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Top Honors: "Like Winning the NCAA Tournament of Jazz"

UNLV Jazz Ensemble I took first place in the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival, one of the most prestigious international collegiate jazz competitions.

Arts & Culture  |  Apr 26, 2017  |  By Jennifer Vaughan
Closeup of a saxophone

(Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services) 

Dave Loeb, UNLV director of jazz sudies, has a lot to brag about these days. Under his direction, UNLV Jazz Ensemble I recently tied for first place at the prestigious Monterey Next Generation competition — akin to "winning the NCAA tournament of jazz." And his program has won 11 Downbeat Magazine awards since 2010, garnered outstanding reviews for its seven jazz CDs, and stood out at numerous other festivals around the country.

With that kind of momentum, we talked to Loeb about the program, the win, and how you can hear this exceptional talent during the upcoming UNLV Spring Jazz Festival, May 1-3.

What is the significance of the Monterey win? 

The Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival is considered among the most highly regarded and competitive jazz education festivals in the world. In order to compete in this festival, each university has to submit a representative recording that is identified with only a number — so it is a blind audition among many of the top university jazz groups internationally.

In the college big band division, only six of the top groups are selected. The judges at this festival are world-class jazz artists and educators. We have been honored to have been invited to compete at this festival for eight consecutive years and previously have tied for second and third place. However, this year we tied for first place with a stellar group from Philadelphia, the University of the Arts Z band.

As a result, both of our groups have been invited and will perform in September at the Monterey Jazz Festival, along with other distinguished jazz artists including Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and numerous others. This Monterey win clearly places the UNLV Jazz Ensemble in the top echelon of university jazz programs in the world.

What music was performed and why was it selected? 

The music was carefully selected in order to make the best presentation for our group and demonstrate the ability to perform in various styles, tempos, and with unique interpretations.We opened with a Duke Ellington composition, "Johnny Come Lately," arranged by a former student and current instructor, Julian Tanaka.

Dave Loeb and Nathan TanouyeOur second piece, "Rail Trails," composed by jazz trumpeter Clay Jenkins, was also arranged by Julian Tanaka. We selected a classic Thad Jones' slow blues piece "Basically Yours" for our third tune, and closed our set with an original student arrangement of "Love For Sale" by graduate assistant and tenor saxophonist Michael Spicer.

There were time constraints during the competition. How do you teach your students to perform so well under that kind of pressure? 

Each group must perform no more than 30 minutes, including the time to enter and set up and to leave the stage. My colleague Nathan Tanouye, and I rehearsed with the group with the actual time constraints to make sure that the students were able to successfully perform under these conditions.

How will this win help students' careers down the road? 

This opportunity could open many doors for our students in their respective musical careers. The world-class judges that heard the outstanding musicianship that our student musicians consistently produce have already contacted some of our students about hiring them to potentially perform in groups with them. In addition, the contacts our students will make at the Monterey Jazz Festival could serve to expand their employment possibilities for the rest of their lives.

What does this win mean for you personally? 

The group from Philadelphia that we tied with, the University of the Arts Z band, was named after an instructor at that institution named Bill Zaccagni. Bill was a good friend of mine in the Philadelphia area when we were young, up-and-coming musicians. He passed away a few years ago, and the dean of the school, Marc Dicciani, renamed the band in Bill's honor.

Marc hired me to become pianist, conductor, and arranger for the Tony Award-winning entertainer, Ben Vereen, when I was still a student at the Eastman School of Music and completing my masters degree. Ben Vereen encouraged me to move to Los Angeles a few years later, and I enjoyed a successful career there as a studio pianist, conductor, arranger, and composer for PBS documentaries. Fourteen years ago, I moved here to Las Vegas to become the director of Jazz Studies at UNLV. So, I would've never been here at UNLV, if it hadn't been for these connections from the Philadelphia area.

This win also is very significant because we have received 11 Downbeat Magazine Student Music Awards since 2010, seven outstanding reviews for our CDs from Jazz Times Magazine, as well as other major awards. However, winning the Monterey Next Generation Jazz Festival is a huge honor because we were playing in a live performance setting among some of the top university groups in the world, and to receive this recognition is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Describe the upcoming May concerts. 

UNLV Jazz Studies will present our annual Spring Jazz Festival in the Black Box Theatre May 1-3. Each night the concerts start at 7:30 p.m. and will feature many of the outstanding ensembles and combos from our award-winning jazz studies program.

The Latin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Uli Geissendoerfer, has won four Downbeat Magazine Student Music Awards in the past four years, including Best Latin Group in the undergraduate category. The Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, directed by Julian Tanaka, will perform on May 1. On May 2, UNLV Jazz Ensemble II, directed by Adam Schroeder, the UNLV Faculty Jazz Combo, and UNLV Jazz Ensemble I, all will perform. The concert is dedicated to recently passed Vincent Falcone, former pianist and conductor for Frank Sinatra, and Walt Blanton, jazz trumpet artist, composer, and former UNLV faculty member.

The UNLV Jazz Vocal Ensemble, directed by Janet Tyler and featuring Gary Fowler and Ira Hill, the UNLV Jazz Guitar Ensemble, directed by Jake Langley, and UNLV Jazz Ensemble III, directed by graduate student Michael Spicer, will perform May 3.

Tell someone who may be intimidated by jazz or new to jazz why they should attend. 

Anyone who might be intimidated by jazz or who is new to jazz should attend these concerts because it will give them the opportunity to experience unique interaction among jazz students who are creating music spontaneously and in the moment.

We hear you have another new album in the works. 

Our new Jazz Studies CD, "Rail Trails/Latin Journey Three," will include exceptional music from UNLV Jazz Ensemble I, the Joe Williams Jazz Combo, the UNLV Latin Jazz Ensemble, the Honors Combos, and other groups, in a compilation CD that represents the absolute best work from our talented students from the 2016-17 academic year. It will be out in September. In the meantime, the CD that was released the end of last year is still for sale and can be purchased at the free May 10 at Flamingo Library Concert. [You can also get a copy by emailing Dave Loeb or calling the music office at 702-895-3332.