URI jazz band hits high note: invited to play at Newport Jazz Festival

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KINGSTON, RI – June 11, 2013 – Move over Miles. The University of Rhode Island jazz big band will perform this summer at the Newport Jazz Festival, one of the most prestigious music events in the country.

Joseph Parillo, chair of URI’s music department, says the honor is a testament to the success of the jazz studies program, launched about a decade ago in the music department.

He’s thrilled the band was invited to play. The musicians, alumni and current students, were selected in a blind audition judged by URI faculty and outside musicians and educators.

“We’ve had the jazz program for a decade and here we are,” says Parillo. “We made it to this point. It’s pretty cool.”

The band will play a 45-minute set starting at noon Aug. 4 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport. Expect to hear “mainstream big band,” not the more esoteric jazz of the late Miles Davis.

Count Basie’s “Corner Pocket,” Thad Jones’ “Groove Merchant,” and Sammy Nestico’s “Basie-Straight Ahead” are on the playlist. Co-directors Jared Sims and John Monllos will take turns at the podium.

“We’re actually going to be on the main stage, which is a really, really big deal,” says Sims. “These kids are going to sit in the same spot where some of the legends of jazz music, like Duke Ellington, have been. To be part of the tradition is great. To be included is fantastic.”

Most of the band members are musicians from Rhode Island. Some are current students; many are graduates pursuing their passion and earning a living as music teachers and performers in local bands.

Joe Godfrey will tickle the ivories at the festival. “My parents listened to a lot of jazz, and I grew up hearing about the Newport Jazz Festival,” says the Providence resident. “I’ve been aware of its prestige for a long time.”

He started playing the piano by ear when he was 11 and took his first lesson three years later. “Playing amplifies emotions for me,” he says. “I guess I’m a very dramatic person. I like feeling emotion.”

He received a bachelor’s degree in jazz studies from URI in 2009 and a master’s, also in jazz studies, from the University of South Carolina. He teaches jazz and classical piano at the Rhode Island Philharmonic School in East Providence, gives private lessons, and plays with a local band, Panoramic View.

Tenor sax player Charlie Larson, who lives on Providence’s East Side, is pumped to play in front of such a large audience. The festival draws thousands of jazz fans during the three-day event.

“I’m looking forward to being in that environment as a performer,” he says. “For the first time, playing in that big of a context, is just really exciting.”

He picked up his first sax when he was 9 at his Long Island grade school and by the time he was in high school he knew he wanted to devote his life to music. He enrolled at URI for the music program, which did not disappoint.

“The past four years have opened up my ability to play,” says Larson, who graduated this spring with a bachelor’s in classical music and music education. “It’s been a great experience all around.”

To keep busy, he’s subbing in the West Warwick public schools and this fall plans to attend the Boston Conservatory for a master’s in classical music performance. He also plays the flute, clarinet and piano.

For Ben Marcoux, an alto and a tenor sax player, the festival offers a once-in-lifetime opportunity to perform on a national stage. The North Providence resident will graduate from URI next year with a bachelor’s in jazz studies.

“It started off as kind of a whisper going around the music department and then we got the ball rolling and a month and a half later the department said we’re going to do it,” says Marcoux. “It’s incredible. I’ve been going to the festival every year, so it’s going to be great.”

Marcoux’s first wind instrument was the clarinet. He begged his parents to buy him one after a Dixieland band played at his grade school when he was in fifth grade. “That’s where it all began,” he says.

He switched to the sax in eighth grade and buckled down with music his junior year in high school. Like Larson, Marcoux was impressed with the music department at URI – and its teachers. His focus was jazz.

“The jazz professors are world-class players and teachers,” he says. “A lot of musicians are good at playing, but they don’t know how to teach. At URI, they’re fantastic players but they put a lot of emphasis on being good teachers too. They can do both.”

Is he nervous about performing at the festival? “I’m petrified,” he says. “This is the most amazing thing that has happened to me musically. What makes me really nervous is that the guys who inspired me have been booked at the same festival.”

Those “guys” include saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Christian McBride, pianist Herbie Hancock, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, described by critics as probably jazz’s greatest living small-group composer and a gifted improviser too.

But Marcoux is one cool cat. Once he starts playing, he’ll happily do what the mournful jazz trumpeter and vocalist Chet Baker did: get lost in the music.

Other band members are:

Alto Saxophone 2, Dave Murphy ’14, of North Kingstown

Tenor Sax 1, Leland Baker ’15, of Pawtucket

Bari Saxophone, Molly Hammell ’13, of Killingworth, CT.

Trumpet, Manny Morales ’16, of Wakefield

Trumpet, Jarrod Gorman ’95, of Plainville, Mass.

Trumpet, Ed DeArruda ’11, of Portsmouth

Trombone, Erin Dawson ’12, of Irvington, NY.

Trombone, Chris Depot ’11, of Narragansett

Trombone, Mike Ottaviano ’11, of Hope Valley

Guitar, Clay Nordhill ’15, of Portsmouth

Bass, Kyle Barboza ’13, of Tiverton

Drum, Mich Muller ’13, of Kingston

A saxophonist from Boston, co-director Sims has toured in the United States, Europe, South America, India, and the Middle East. He has played live with Bob Brookmeyer, Stefon Harris, Han Bennink, Cecil McBee and Bob Moses, as well as with the orchestras of Artie Shaw and Jimmy Dorsey.

He has performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Flint Jazz Festival in Michigan, Beantown Jazz Festival in Boston, Quito Jazz Festival in Ecuador, and Northsea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.

Sims has also appeared on more than 35 different recordings. His newest jazz recording, The New Stablemates, was released in 2012 and features bassist Dave Zinno and drummer Steve Langone. (Both Langone and Zinno teach in URI’s music department.)

Monllos, a guitar player from Newport, was the assistant director of Navy Band Northeast and a member of the United States Navy Band for more than 20 years. Monllos has toured extensively throughout Europe and the United States.

A graduate of the University of Miami jazz program, he received his master’s in music at URI, where he is a lecturer in the music department. He is also on the faculty at Salve Regina University, where he teaches guitar. He has a private guitar studio in Newport.

Monllos appeared with the Boston Pops in 2006 as a guitarist with the Navy’s showband. Monllos performs regularly in New England with his trio, Los Gatos, and with various jazz bands. His latest release is Pop the Cork, a smooth jazz single.

“This is terrific news for the band,” says Winifred Brownell, dean of URI’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Everyone involved with our jazz program deserves high praise for reaching this milestone so early in the life of the jazz program. We are very proud of our faculty, students and staff in the music department.”

Discounted $20 tickets are available for students, ages 16 to 21, with proper student identification. Students with discounted tickets will be asked to present valid student identification at the gate, along with the $20 ticket. If valid student identification is not presented, students will be directed to the box office to pay the difference for a regularly priced ticket. Adult tickets are $74 to $125, and children ages 3 to 15 are $15. Children under 3 are free. You can purchase tickets online at NewportJazzFest.net.

Pictured above: Musicians in the jazz big band at the University of Rhode. In front from left to right are Manny Morales, Clay Nordhill, and Joe Godfrey. In back from left to right are Leland Baker and co-directors Jared Sims and John Monllos. The band will perform at the Newport Jazz Festival on Aug. 4.

Photo by Michael Salerno Photography.