This year, in addition to new offices in Palos Heights and a sparkly new website that’s much easier to navigate than the old one, the Illinois Music Educators Association is also keeping up with the theme of its conference in January, “Music in the Key of Change,” by adding the Honors Vocal Jazz Ensemble to the All-State performance line-up.
“We received a well written proposal from some directors for small ensemble vocal jazz,” said Darcy Nendza, IMEA’s executive director. The association’s board of directors took it from there, and these nine talented voices from across the state will debut their artistry in this unique and growing genre at the jazz concert, which takes place at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Jan. 25 at the Peoria Civic Center.
“We’ve always had a large vocal jazz ensemble,” Ms Nendza said. “By adding the small honors ensemble, we’re doing something similar to what we do with the instrumental jazz ensembles, like the honors jazz combo.”
The musicians in the Honors Vocal Jazz Ensemble, one from each IMEA district in the state, have already been selected. They’ll arrive for rehearsals on Jan. 24, having memorized the five songs: “Let Your Love Rain on Me,” “Moondance,” “You’re Makin’ Me Crazy,” “Not Like This,” and “Mother and Child Reunion.”
Guest conductor: Michele Weir
“We are excited to welcome Ms Michele Weir as your guest director this year,” wrote IMEA state vocal jazz chair, Cory F Jones, in a letter to the nine students. “[She] is a very fun, energetic, and demanding director who truly enjoys working with students like you.”
Ms Weir is one of the leading figures in vocal jazz today and has earned international recognition through her talents as an arranger, teacher, singer, and pianist. Her vocal arrangements have been performed by The Manhattan Transfer, The Swingle Singers, New York Voices, M-Pact, Beachfront Property, Chanticleer, and Voice Trek, and her orchestral works have been performed by the Boston Pops, the Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Pacific symphonies, and others.
“This is a special, precedent-setting situation and a great opportunity for us to make music on a very high level,” she told the selected students in a letter last month. “The smaller group format allows us to perform literature that’s a bit more challenging than what a larger group might sing.”
Ms Weir is currently associate adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Herb Alpert School of Music, and she taught previously at the University of Southern California, Cal State Long Beach, and the Phil Mattson School. A video shot at a vocal improvisation clinic she gave in 2008 at Mesa Community College in Phoenix, Ariz., is on YouTube, here.
The vocal jazz art form
The style is characterized by singers who simulate instruments with their voices. Knowing a singer could improvise just like an instrumentalist, Louis Armstrong was one of the first performers to establish singing as a distinct art form in jazz. Thus “scat singing” was established as a linchpin of vocal jazz.
Vocal jazz, while not totally pervasive across Illinois high schools, is a strong part of “several excellent programs,” Ms Nendza said. “I wouldn’t say vocal jazz is a small piece at all in terms of the number of music programs in Illinois that have it,” she said. The state probably has more concert bands than vocal jazz ensembles, she speculated, but vocal jazz programs might outnumber orchestras at this point.