November 2, 2021
Arranger, composer, trumpeter and educator Jamey Simmons grew up in Wisconsin, earning his Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and his Masters in Jazz Music and Contemporary Media from the Eastman School of Music. Simmons is currently Director of Jazz Studies at Middle Tennessee State University and has toured internationally with the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
PBS Wisconsin caught up with him as he prepared for the 2021 performance of the Wisconsin School Music Association (WSMA) Jazz Ensemble to discuss the challenges of playing jazz music on Zoom and the importance of music education.
PBS Wisconsin: Are there parts of your program that are particularly difficult for your students? How do you guide them through the difficult parts?
Jamey Simmons: Well, they all have their own challenges; they all have small technical sections, in particular which are difficult, and sometimes it’s just the concept of the different parts that is difficult. “In a Big Way” is a shuffle, so the concept behind is pretty easy to understand – you just want a nice bluesy tune – but there are a few technical surprises in it. In Maria Schneider’s ballad, titled “My Lament”, the challenge lies in intonation and creating a beautiful sound with the ensemble, and learning to play with great finesse and smooth control of the sound in the ensemble. instrument. But others, like Mingus’ “Bitter Jug” and “Better Get it in Your Soul” are very fast, so they have to learn to build energy, not necessarily by being strong, but by having a really good rhythm and very good articulation.
PBS Wisconsin: How did you overcome the barriers of technology and distance during summer camps this year?
Simmons: It was interesting how we did it. We did three days of virtual rehearsal, and in jazz it might seem a little strange that we did that, but we were listening to a lot of recordings, and they were playing with them on Zoom. What’s pretty cool is that after three days of rehearsing online, we got together for a day of live rehearsals in Wisconsin Rapids and we had a blast. We got to know each other and the band sounded pretty good by the time we left. I have to give it to them, they’ve done a lot of work on it in a very short period of time.
PBS Wisconsin: How was this process different from a normal year, and how has your own performance changed?
Simmons: We would have had four days of rehearsals there, so it was quite different. I didn’t know how it was going to turn out either.
When the pandemic hit here, we had a spring semester where we had no representation. And then last year everything was smaller with streamlined instrumentation and smaller groupsets and greater spacing. It was a challenge, I would say, this summer too, but we just took as much distance as possible for a jazz band. We didn’t have to do as much because we are a small group. The harmony band was over there in a gymnasium. I was like, ‘Wow, I don’t know how I would do with that’, but we did well with the jazz band being a little smaller. That last day of rehearsal, it was quite fun to be there in person.
PBS Wisconsin: How has the pandemic changed the performing arts landscape?
Simmons: This has had lasting effects on performance venues, but it seems they are bouncing back and starting to resume their activities. In a way, it has made people a little more flexible with technology, which is an interesting development; I certainly learned a lot. Most of the musicians I spoke to really did things creatively to bridge the gap for a little while, and that made them stronger with remote recording, learning to record and create. at home, find creative concert opportunities and outdoor concerts, things like this.
PBS Wisconsin: What non-pandemic challenges do school music programs continue to face?
Simmons: As the music director of a high school or college, you are always faced with budget issues, so they can be a bit exacerbated next year. You always have to sell music, and sometimes not always on the merits of the music itself. You have to promote what it does for test scores and teamwork and other extra-musical effects it has on students. But selling the importance of music education itself is where we want to go as ambassadors from that point of view. This is one of the things the WSMA does; they showcase what we do and spotlight these very talented students. It’s a very, very important role in the world of music education.
PBS Wisconsin: Why is music important to society?
Simmons: Real good music brings people together; this is another of the ways that beauty brings people together. It should bring people together, but it takes time and effort, and if you’re going to do it right, it should be an art form that is respected. A culturally rich society will always treat musicians with respect, with honor. She will support them, financially, as she supports the media and events. I think this is quite important. Maybe we miss it, in a way, now that the music has separated from things in different ways.
Music has been used in functions – it gets used to selling things – it gets used to selling digital downloads the same way we would sell pork belly in a commodity market. I’m in one of the centers of that, outside of Nashville, and we started to move from music creators to music producers. It’s a different paradigm, and it’s not always healthy. We all have to do what we can to bring these two worlds into a kind of balance to create things that are beautiful.