Jazz band hits the main stage

Move over Miles Davis, and make room for the University of Rhode Island Big Band. Selected in a blind audition, the band performed this summer at the Newport Jazz Festival, one of the most prestigious music events in the country. Before the performance, band Co-director Jared Sims said the honor of an invitation to play at the festival is a testament to the success of the jazz studies program, launched about a decade ago. “We’re actually going to be on the main stage, which is a really, really big deal. 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 that tradition is great,’’ he said.

The Big Band musicians include URI alumni and current students. The group’s 45-minute set includes Count Basie’s “Corner Pocket,’’ Thad Jones’ “Groove Merchant,’’ and Sammy Nestico’s “Basie-Straight Ahead’’ among other mainstream favorites. The festival draws thousands of jazz fans during the three-day event. Tenor sax player Charlie Larson ’13 was pumped to play in front of such a large audience. “For the first time, playing in that big of a context, is just really exciting.’’ Charlie picked up his first sax when he was nine years old and by the time he was in high school he knew he wanted to devote his life to music. He chose URI for its music program, which did not disappoint. “The past four years have opened up my ability to play. It’s been a great experience all around,’’ he said. Charlie heads to the Boston Conservatory this fall for a master’s degree.

For senior jazz studies major Ben Marcoux, an alto and tenor sax player, the festival offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform on a national stage. “This is the most amazing thing that has happened to me musically. What made me really nervous is that the guys who inspired me have been booked at the same festival.’’ Like Charlie, Ben was impressed with the music department at URI—and its teachers. “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.’’

Sims is a saxophonist who’s toured on four continents, played live with big names and big named orchestras, and appeared on more than 35 different recordings. Co-director John Monllos was a member of the U.S. Navy Band for more than 20 years, has toured extensively throughout Europe and the United States, and plays regularly with his trio, Los Gatos.