Pianist James Himmelman can’t believe that after just two years as a URI student, he will be performing at the Newport Jazz Festival. On July 31, he’ll be on the stage at Fort Adams with the URI Big Band, which will make its third consecutive appearance at the world’s first—and best known—jazz festival.
“The thing I’m looking forward to most is sharing the experience with the band,” said James, a jazz performance and composition major. “None of us would be here without the others, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. Over the course of the school year we’ve gotten better as musicians, tighter as a group, and closer as friends.
Every summer the Newport festival draws thousands of jazz fans from all over the world. And the band’s return engagement for the 61st festival is a testament to the success of the URI jazz studies program, which was launched a dozen years ago. Adjunct Professor Jared Sims, the director of the URI Big Band, said he has developed a strong relationship with the festival foundation, which supports the University’s annual summer jazz camp. “The foundation even provides one of the festival performers as a guest artist at our camp,” said Professor Sims. “And it gives free tickets to all of the kids who attend.”
For jazz, it doesn’t get much better than playing at Newport, as a venue and as a learning experience—not only a dream come true, but also the door to so many other opportunities and possibilities.
James said the thing he likes best about the URI Jazz Program is the sense of camaraderie that comes with seeing and playing with his classmates every day. “The same thing applies to the teachers as well,” he said of Sims and Professors Joe Parillo, Dave Zinno, Eric Hofbauer, Steve Langone, and Mark Berney. “It’s an amazing sense of family, and it provides a comfortable place to learn and grow.”
Some of the 17 musicians who will play at Newport with the URI Big Band this year will do more than just perform with their classmates. They will also form the horn section of festival headliner Jamie Cullum’s band. Professor Sims said it will be challenging for the four saxophonists, four trombone players, and three trumpeters, because they will have to learn all of Cullum’s musical charts and blend in with the rest of his band. But it will be a tremendous learning experience.
When vocalist Jack Thomas takes the stage with the URI Big Band, the business major and vocal performance minor will be thinking about the long list of prominent singers who came before him, from Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra to Tony Bennett and Etta James. He calls the opportunity to perform at the Newport festival “monumental.”
“I can only guess at how this experience will further my music career,” said Jack, who hopes to become the business manager for a major record label. “My motto is: Never turn down the opportunity to sing, because you never know who will be listening. I just plan to live in that moment on stage and have fun with it.”
James Himmelman agrees. “For jazz, it doesn’t get much better than playing at Newport, as a venue and as a learning experience. The chance to play where Duke played and where Miles played is not only a dream come true, but also the door to so many other opportunities and possibilities.”