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Department Focus: JSU Jazz Festival

The 8th annual JSU Jazz Festival will be held April 5 and features the Grammy Award-winning percussionist Jeff “Tain” Watts and the JSU Jazz Ensembles.

The Jazz Program at JSU is composed of over 100 students playing a variety of thirteen different instruments. It includes four Big Bands, five combos, and a Latin Ensemble. It is by far the largest jazz program in the region, and it will most likely grow even larger in the next few years. 

Dr. Andy Nevala, an Associate Professor and Director of Jazz Studies, has personally witnessed the Jazz Program’s blossoming into what it is today. “I started here in the Fall of 2011,” he said. “At that time, we had two Jazz Bands and two combos, and no festival.” 

The festival he is referring to is the Annual JSU Jazz Festival; this year will be its eighth occurrence. It will include performances by JSU students, area and regional high school students, and college/Jr. college students. In the past, even schools as far away as Mobile have participated.  It will be held in Leone Cole Auditorium from 8:00am to 5:00pm, with the main concert at noon.

“The festival is non-competitive and focused on education,” Nevala explained. “Each performing group plays a 20-minute set that is immediately followed by a 20-minute clinic/workshop on stage held by JSU faculty or regional Jazz Educators. The students (and directors) receive not only instant feedback on how to improve, but also positive reinforcement for the things they did well. There are also clinics throughout the day on each instrument (drums, piano, bass, trumpet, sax, trombone) taught by JSU faculty and a big “Meet the Artist” Clinic with Jeff “Tain” Watts, where students can ask any questions they might have for him regarding careers in music.”

Nevala claimed that the highlight of the day will be Watts performing with JSU Jazz Ensemble I at the noon concert. “It’s rare to have such great jazz musicians in one area, and the students love the energy that creates.”

This year, for the first time ever, the JSU Jazz Program has been awarded a grant from the Alabama State Council that will go towards funding the festival. Nevala explained his goal of making this year’s festival big and exciting—especially considering that it was canceled last year in the aftermath of the March tornado. 

“Our graduate assistant, Eli Ponder-Twardy, had experience in dealing with Arts Councils, and together we put the proposal together,” said Nevala. “They were very helpful at the Arts Council – our assigned contact went over our proposal line by line to ensure we had our best foot forward. Eli and I attended a meeting down in Montgomery where we were able to defend our application and answer questions they had.” Nevala, on behalf of everyone in the Jazz Program, was thrilled to receive the grant. 

Besides the festival, the Jazz Program looks forward to 2019 for several reasons. They are working on their third CD (expected to come out in the fall); the combo bands will be regularly playing at LocoMex (Monday nights); Jazz competitions are on the horizon. In the words of Nevala, “there is never a dull moment in the Jazz Program!”

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