July 8, 2015
"If you don't have improvisation, you don't have jazz," says Jim Sullivan '65. "Jazz is a living organism."
He should know: The former professor and head of the WCU School of Music is among the many alumni who return to campus each summer to play jazz and big band music in harmony - after practicing together for less than two days.
For the 30th consecutive year, The Criterions alumni take the stage in Emilie K. Asplundh Concert Hall on Thursday, July 16, at 7:30 p.m. The concert as well as their daytime rehearsals both Wednesday and Thursday are free and open to the public.
Sullivan, who plays keyboard, says improv "shows off how tight the ensemble is and what the soloists can do when they're inspired. … It's different every time."
He credits trombonist Lee Southall '64 not only for establishing the reunion and concert but also for the concert's continued appeal to audiences. Southall organizes the arrangements ("charts") and has directed the band nearly every year, only recently sharing the baton with several other capable alumni.
"We all return to play the music that we love and that unites us no matter our age or occupation or what we have experienced in life," Southall says.
"It's not like a reunion for a sports team," adds Sullivan. "Musicians of all ages can play together, and that doesn't happen at a sports reunion!"
Marc Jacoby, director of the WCU Summer Jazz Camp, confirms that the musicians' ages are moot when they're playing together. This year, he's welcoming camp "participants ranging in age from 12 to 70. Their shared Jazz language bridges any age gap. It's great to see young and old musicians communicating on that level."
The Criterions reunion coincides intentionally with the camp, a week-long residential program that runs from July 12 through July 17 this year. Students in the camp's Honors track have the opportunity to open for the Crites, and several former Criterions teach workshops at the camp, along with WCU School of Music faculty.
In 1965, Sullivan was student leader after Southall graduated, and he led the group to the trophy at the Villanova Jazz Festival and to participation in the Notre Dame Jazz Festival. He says that, even at the first rehearsal each year, at 9 a.m. on the Wednesday before the concert, "The guys could just have a concert right then and there and people would enjoy it. They're all that good."
And they're all that jazz.