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UNLV’s Jazz Ensemble program celebrates 40 years and lots of success

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Co-director Dave Loeb tunes up UNLV’s Jazz Ensemble.
Photo: Mona Shield Payne

UNLV Jazz ensemble

“They had never seen that before!” Dave Loeb says after the band finishes sight-reading a chart top to bottom, with no noticeable mistakes and a synergy that forces my foot to tap along. Every run, every lick is in unison, the rhythm section propelling the horns right along. We’re mid-rehearsal, and UNLV’s Jazz Ensemble I is killing it.

If you’ve been following the UNLV Jazz Ensemble program this should come as no surprise. The program is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and its groups have been winning prestigious awards and accolades from respected jazz institutions for decades.

The Details

UNLV Jazz Ensemble
With the Green Valley High School Jazz Band.
March 6, 7:30 p.m., Alta Ham Fine Arts at UNLV
$8-$10, 895-2787.

Recently, Jazz Ensemble I scored a prestigious 2010 DownBeat Award after sending a blind audition tape to the widely respected DownBeat magazine, competing against heavy-hitters like University of North Texas and University of Miami. The group also just earned its third rave review from JazzTimes magazine for its latest CD release, Smilin’ Eyes.

“We’re trying to record the students every year. The quality of the recordings has also really helped to increase visibility for our program,” says Loeb, who joined UNLV in 2002 and co-directs the ensemble with Nathan Tanouye. “We’re getting played on many jazz radio stations now around the country.”

That success seems to stay with the students, as Loeb confirms that many of his graduates are out in the professional world doing exactly what they learn to do at UNLV.

“Our recent graduates are playing for many of the Cirque shows on the Strip, Zumanity and the O show,” says Loeb, adding that UNLV alumni are currently playing in the band for Jersey Boys, scoring for short films and have even gone on to tour the globe with professional productions like Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.

Many UNLV jazz students don’t even wait to graduate to begin their professional careers. Loeb says the school has enjoyed a long legacy of students performing in Strip showrooms while still taking classes just blocks away. And student musicians also reap the benefits of Loeb’s industry connections from time to time; the director is still an active pianist in Hollywood, providing his talents to shows like Family Guy and the movie Ted.

“I just did [Family Guy] Tuesday, and we had two students come down and it was wonderful … those kind of opportunities, that is something I brought,” says Loeb. “I go over [to Hollywood] every other week, and for the day, UNLV students are allowed to come to the recording sessions.”

Sometimes Loeb will even hire his own students, as he did with percussionist Paul Ringenbach in Sinatra: Dance with Me. Another student was hired this past winter as Loeb’s assistant conductor for the Mannheim Steamroller limited engagement at the Venetian.

While the reputation of the program relies on the music the band puts out each year, Loeb says it’s also dependent upon the actual work the band does. CDs don’t produce themselves, so the band raises funds by playing gigs throughout the year. Students do earn money for their time and talents, but the rest of the profits go into a general fund for the band’s activities.

“We get money from the university, but we usually have to match it,” says Loeb. “Some of these recordings have given us a lot of notoriety around the country.”

And when asked about the program’s success, Loeb is quick to acknowledge co-director Tanouye, fellow jazz studies professor Thomas Warrington and former directors Frank Gagliardi, Rocky Winslow and Stefan Karlsson.

“One of the factors that made the music department known was [Gagliardi’s] jazz band traveling, and doing so well at international festivals,” says Loeb. “He had recorded many CDs; one of them won a five-star rating from DownBeat magazine.”

That CD was Caliente, Muy Caliente, and DownBeat awarded the rating back in 1991.

“So this isn’t new. It’s just that this legacy, you know, I’m trying to continue the tradition,” says Loeb. “And maybe step it up a notch.”

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