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Jazz I wins its eighth DownBeat Award

| Judy Berthiaume (story); Jesse Yang (video)

What do you get when you bring together talented student musicians who are eager to learn, passionate mentors who love to teach and a campus community that values the arts?

An award-winning jazz program with a growing national reputation for creating exceptional music and graduating extraordinary musicians.

In other words, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s jazz studies program.

This spring, for the eighth time, UW-Eau Claire’s Jazz Ensemble I has won a prestigious DownBeat Award, this time in the category of “outstanding performance.”

“Once again, I am proud of our students for winning one of our field’s most prestigious awards,” says Robert Baca, director of jazz studies at UW-Eau Claire. “It is the highest honor that an educational institution can have because DownBeat is the jazz magazine. I’m beyond ecstatic for these students.”

DownBeat magazine is the premier jazz magazine for professional jazz musicians as well as those who contribute to the industry, like producers, engineers, advertisers and students.

For its awards, institutions nationwide submit recordings in a variety of categories. Panels of respected jazz performers and educators select winners and outstanding performance citations.

Given their prestige, many consider the DownBeat awards the educational Grammys, Baca says, noting that this year’s UW-Eau Claire winning entry featured a recording of a live concert performance by Jazz l in December 2017.

Baca announced the ensemble’s latest award Friday night during a sold-out concert at the 52nd annual Eau Claire Jazz Festival.

“It makes me happy for them and I’m really proud of them,” Baca says of sharing the news in such a public forum. “To have an auditorium full of 1,500 people celebrating this award with them is really something.”

Being honored with a national award means a lot to him and the other musicians in the ensemble, says Cameron Becker, a junior music major from Lakeville, Minnesota.

“Everyone works very hard and we have very high standards,” says Becker, who has been part of Jazz I for three years. “To get this kind of recognition is special. It’s a big deal to all of us.”

The 2018 award marks the second consecutive year that the magazine has honored UW-Eau Claire with one of its DownBeat awards.

This is the first time UW-Eau Claire has won the award in back-to-back years.

“When we received the award last year, it had been several years since we had last received an award so it felt new and special again,” Baca says. “I always wondered if we were to receive it in succession, what it would feel like. I am now here to say it feels like we received it for the very first time.”

Senior Alex Karye, a trombone player from Farmington, Minnesota, was a part of the award-winning ensemble for both of its most recent DownBeat honors.

“I had a feeling we could win again because we had a great band last year, but we’re even better this year,” Karye says. “We have great people who strive to be the best musicians they can possibly be.

“It’s still registering that this is happening two years in a row. It’s not the award that is so meaningful, but knowing that our hard work is being recognized at this level that makes it so special.”

Connor Pietrzak, a senior music major from Sherwood, agrees, noting that while the musicians appreciate the national recognition, making music is more important to them than earning accolades.

“It’s a great confidence boost,” Pietrzak says. “We strive for a level of musical excellence and we know that if we meet our goals musically that this award is in play. However, we do not start out the year thinking that we have to win a DownBeat. Our goals are for ourselves and our music, and this is just something that, fortunately, comes along with it.”

While some of the ensemble members are the same as last year, there are a number of new members or musicians taking on new roles in Jazz I this year, Pietrzak says.

“For that amount of turnover, and for us to maintain such a high level, it says a lot about the musicians, Mr. Baca and this program,” Pietrzak says.

The students say the DownBeat Award is especially meaningful because UW-Eau Claire is a midsize public university in the Midwest, competing against students from much larger and often more prestigious institutions.

“It’s easy to feel like we’re in a bubble here in the north woods,” Pietrzak says. “It’s definitely a confidence boost to know that things we are doing here are being rated high on a national scale.”

As they look to their futures, it is reassuring to know that they can compete with graduates from jazz programs throughout the United States, the students say.

“It’s kind of easy to push UW-Eau Claire into a box of a smaller school, but we have this outstanding jazz studies area even though we don’t have a jazz degree,” Karye says. “Being recognized on a national level like this is really encouraging for students like myself and plenty of others here who want to go out to New York or L.A. to pursue music after we graduate.”

Given the success of UW-Eau Claire alumni, students like Karye have every reason to think big when looking toward their futures, Baca says, noting that jazz alumni regularly return to campus to share their talents and wisdom with Blugolds.

“Our students have an adage of absolutely no limits,” Baca says. “They admire people — including Blugold alumni — who are doing what they want to do, talk to them about their journey and put in the necessary work to achieve similar goals.

“Because of the relationships they develop in ensembles and classes, coupled with many hours of practice a day, excellence actually becomes natural for them. I truly believe it’s all about the fun of being together.”

The students practice a lot, but also help each other achieve a balance of life and career, Baca says.

As a result, they create and make the most of the many opportunities they find as students, which help to prepare them for success after they graduate, he says.

“Our students in the music department understand that excellence brings a choice of opportunities, and that we need to be prepared as opportunities come at a moment’s notice,” Baca says. “They work hard to make sure they are ready when opportunity knocks on their door.”

Already, he says, hard work and preparation by students in the Jazz I ensemble is paying off, Baca says.

“There are several people in the ensemble who, after this next year, will go on to some of the top universities in the country for music graduate degrees on full-ride scholarships,” Baca says. “A couple others are right around the corner from receiving full-time playing opportunities, the kinds of jobs that I couldn’t even have dreamed about when I was in college.”

In addition to winning the eight DownBeat awards, in recent years UW-Eau Claire’s Jazz I has had two CD recordings nominated for Grammy awards.

The secret to the students’ success?

Their mentor, Robert Baca, they say.

“Mr. Baca has certainly been the most driving force of the success of the big band,” Becker says. “He is such a great guy to work with because he has so much energy and so much passion for his students. He really cares that we are learning and that we are getting better.”

Becker says he came to UW-Eau Claire because of Baca and the jazz program’s outstanding reputation.

It was the best decision he could have made, he says.

“The jazz program has certainly lived up to every single expectation I’ve had,” Becker says. “It’s so much fun to be part of it.”

Much of the credit for the jazz program’s success goes to UW-Eau Claire, an institution that supports and invests in the arts, Baca says.

“It’s our magical environment at UW-Eau Claire and the support of the entire campus community, including university leadership, that makes it possible for our students to achieve this kind of success,” Baca says.

The DownBeat magazine will include UW-Eau Claire’s newest award in its June edition.