Trumpeter and composer Taylor Barnett’s selection to replace Antonio Garcia as director of Virginia Commonwealth University Jazz Studies program seems like an inevitable and transformational choice.
He grew up in the program, departing only long enough to get his doctorate at James Madison University. And he’s been a fixture on the local scene as leader and member of a variety of bands, most notably in No BS! Brass Band, arguably the most RVA band of all.
It’s hard to think of anyone with greater insight into the significant challenges that lie ahead for musicians, or anyone with more talent and support for achieving them.
Reached by phone, Barnett is excited but still playing catch up.
“I am currently buried in a mountain of email,” he says. “There are a lot of things to set up at the beginning of the year. But I'm thrilled that it worked out, and now that the waiting is over, every day is so much more hope. I just had lunch with [pianist] Daniel Clarke, [guitarist] Trey Pollard, and [trombonist/new Jazz Orchestra II director] Toby Whitaker at Kuba Kuba, planning the next Jazz Masters recital. There are a lot of amazing things going on.”
Barnett has been part of the VCU Jazz program since 1997, when he commuted from Charlottesville to play in the VCU Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band. When he was still a high school senior, he played in VCU’s Jazz Orchestra II, the school’s junior varsity big band. After high school graduation, he became a full-time VCU student, earning his 2002 undergraduate and 2004 master’s degrees.
His teaching started while he was still studying and continued as an adjunct instructor role- including leading Jazz Orchestra II until 2010, when he left for JMU. After getting his doctorate in musical arts in performance, pedagogy, and literature in 2013, he returned to VCU as an assistant professor.
If this were not enough, he also has been a longtime member of NO BS! Brass, performed as a soloist across North America, led any number of his own bands, transcribed compositions by the great trumpeter Dave Douglas, had his own compositions performed globally, while also raising a family.
Barnett is stepping into the role held for more than two decades by Antonio Garcia after a less than friction-free transition from program founder Doug Richards. Barnett’s two predecessors brought divergent approaches and talents to the program, which was embedded in a school in the midst of evolving from an unpretentious, compact urban campus into a sprawling state-of-the-art university.
Both of Barnett’s predecessors were full of praise.
Professor Garcia says: “Taylor has been in the fabric of the department and of the jazz program as a high school student, undergraduate student, graduate student and graduate assistant, adjunct faculty member, and full-time term faculty member. VCU Jazz runs in his blood; and with his immense talents as a composer, arranger, trumpeter, bandleader, and educator, the jazz program is in great hands.”
Richards, long a Richmond musical icon, was also delighted.
“EUREKA!” he relayed via email. “VCU hiring Taylor Barnett as director of jazz studies is a stroke of brilliance! I've known Taylor for over 20 years. He's an outstanding instrumentalist/improvisor, composer/arranger, ensemble director, and is a naturally gifted teacher (an extremely rare commodity!). Taylor's shared with me some of his visions for the program. VCU and Richmond are in for a real treat!! [Capitalization and exclamation points in the original.]
Among the changes Barnett has in store: Reimagining the previously second-tier Jazz Orchestra II as a co-equal Afro-Latin jazz ensemble.
“This will allow us to have a little more flexibility with the size of the horn section, and also gives a chance for multiple percussionists,” he explains. “And there's a vocalist in the group. It’s an amazing way to bring Toby Whitaker’s talents and experience with Bio Ritmo and Afro-Zen Allstars into play. I think it should be pretty cool.”
Another change will be to rework the faculty ensemble into something like the San Francisco Jazz Collective, an all-star unit that builds programs of new compositions and arrangements focused on a single composer or genre. Their first outing, penciled in for March 2023, will focus on Motown.
Audiences will get their first taste of the approach at the VCU Fall Jazz Festival on Thurs, Oct 6, at 8 p.m.
“This will be the premiere of the new Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra,” says Barnett. “Jazz Orchestra I will play charts by both Doug Richards and Antonio Garcia, along with a brand-new piece by myself, showcasing the ongoing tradition of big band jazz of VCU Jazz. We'll close off with a set by the Jazz Masters, which will be the first concert of that group with our new guitar faculty member, Trey Pollard.”
Pollard, an innovative popular and classical music arranger and co-owner of the Spacebomb Group, adds another dimension to the university’s increasingly interdisciplinary approach
The program is off to a strong start with recruiting beefed up by increased scholarship funds attracting a core of really strong players.
“We got two students from the elite Norfolk Governor's School for the Arts in the freshman class,” Barnett says. “Once you get someone from a school, they know people that were a couple of years behind or they have a sibling. That creates momentum to build on.”
Meanwhile, VCU continues to expand its real estate footprint with a new $200 million Arts and Innovation Building slated for the corner of Broad and Belvidere. With Barnett and his colleagues, the Jazz Studies program is staking its future on the products of its past. It's a generational change and a coming of age for a group of musicians with deep connections to the program and the RVA music scene.