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Drummer's hands playing on a set of drums

The Newport Jazz Festival, one of the country’s top music event since the 1950s, is world renowned. And this year, the University of Rhode Island Big Band will be thereperforming on the main stage. The group, which is made up of URI alumni and current students, was selected in a blind audition. 

Jared Sims, band co-director, says this honor is a testament to the success of the jazz studies program, launched about a decade ago. “Performing on the main stage 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 the tradition is great.’’

URI jazz professors are world-class players and teachers. A lot of musicians are good at playing, but they don’t know how to teach. At URI they can do both.

Every August the Newport festival draws thousands of jazz fans from all over the world. Tenor sax player Charlie Larson ’13 is pumped to play in front of such a large audience. “I’m looking forward to being in that environment as a performer,’’ he says. “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, 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,’’ says Charlie, who is heading 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 offers a once-in-lifetime opportunity to perform on a national stage. “This is the most amazing thing that has happened to me musically. What makes me really nervous is that the guys who inspired me have been booked at the same festival.’’ Those “guys’’ include saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Christian McBride, pianist Herbie Hancock, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, described by critics as jazz’s greatest living small-group composer and a gifted improviser.

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.’’

Professor Sims is a saxophonist who’s toured four continents, played live with top performers and big name 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.

Is Ben nervous about performing at the festival? “I’m petrified,’’ he says. But Ben and his fellow musicians are cool. And once they start playing, they’ll be part of a great tradition—and they’ll get lost in the music, just like jazz great Chet Baker—and so many others who have played Newport in decades past.

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