Ensembles

WMU's Jazz Studies area offers an eclectic jazz experience for students including big bands, vocal jazz, combos and drum choir:

Gold Company

Greg Jasperse, Director

The Gold Company program is widely recognized as one of the most successful and prestigious collegiate vocal jazz programs in the world.  The ensembles perform a wide variety of repertoire which covers all styles in the contemporary vocal idiom.  Gold Company combines the fundamental musical elements from the traditional choral style with stylistic characteristics from the jazz vernacular with an emphasis on improvisation and swing.

"Gold Company is the most professional college group I have ever seen." – Lyle Mays

"Gold Company represents the gold standard  among university jazz choral programs."  – Cedric Dent (Take 6)

"Gold Company is the absolute best sounding, hippest college vocal jazz ensemble I have ever heard." – Janis Siegel (The Manhattan Transfer)

Gold Company II

GCII is one of nine vocal ensembles in the School of Music. The 20-voice group, like its 16-voice counterpart Gold Company, performs in every style from vocal jazz and show tunes to the hits of today.

Membership is by audition from Western’s enrollment of over 26,000 students. Each singer must have the ability to “swing” and master the complex harmonies of vocal jazz arrangements. Choreography and specialty acts are a part of GCII’s exciting and energetic presentation.

Advanced Jazz Combo

Andrew Rathbun, Director

Western Michigan University’s award-winning Advanced Jazz Ensemble is directed by Andrew Rathbun. The 7-10 member group is made up of the premiere students from WMU’s jazz studies department. The ensemble’s repertoire of originals and arrangements is composed exclusively by the ensemble members. The AJE has received Outstanding Small Ensemble awards from the Notre Dame, Elmhurst and Detroit International Jazz Festivals.  The ensemble has performed in Illinois, Indiana, throughout Michigan and was featured by the Marshall Music Company at the 2006 Michigan Music Conference, as well as the 2007 International Association of Jazz Educators in New York City , with guest artists Stefon Harris, Fred Hersch and Billy Hart.  They have also performed  at the Monterey NextGen Jazz Festival in 2012 and 2013, with guest Donny McCaslin, and the their recent CD “Songsmith Collective” on BluJazz Records received 4.5 stars in Downbeat Magazine. Grammy award winner Luciana Souza said this about this collection of poetry settings composed by the members of the ensemble: “The work done by these young musicians reflect their curiosity, which jazz is about – the unanswered question, the constant searching.” The group has been active in collaborative projects lately, including a joint examination of our changing environment with members of the Frostic School of Art in “Climate Changes” where video projection, photo-malleable sculpture and contemporary jazz intersect. “METRICS” is a 40 minute ballet in collaboration with dancers from the College of Fine Arts, released on DVD and Blu-Ray last year. This 5 movement piece examines how improvised movement and contemporary jazz improvisation can function in concert. Other project include collaborations with Miguel Zennon, Edward Simon, Frank Carlberg, and music industry clinics with Two for the Show Media/Chris DiGirolamo

After our 2015 performance at the Jazz Educators Network Convention in Louisville, we received this email, which sums up what the ensemble is all about:

"Your group was one of the most refreshing, innovative, creative and enjoyable concerts I have heard so far. Professional or student. Congratulations, and please pass this email on to your students. This performance was inspirational and gives me a newfound hope for the future of jazz. Thank You. Best wishes, James Dreier - Univ. of Iowa - Jazz Drumset"

University Jazz Orchestra

Dr. Scott Cowan, Director

Western Michigan University’s award-winning Jazz Orchestra is directed by Scott Cowan. This 18-member ensemble has received international acclaim for its high performance standards and creative approach to big band jazz. Recognitions include four-time winners in the college big band category of the Down Beat Magazine annual DB student music awards, a heralded performance in New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center-Allen Room, Midwest Clinic in Chicago, The Detroit International Jazz Festival, Over 30 Outstanding Band recognitions at the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival, featured performances for the International Association for Jazz Education Conferences in Los Angeles and Atlanta and the JEN Conference in St. Louis, Missouri. The ensemble’s CDs, Spritely Overdue, Disposable Income, Blue Miles,Sweet Tango, Cosmosis, Boogaloo Land, and Travel Notes have received rave reviews in DownBeat magazine, JazzTimes Magazine, the IAJE Journal, Cadence Magazine and numerous other noted publications. There recordings are found on Sea Breeze Vista Recordings and Blujazz Records and are available online and through the jazz studies program. 

The band has performed with Joe Lovano, Tim Hagans, New York Voices, Tom Harrell, Bob Brookmeyer, Bob Berg, Rob McConnell, Billy Hart, John Clayton, Randy Brecker, Kenny Werner, Conrad Herwig, Bob Mintzer, Miguel Zenon, Michael Philip Mossman, George Garzone, Billy Drewes, Peter Erskine, John Fedchock, Stefon Harris, Kurt Elling and many others. 

"This band boasts chops aplenty … one of the top-ranked college bands in the country" –Owen Cordle, Jazz Times Magazine

"Definitely a great band. One of the absolute best I’ve heard on the festival. Also, great choices of innovative tunes." –Wallace Roney

"OUCH … RESPECT. Smokin’ band."–Benny Green

"THIS is what I’ve been waiting for." –Jim McNeely

University Jazz Lab Band

Tom Knific, Director

Western Michigan University’s Jazz Lab Band is directed by Tom Knific. This 18-member ensemble is a favorite of  younger jazz instrumentalists. The group performs an extraordinarily broad range of repertoire, from the earliest big band works of Ellington and vintage swing era arrangements, to fusion works and music composed by ensemble members.

Emphasis is placed on the authentic conception of traditional and contemporary swing as well as Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and contemporary genres. The ensemble performs on campus four times a year, including the perennially sold-out “annual swing concert”. The Jazz Lab Band also performs regularly at the The Union Cabaret and Grill, the WMU Jazz Studies jazz club partner.

Guest artists appearing with the band range from John Clayton and Billy Hart, to WMU Jazz faculty.

WMU Drum Choir

Keith Hall, Director

WMU Drum Choir, directed by Keith Hall, is a drumset ensemble which performs compositions arranged and composed primarily by the students.  This unique ensemble is an extension of the jazz drumset curriculum and offers a group experience where ideas are exchanged providing a tremendous atmosphere for improvisation and teamwork. The entire history of drum set vocabulary as well as world rhythm concepts are explored. The Drum Choir performs at the WMU Invitational Jazz Festival, as part of jazz ensemble concerts, and for special events.

Created in 1992 by Artist-in-Residence Billy Hart, the drum choir allows students the opportunity to explore the tradition of the drums while incorporating contemporary concepts. The ensemble is required for jazz drum set majors and is open to non-majors.

Combos

Jazz Combos form the creative heart of the WMU Jazz Studies program, and are coached by the entire faculty and guest artists. Students choose their own band members and musical direction. The resulting eclectic range of styles is inspiring, and has produced groups dedicated to music ranging from the Blue Note tradition to Tango Nuevo, the Brasil Project, Gradus Quartet, LUSHH and other world music, the avant garde, and everything in between. Over the years, a number of these ensembles have had commercially released CDs.

Western Jazz Quartet

The Western Jazz Quartet is a resident faculty ensemble in the School of Music at Western Michigan University. Formed in 1974, the quartet combines performing and teaching with uncommon success as they promote jazz music and jazz education through a very active schedule of tours, concerts and workshops. Activities range from performances for school children of all ages to concerts, tours and recordings with such artists as Art Farmer, Joe Lovano, Stefon Harris, Tim Hagans, Kenny Werner, Billy Hart, Mark Murphy, Randy Brecker, Miguel Zenon, Peter Erskine, Michael Philip Mossman, George Garzone, Dave Liebman, Janis Siegel, and Bobby McFerrin. 

In 2012, after a retirement and shift in faculty, the new Western Jazz Quartet was born. The new WJQ recently completed a tour of Russia and concerts around the U.S.

The Western Jazz Quartet has performed from Boston to Los Angeles, and tours regularly world wide. It has been featured at festivals in Canada, Europe and the U.S., and at a week of performances at La Villa in Paris, France. The group was honored with sponsorship by the Arts America Program and often tours as artistic ambassadors for the US Department of State including Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Poland, Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia. The quartet has also toured Europe four times with pianist Wlodek Pawlik, drum legend Billy Hart, and jazz legend Randy Brecker.

The Western Jazz Quartet has released six CDs in the United States: Free Fall (2014) Mayan Myths (2006), Premiere (2005), with trumpeter Scott Cowan; and Sabine’s Dance (2000), Blue Harts (1995) and Firebird (1992) with Billy Hart.  Both Firebird and Blue Harts received top reviews in Down Beat magazine, with Firebird being named one of the best CD’s of the 1990s. The group has released several CD’s in Europe with pianist Wlodek Pawlik: Waning Moon (2000) on Universal Mercury Records; Turtles (1996), with Randy Brecker, on Polonia Records; and Live at the Jazz Club Aquarium (1995) with Billy Hart  on the Koch International label. In April of 1996, the quartet was invited to tour Thailand in honor of the 50th anniversary of the king’s accession to the throne. The Western Jazz Quartet has recently been appearing throughout the United States as soloists with symphony orchestras performing Patrick Williams’ “An American Concerto” and other works.  As members of the contemporary music ensemble, OPUS 21, the WJQ has premiered over a dozen new works in New York City since 2004.

Members

  • Andrew Rathbun, Sax
  • Matthew Fries, Piano
  • Tom Knific, Bass
  • Keith Hall, Drums

"Imaginative with brilliant flashes of impeccable technique, and a persistence of serious musical intensity." -The Chronicle