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Sentimental journey: Curt Wilson and the Alumni Jazz Ensemble in Europe

Curt Wilson and some former students brought their special style of jazz to Europe this summer.

Sentimental journey: Curt Wilson and the Alumni Jazz Ensemble in Europe

Curt Wilson and some former students brought their special style of jazz to Europe this summer.

When Bobby Francis, director of bands, was planning this summer’s shows as an artistic director for tour group Harmony International, he thought of a unique way to honor Curt Wilson ’63 (MM ’66), retired Director of Jazz Studies.
Instead of gathering some of Wilson’s former students to perform in Fort Worth, he would invite them to perform under Wilson’s direction in England and France.
The alumni received sheet music for the newly minted, 18-member Curt Wilson Alumni Jazz Ensemble, which included three non-alumni, a few weeks before rehearsals began. David Williams ’92, a guitarist and associate professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, practiced with his mentor’s style in mind. He says that Wilson made sure his students learned how to “swing a jazz tune.”
“He has a way of putting musicians at ease while bringing out their best,” says Williams.
Wilson was, as usual, “the father figure” of the alumni during the trip, notes Williams, who attributes his decision to keep music in his life to Wilson’s relaxed style of direction. Once the tour kicked off on June 29, it was time to honor their teacher from decades past and to keep the songs swinging.
The group performed first at London’s historic Royal College of Music. Having conducted the TCU Jazz Ensemble at Carnegie Hall in 2011, Wilson was more than prepared for the notable venue. The ensemble showed the London audience just what Texas jazz from TCU is about: big-muscle swing and big wide chords.
The next day the ensemble played at Old Spitalfields Market just outside London, where their music compelled some visitors to sit to listen and some young women to dance. Since Wilson was delayed by a passport problem at the U.S. Embassy, the ensemble opened on its own with some standard combo pieces. The musicians were having fun and sounding great, but once Wilson arrived and slipped in to direct the first planned piece, an extra element of enthusiasm came alive.
Rene Ozuna ’87, saxophonist and director of performing arts at Fort Worth Academy, explains the extra enthusiasm: Playing under Wilson’s direction feels, “like having your father watching you win a race; you don’t want to do it without him there.”
The ensemble included a student from Wilson’s first year teaching at TCU (trumpeter and pathologist Dr. John McDonald ’78) and one from his last (bassist and freelance musician Chike Okaro ’12). Directing alumni from the span of his 35 years at TCU, says Wilson, was the “highlight of my teaching career.”
It’s a career that’s seen many achievements. To name just a few, Wilson received the Dean’s Teaching Award in 2001 and the College of Fine Arts Award for Distinguished Achievement as a Creative Teacher and Scholar in 2005 and 2010, and in 1999, the TCU jazz program, under his direction, was recognized by DownBeat magazine as one of the top 50 collegiate jazz programs in the U.S.
Many in the ensemble place the tour among the top times in their lives: Trumpeter Sarah Bauzá ’10 calls it, “hands down one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.”
Several named the ensemble’s final performance, at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France, as the most meaningful. After “America the Beautiful,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and other songs, two trumpeters from the group, McDonald and Klein ISD Junior High Band Director Tony Yarbrough ’92, performed “Echo Taps.” Yarbrough sounded Taps on the stage while McDonald, standing by the reflecting pool in the distance, echoed him to give the music a more mournful, ruminating sound.
Pianist and Southwest Airlines financial analyst Tom Laney ’90 says that from the outskirts of the cemetery he could see visitors stopping to listen. He also points out that the Glenn Miller music the ensemble played at the Cemetery was the music the soldiers carried in their hearts as they gave their lives. It was the music of their era and gave them a sense of home.
Shortly before the tour closed on July 7, members of the ensemble visited sights in Paris, including the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. But many of the players say they would have gone anywhere with this group.
“The musicians all really enjoyed playing with each other,” says trombonist and dentist Skipper Dolt ’89. “We all savored the experience of playing for our director. There are so few chances in life to go back in time, experience this, and really thank the mentors who made such an impact.”
Laney attributes the ensemble’s shared sense of “TCU-ness” to the university being a “small school” with a “relaxed atmosphere.”
“You’re there to learn and maybe screw up but you’re always going to have the opportunity to play your best, and have professors who care about getting the best out of you,” he says.
Wilson clearly had an impact on his students’ lives that lasted long after their TCU years. About thirty minutes into the first rehearsal, Wilson remembers fondly, one of the musicians stood up and said, “It’s like we never left.”

See a performance at magazine.tcu.edu/webextras.

The Curt Wilson Alumni Band:Curt Wilson ’63 (MA ’66), director

 

Saxophones
Alan Burton ’90, IT specialist for Microsoft/ Alsbridge in Dallas; also a professional musician including the Dallas Jazz Orchestra, Pete Peterson and the Collection Jazz Orchestra, et al.)
Peyton Bryant ’11, financial analyst in wealth management, Goldman, Sachs & Co.
Eric Hochel ’12
Rene Ozuna ’87, Director of Performing Arts at Fort Worth Academy (also professional musician for Metro Praise Orchestra, PardiGras, leader of Tropix, et al.)
Tanner Reddoch(North Richland Hills High School – All Region Jazz Ensemble)
Trumpets
Sarah Bauza ’10, student at USC in 2012 (Disneyland All-American Collegiate Band, John Williams, et al.)
Holly Cook
Josh Garza
Dr. John McDonald ’78, pathologist at North Hills Hospital, (Various Arlington community bands, unofficial and illegal trumpet soloist at many TCU football games – his trumpet was denied entry at 2011 TCU vs. Air Force game at the Air Force Academy)
Tony Yarbrough ’92, junior high band Director in Klein ISD, (lead trumpet in the Houston Texans Bull Pen Pep Band)
Ashley (Lewis) Yarbrough ’92
Trombones
Todd Burrer ’98, president, Lone Star Thermal Imaging in Cypress
Kevin Chapman ’99 (MA ’04), band director at Forte Junior High in Azle, (Member of the Hi-Rollers)
Chuck Compher Jr. ’93, Environmental Science teacher/football and basketball coach at Northwest High School, (Jazz Monsters Big Band)
Dr. Arthur “Skip” Dolt ’89, dentist in Atlanta, (Atlanta Swing Orchestra)
Piano
Tom Laney ’90, financial analyst at Southwest Airlines, (Piano accompanist for ballet classes at Brookhaven Community College)
Bass
Chike Okaro ’12 MA, Metroplex freelance musician and private teacher
Drums
Drew Ruiz ’86, senior manager of aircraft sustainment/procurement at Lockheed Martin Corp., (TROPIX, member of SEARCH band at University Christian Church, et al.)
Guitar
David Williams ’92, Associate professor of political science at DePaul University, (River Cities Jazz Band)
Video:
A clip of the group performing at Spitalfields Market