Music professors highlight Michigan jazz scene, inspire younger performers

Katy Kildee | Staff Photographer Professor of double bass Edward Fedewa, professor of percussion Andrew Spencer, and professor of music Dr. Robert Lindahl prepare to sound check before performing with fellow members of the Faculty Jazz Ensemble on Thursday in the Staples Family Recital Hall.

Drooping trombone, bright keys and a wailing saxophone. All three sounds produced countless jazz tunes, including the classic standard “All of Me."

It's a sound three Central Michigan University professors hold close to their hearts.

When jamming with their fellow professors, they are just the backbone to the School of Music's Faculty Jazz Ensemble. But as a trio, they are one of CMU's most formidable horn sections, and they are on a mission to make music education more than a mere jam session.

“In a way, the trio was put together in Midland to promote jazz music and jazz education in Michigan,” said Bob Lindahl, who plays trombone.

Between teaching at the university and performing during the annual CMU Jazz Weekend, Lindahl, Jeff Kressler and John Nichol have been promoting the arts to foster an appreciation for jazz in young musicians.

By playing various festivals around the state and allowing high school jazz bands to perform before them, the group makes learning the rigors of swing seem fun and far less imposing.


“It's a different kind of education,” Lindahl said. “It gives them the chance to play and listen. To have the opportunity to listen to a really good band.”

The three men, who formed their group about five years ago, have more than 75 years of jazz-playing experience combined.

Lindahl has been at CMU for 22 years while Nichol, the group's tenor saxophone player, has been teaching courses about the instrument for 33 years. In addition, Nichol has played in various bands, including the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, for nearly 25 years.

“I was a founding member of the Lansing Symphony Big Band and founding member of the Lansing Symphony Jazz Band,” Nichol said.

Kressler, the retired band director for DeWitt High School, has been a part-time teacher of piano and keyboard at CMU for more than a decade.

Nichol said the popularity of jazz music in the U.S. depends on where you are, but the students who love jazz always will.

“I think there are pockets here and there,” Nichol said. “You're always going to find aficionados and people who love jazz, want to listen to it (and) are in the crowd.”

The wide availability of all genres of music on the Internet, including contemporary and hard-bop jazz styles often make it harder for people to get into jazz, Nichol added.

A teacher's touch

Still, young music fans and musicians have found their way through the murky waters of finding good jazz, and the trio have helped many students navigate that path. Trombone player and music major Sam Mitchell is one of those students.

Mitchell has played all styles of jazz music since he started playing in marching band at Shepard High School nine years ago.

“We played a lot of old swing era jazz like a Duke Ellington or Count Basey kind of thing,” said Mitchell, a Mount Pleasant senior. “We played a lot of Bebop stuff which would be like Miles Davis or John Coltrane. That sort of thing. And a little bit of modern stuff like the Big Phat Band.”

Mitchell is the coordinator for the 2014 CMU Jazz Weekend, which is celebrating its 41st year. This year's event is scheduled for Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. in various locations around campus, including the Bovee University Center and Plachta Auditorium.

Mitchell played third trombone with famed trumpeter Bobby Shew during his festival-headlining performance last year.

“Just listening to Bobby Shew was like a huge wake-up,” he said. “I can do this sort of thing. This is definitely possible that anyone who puts their mind to it can definitely do that.”

Another way the group reaches out to students is through college radio performances.

Last month, the group played WKAR's Current State radio program on the campus of Michigan State University. On air, the group also did an interview talking about the importance of jazz education.

At the end of the show, the group rounded out the program with their unique take on “All of Me" – a rendition that makes the group so revered among their peers and the next generation of jazz performers they teach, like Mitchell.

“It's like a huge community,” Mitchell said of the tight-knit jazz musicians. “I have friends at MSU that I talk to all the time, so I think it's fantastic for people to learn about other programs. We're all in this for the same thing. We're all music lovers.”


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