Longtime jazz educator Steve Zegree passes away at 61

contact: Cheryl Roland
| WMU News
Photo of Steve Zegree.

Steve Zegree

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Legendary jazz educator and former Western Michigan University Gold Company director Steve Zegree died in Bloomington, Indiana, March 7. He was 61.

Zegree retired from WMU in 2012, ending 34 years as a professor of music and mentor to Gold Company, which under his direction became one of the nation's leading collegiate vocal jazz groups. During his years at WMU, he was the Bobby McFerrin Distinguished Professor of Music and toured internationally with the Western Jazz Quartet.

In 2012, Zegree was inducted into DownBeat magazine's Jazz Education Hall of Fame. Over the years, the same publication honored Gold Company with nearly 50 Outstanding Performance Awards.

After retiring from the WMU School of Music, Zegree moved to Indiana to take charge and grow a similar group at Indiana University. He began his work there in fall 2012 as the Pam and Jack Burks Professor of Music and director of the Singing Hoosiers.

Steve Zegree

Zegree joined WMU in 1978 to teach piano and direct a vocal group then known as Varsity Vagabonds. Over the decades, his role at WMU grew, and he ran an annual vocal jazz festival for 25 ensembles on the WMU campus, hosted a weeklong summer vocal camp, taught private lessons at WMU and coached his much-heralded and globe-trotting ensemble, Gold Company. In the latter role, he toured with the group in such locations as China, Mozambique and South Africa.

Under his direction Gold Company performed in this country at such venues as Carnegie Hall and Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, and they performed with the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra. They appeared at the national conventions of Music Fest Canada, the Music Educators National Conference and the International Association for Jazz Education. The group performed with such guest artists as Bobby McFerrin, Rosemary Clooney, Manhattan Transfer and Paquito D'Rivera.

In 2007, Zegree was tapped by singer Nick Lachey to coach his Cincinnati-based choir that ultimately won a four-night nationally televised "Clash of the Choirs" and brought a $250,000 cash prize from General Electric to the choir's home community. Lachey called Zegree his "secret weapon" and Zegree was lauded by professionals watching the process.

"Zegree is the Sondheim of choral jazz," said Kathy Springfield, threatre arts director, at Xavier University, where Lachey's choir rehearsed in Cincinnati before heading to New York.

In 2008, Zegree directed the World Youth Choir at several performances in China, including Hong Kong, as part of the opening festivities of the summer Olympic Games.

In 2009, Zegree was named a Steinway Artist by the famous piano maker, making him an ambassador for Steinway & Sons. In exchange, he was provided a concert-ready Steinway grand piano wherever in the world he performed.

In addition to his choral coaching, Zegree was the author of two books, "The Complete Guide to Teaching Vocal Jazz" and "The Wow Factor: How to Create It, Inspire It & Achieve It." The latter was a compilation of lessons learned by Zegree during 30 years as a professional musician, director and educator and condensed into a practical guide for performers, students, teachers and even parents. It included comments from entertainers he worked with over his career, including McFerrin and Liza Minelli.

Zegree earned a bachelor's degree from Miami University, a master's degree from Indiana University and a doctoral degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.


A Celebration of Life for Zegree will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 19, on the Indiana University campus in the Musical Arts Center, 101 N. Jordan Ave. The event will include performances by the Singing Hoosiers, vocal jazz ensembles and artists such as Janis Siegel of The Manhattan Transfer.

WMU's memorial service will take place at 4 p.m. Saturday, May 23, on the main campus in Miller Auditorium and include a reception following the event.



Those wishing to make memorial contributions may do so to the Steve Zegree Vocal Jazz Endowed Scholarship, a fund Zegree established through the WMU Foundation, 1903 W. Michigan Ave., Kalamazoo, Michigan, 49008-5403.

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