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Bucky’s Jazz Savior: Johannes Wallmann
Johannes Wallmann took a circuitous route to the University of Wisconsin–Madison before saving its jazz program. Born in Germany and raised on Canada’s Vancouver Island, Wallmann studied in Boston and New York City. His early studies were in classical piano and guitar. When he added jazz to the mix, he was deeply influenced by John Coltrane and Duke Ellington.
Wallmann spent 12 years performing with a wide variety of jazz musicians following his graduate studies at New York University. The final piece of his career puzzle fell into place in 2007 when Wallmann was hired by California State University East Bay, near Oakland, and proceeded to build the school’s jazz program from the ground up.
It was that combination of vision, leadership and expertise as a pianist and composer that quickly pushed him to the top of UW–Madison’s list of candidates for director of jazz studies. During Wallmann’s first year of teaching here, in 2012-2013, he sought out and performed with many local jazz musicians as a means of building relationships and moving the music program forward.
In less than five years, Wallmann took the Jazz Studies undergraduate program from zero enrollees to 17. It’s an important part of the efforts to revitalize Madison’s jazz community.
The Fan Who Cared: Howard Landsman
Perhaps the most unlikely person to come to the rescue of jazz in Madison is a man who never had aspirations to play any instrument professionally in any style.
Howard Landsman heard some jazzy hits that crossed over to the pop charts while growing up in Queens, New York. But it was after his arrival in Madison in 1975 to pursue graduate studies when he really caught the bug.
His timing was perfect. Madison was still regularly drawing names like saxophonist Dexter Gordon and drummer and bandleader Art Blakey, and Landsman got involved with the radio station WORT-FM. By 1977 he had a Monday afternoon show, and he loved doing his homework for it. “I did about 15 to 20 hours of listening a week to prepare for that three-hour show,” Landsman says. His paying jobs included a 12-year stint as grants and funding development coordinator for the Madison Metropolitan School District.
Landsman witnessed the ups and downs of the Madison Music Collective over two decades, and had his first chance to get directly involved in a major project with the Mary Lou Williams centennial celebration. The mushrooming success of the project—it resulted in more than 50 events in 2010—was the catalyst for Landsman forming the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium.
Generation Next: Paul Dietrich
If there is one person wearing the label “Generation Next” when it comes to jazz in Madison, it would be Paul Dietrich. The 29-year-old trumpeter, composer, director and teacher is active—and highly successful—in every area of jazz.
As a player, he has led the Paul Dietrich Quintet since 2012, and both of the group’s albums have garnered rave reviews. His gifts as a composer have found larger outlets as well, including the commissioning of “Scenes from Lake Mendota,” a multi-movement suite, for the 30th Isthmus Jazz Festival last June, and “Forward,” the suite he composed for the more than 19 players who premiered it in November 2017.
In addition to teaching at Prairie Music & Arts in Sun Prairie, Dietrich has also been director, since 2016, of the Madison East High School Jazz Orchestra.
It should come as no surprise that Dietrich is a particularly passionate advocate for jazz. When asked what listeners need to know to appreciate jazz, he says, “Honestly, I think the answer is nothing. If there was anything that I could tell someone going into their first jazz concert, I suppose it would be to be open minded about everything.”
He requires as much from his own listeners. On his website, Dietrich describes his music as a synthesis of “classic and modern jazz, Western classical music, folk, progressive rock and other genres.”
The Pied Piper: Steve Sveum
By the time Steve Sveum graduated from Sun Prairie High School in 1980, he had fallen in love with jazz—in part because icons like Dexter Gordon were still coming to Madison regularly.
Sveum went to UW–Eau Claire, which was known for its jazz training and active music scene, and then came home to serve as band director at his high school alma mater in 1985.
“When I was about to sign my first [teaching] contract and looked over the responsibilities, I saw that jazz band wasn’t part of it. I asked if I could teach it and the answer was ‘Sure, but we don’t pay for that,’ ” he says.
Undaunted, Sveum began looking for kids at the school who wanted to play jazz. By the end of his first year, the group he assembled took first place in a jazz band competition in Eau Claire.
The program grew steadily, and Sveum’s influence filtered down to the middle school music programs.
The dam burst in 1998, the first year Wynton Marsalis opened his three-year-old “Essentially Ellington” competition to high school jazz bands east of the Mississippi River. According to Sveum, Marsalis was disappointed with the quality of musicianship in student bands from the New York tri-state area and Eastern seaboard. When Sveum’s SPHS Jazz Band took third place the first year it was allowed to participate, Marsalis said, “Well, if we can find a rhythm section like that in Wisconsin, I think maybe we’ve got something here.”
As of last year, Sveum’s jazz bands have returned to New York City’s Lincoln Center as finalists in the competition—now open to high school bands throughout the U.S.—no fewer than 11 times. In 2014, Downbeat magazine, the largest jazz periodical around, gave Sveum a Jazz Education Achievement Award. Today the SPHS jazz department features three bands and two small ensembles. And they start checking airline ticket prices to New York City every May in case they’re once again among the winners and invited to perform.
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