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Richmond's Jazz Scene: A Plan Comes Together

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In “Musical Nexus” (Back Page, April 14), Peter McElhinney offers an insightful glance into the Richmond jazz scene and Virginia Commonwealth University jazz studies, but overlooks much. He wrote, “The best a university can do is document your academic qualifications for a creative life.” I disagree! We cultivate that scene and teach our students how to be entrepreneurs.

In 2002 we reinstated our music industry course, by 2005 required for all jazz majors. The Fight the Bull trio enrolled separately: a class project led to an East Coast tour, Ken Vandermark connections, seeds sown for the Patchwork Collective and Fight the Big Bull. It's now difficult to find a Richmond jazz-infused ensemble without members whose career steps emerged from that course.

We changed the jazz degree to mandate more combo experience, less big band, and more time for city outreach. As a result, our jazz orchestras are younger than in the preceding 20 years: also no graduate students, no pep band scholarships, no ringers (non-VCU students) — all positive past elements no longer possible.

Freeing up our most experienced students to gig more externally increases our program's challenges but benefits our students. As anyone who heard the VCU jazz orchestras perform recently might note, they can still raise an audience to its feet!

To publicize the scene, I created in 2001 the VCU Jazz E-Newsletter. Along with the ongoing work of the Richmond Jazz Society, the artistry of our neighbors, and more, the jazz scene in Richmond became so active that jazz student Dean Christesen founded RVAJazz.com to cover it: now a successful business managed by, yes, a drummer. More synergy!

So, “If there's never been a better time to hear creative live music in Richmond,” it's not necessarily an accident. At VCU we long ago identified and signed unanimously on to what we could do to cultivate both the content and the buzz.

Antonio GarcA-a
Director of Jazz Studies
Virginia Commonwealth University

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