It was the gig of a lifetime for the University of Wyoming jazz ensemble.
In late February, the band played two sets at Club Smoke in New York City, accompanying world-renowned trombonist Steve Turre, who had played with the group at the Arts & Sciences Auditorium a few days before.
Before the downbeat, however, ensemble director Scott Turpen felt his group needed a little pep talk. "I told the band before we left, 'Look, you have to be better than you can be because it says Wyoming. In New York City, we're not known for jazz and we're going to have raised eyebrows. If we don't sound great, they're going to think we're a bunch of rubes. We absolutely have to be on our A game,'" Turpen says.
"I was a little concerned that the discerning ears of New York City wouldn't like what we were doing. I was pleasantly surprised. We had standing-room only for both sets we played at Smoke, and the crowd loved the band. The club owner was extremely pleased. He said, 'I didn't know what to expect from you guys, but you sounded great, and you can come back any time you want.'"
The scene in New York City was unthinkable ten years ago when Turpen took over as director of jazz studies, and the thought of someone such as Turre — a veteran of bands led by Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Ray Charles, as well as a mainstay in the Saturday Night Live band — playing with the UW jazz ensemble was merely a pipe dream.
In addition to Turre, Grammy-winning vocal group New York Voices, vibraphonist Stefon Harris, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and saxophonist Eric Marienthal have sat in with the band in recent years. Knowing such luminaries have the UW jazz ensemble on their radar draws students into the program.
"The fact that we've had two guest artists each of the past few years shows the jazz program is growing," UW saxophonist Harrison Welshimer says. "The money's there, and the support for it is growing through working with cultural outreach programs. Things are starting to happen."
Turpen was the third jazz director at UW in a span of four years when he arrived in Laramie for the 2001-2002 academic year. He was named director of jazz studies and professor of saxophone, and he immediately committed to growing the jazz program over the long haul. Where there was one ensemble and no small groups, the jazz program now has three ensembles, a handful of jazz combos, improvisation classes, and a vocal jazz ensemble.
Turpen also has taken the top ensembles to the University of Northern Colorado/Greeley Jazz Festival, which is where Welshimer first heard the group. Turpen has stepped up student recruitment for the music programs, regionally and nationally, and works tirelessly to educate students and community members in America's original music form.
"He's incredibly driven," Welshimer says. "He will work so hard, harder than anyone else. Those people alone are hard to find. But he also has the passion to foster the right kind of environment. Certainly someone could make this program successful, but I don't know if anyone can balance it as well as he has."
Pianist Tony Moreira came to UW from Sao Paulo, Brazil, fresh off a 15-year career as a studio musician, producer, and composer there. But even he found a couple of new things through UW's music programs. "The best thing for me has been to work with Dr. Turpen. He is a very competent teacher and musician. This has been a really good experience for me," Moreira says. "And I also got to study classical music here. That's a very new experience for me, as I'd never studied classical music before."
The future of UW's jazz program looks as bright as the lights in New York City. Turpen has another artist exchange in the works for next year, as well as more guest artists to sit in with the band. Students now must audition for the jazz groups; and to keep the size of each ensemble fairly small, some students don't make the cut — which Turpen says is the only drawback.
"The whole music program has grown in quantity and quality the past ten years," he says. "I think we're on the upswing. We've got talented faculty, and we're recruiting a lot of talented students. I think it's a very positive place to be."