific to be invited to perform, let alone to be classified as ‘Outstanding’ in the Big Band category. Where many festivals give these sorts of awards freely, the Elmhurst Jazz Festival has the reputation of not handing out ‘feel good’ certificates. These have been earned.”
The Murray State jazz ensembles have a lot in store for the University in the future. They will host “Swing into Spring” in mid-April where they will perform for the community. Last year the event was broadcast on the radio. They are also planning a Murray State Jazz Festival where high school groups from the surrounding area come to Murray State to perform and participate in clinics hosted by Murray State students and faculty.
Burge attributes their success and recognition this year to the close sense of community the group has with each other and their sheer talent.
“The reason we gel so well as a group is because we have a mix of majors and different levels of experience,” Burge said. “That chemistry lets us add our own spin on the music.”
Other students say Hill’s unique teaching style has an impact on their success. Hill gives the players instruction but also gives them freedom to have their own opinion and develop their unique voices, said Zenon Garcia, junior from Elizabethtown, Ky.
“The capabilities of our band to listen to each other are pretty outstanding,” Garcia said. “And as we listen we’re able to blend better and have a more effective sound.”
The jazz department at Murray State has more to offer its students and its community in the future. Hill is pushing them onward and upward to receive more widespread recognition.
Said Hill: “Everyone with amazing talents all magically wound up here at Murray State and they’re here to become legends.”
Story by Madison Wepfer, Staff writer