UF music professor has students, audiences jazzed about genre


Scott Wilson plays with his band Mindwalk at 101 Downtown in Gainesville on March 13.

Brett Le Blanc/Correspondent
Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 4:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 4:23 p.m.

Jazz is more than Frank Sinatra.

It’s more than an easy-listening radio station and elevator music, and more even than Scott Wilson’s jazz course. That’s what he tries to teach his students, anyway.

Wilson, 44, is best known on the University of Florida campus for teaching the popular online History of Jazz elective. But the UF assistant professor also directs the university’s Jazz Band and designed and built the jazz minor at UF almost entirely by himself.

Wilson said he wants students to learn to appreciate jazz, which he said is the basis for much of today’s popular music.

“Lady Gaga is one of the jazz artists,” he said. “She sang with Tony Bennett; she got her start in New York in jazz clubs as a jazz singer.”

Wilson himself used to think jazz was just saxophones and Frank Sinatra. He didn’t listen to or play jazz growing up — in the 1980s, he was hooked on hip-hop.

But when he went to UF to study voice, Wilson found himself listening to jazz at someone’s house. He fit in with the college jazz lovers, people who practiced music all day and loved beats.

He started to see jazz as “hip-hop with harmony.”

Then he joined the music fraternity Phi Mu Alpha and a jazz band, which began a 10-page list of accomplishments, including a bachelor’s degree in music education and two master’s degrees from the University of North Texas — one in jazz studies and one in music education.

He has performed with dozens of prominent jazz musicians, including trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, percussionist Gregg Bissonette and saxophonist Sam Rivers.

He served as a music consultant at Orlando’s Walt Disney World and musical director for Universal Studios Japan.

These are the kinds of jobs he wants his students to get, too.

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The students are the first ones to say Wilson pushes them. Mark Doerffel, 37, has been a teaching assistant for several of Wilson’s classes. History of Jazz is intended as an easygoing elective, something that won’t overwhelm non-musical students.

But jazz minor classes are just the opposite — they require “a certain degree of mental toughness,” Doerffel said. A jazz ensemble rehearsal might include six to eight pieces in 60 minutes.

But that’s what they need, so that’s what Wilson is going to give them. His goal is to give students the skills they need to be marketable in the real world. He might stop a rehearsal to point out a successful student and talk about what has led to his or her accomplishments.

He wants his students to have the tools they need to get jobs, he said. They could work at theme parks, play in bands or create music for television, films and video games.

Jazz knowledge gives them the foundation for a range of styles, said jazz graduate assistant Kevin Hicks, 27.

“A classical player wouldn’t be able to go out and play the same gig,” he said.

With that in mind, Wilson built a jazz minor that is attracting talent to Gainesville.

Ben Grier, 22, is one example of that. He grew up listening to 1930s jazz, and he wanted to study music in college and pursue a music career with his tenor saxophone.

He was looking at schools such as Florida State University and the University of North Florida. Then Wilson called him and invited him to sit in on a jazz ensemble.

When Wilson started teaching at UF in 2009, Grier said, that changed everything. And his mentor always has more ideas developing.

“It’s ridiculous,” Grier said. “I don’t think he even sleeps.”

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Whether he is performing or teaching, Wilson rarely takes a break. He never stands still. When he plays the trumpet, he leans back to wail and then bobs forward, tapping a foot and maybe adding a hip wiggle.

When he counts to lead in to a UF Jazz Band song at practice, “one, two” becomes “a-one, mmmm, mm-mm-mm-mm.” His fingers tap his trumpet, even when he isn’t playing.

Sometimes he hugs it to himself, but he still taps his feet. He might take a breath and tug at his collar once during a nearly two-hour set when he plays with the band Mindwalk each Wednesday at 101 Downtown.

Wilson stops moving only when he pauses to watch the other band members or to introduce them and tell his audience what they are playing.

He might have a big name at UF, but Wilson doesn’t act like it with a group.

“Nobody actually tries to take the lead,” said Tom Young, 47, a former History of Jazz student who has attended the 101 Downtown concerts every few weeks since he finished the class last semester.

He and his partner, Katherine White, 60, buy the band members a few rounds of drinks, swapping jokes between songs. He likes jazz and blues, and she was more into pop and classical, until they started listening to Mindwalk and White realized she had more eclectic tastes than she’d thought.

It’s an idea Wilson comes back to, especially in the class that has landed him 658 students this semester. Jasmine Vecchio, 19, reflected on that between songs at a Mindwalk performance Wednesday night. Students are required to attend a jazz performance during the semester.

“I’m actually starting to like jazz through the class,” she said. “I didn’t really listen to it before.”

Wilson might have undermined his own lesson, though. Now, Vecchio enjoys music by Frank Sinatra.

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