Bill Watrous Jazz Festival continues on after 58 years

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The six annual SHSU Bill Watrous Jazz Festival was held Friday and Saturday at the Gaertner Performing Arts Center.

While this is only the sixth year the festival has been at Sam Houston State University, it has been active in Texas for 58 years, making it the longest running jazz festival in the state.

Throughout the day, different middle schools, high schools and colleges from around the state performed with hopes to be presented with an award later that evening.

At 1:15 each day, renowned artist Bobby Shew held a jazz trumpet and improvisation clinic in the concert hall. Shew was also present and performed during the closing ceremony.

The lobby of the Performing Arts Center overflowed with people in the moments before the doors to the concert hall were opened. In fact, the crowd was so large that the ushers ran out of programs before everyone could get one.

As the audience filled the seats of the concert hall, the SHSU Lab Band took their positions on stage.

The band played Watermelon Man by Herbie Hancock, an energetic piece that masterfully set the tone for the rest of the concert.

Soon after the Jazz Lab Band left, the SHSU Jazz Ensemble and conductor Aric Schneller arrived on stage. They opened with the song Almost Like Being in Love, which featured saxophone player Austin Smith on vocals.

Schneller’s energy on stage kept the audience entertained between pieces.

Watrous lent his talents on the trombone to the performance of the next piece: Beautiful Friendship by Donald Khan. This piece prominently featured trombone and bugle.

Watrous performed another piece, Look to the Sky. This piece was very smooth and seemingly hypnotized the audience. He then introduced another distinguished jazz artist to the stage.

“Bobby Shew is the greatest trumpet player I’ve heard in my life,” Watrous said as Shew took the stage next to him.

Shew and the Jazz Ensemble began with Magic Box by Bert Joris, who Shew claims is part of one of the best big bands in the world.

Shew then introduced the next piece, Always and Forever by Pat Metheny, and briefly talked about the composer’s inspiration.

“Pat wrote it in tribute to his parents,” Shew said. “They made sure he grew up in a wonderful house full of music.”

This piece, while it featured a powerful performance by Shew on the trumpet, still remained quite peaceful as it built up to its relatively busy finale.

The next piece, Terrestris by Tom Harrell, was decidedly lighter and more upbeat than the previous piece. A brief drum solo partway through kept the energy high through the performance.

Schneller then addressed the audience in preparation of some on stage changes.

“We’re going to take a little break from the big band to welcome our esteemed guests to the stage,” Schneller said.

A small group of renowned musicians, including Watrous and Shew, came on stage and performed together. Each musician had their own solo and the two trumpeters, Shew and Dennis Dotson, even dueled on stage.

Shortly after, the awards ceremony began and Schneller gave out awards to various school bands -including Huntsville High School.

Schneller then announced the five winners of the award for outstanding soloist. One of the winners, Joel White from Spring High School, was also awarded the Bill Watrous Scholarship for his performance.

Each of these performers were invited back on stage to perform one last piece with the Jazz Ensemble and esteemed guest musicians. This performance and the concert, concluded with Watrous and Austin Smith in a scat singing duel.

The Bill Watrous Jazz Festival will return to Sam Houston next spring.